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|Written by Kelsa Staffa|
|Wednesday, 15 December 2010 00:00|
The Arabian horse is considered to be one of the most intelligent and agile breeds of horses, used throughout history to add speed, refinement, and endurance to improve other breeds of horses. Today, almost every breed of horse has been influenced by the Arabian. Less commonly known is that the Arabian breed is one of the oldest breeds of horses with archaeological evidence of horses that resemble modern Arabians (the classic dished face and high-carried tail) dating back 4,500 years to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Arabians today are informally classified by the nation of origin of famed horses in a given pedigree -- for example, "Polish Arabian," "Russian Arabian," or "Domestic Arabian" (horses imported to the United States prior to 1944). One strain of Arabian horse, however, has lineage that can be traced back to the prophet Muhammad: the Al Khamsa.
"Al Khamsa" is an Arabic term that translates roughly to "the five." In ancient Arabia, only mares were used as war mounts. The most popular legend says that the prophet Muhammad penned his war mares in a corral and denied them food and water for three days. At the end of the three days he opened the gate and let the mares run towards the clear water nearby. As a test of loyalty, Muhammad sounded the war horn. Of the hundreds of mares charging towards the water only five mares stopped and returned to Muhammad. Each of these mares was given a strain name and was carefully bred, creating the foundation of the Arabian Horse's Bedouin bloodlines. Arabian horses that can trace all of their bloodlines to these Bedouin strains are collectively known as "Al Khamsa Arabians." According to Al Khamsa Inc., which strains these were depends on the teller of the tale, as there are more than five strains officially recognized and all are of equal importance.
Historically, the Bedouin nomads of the Arabia Deserta (the desert interior of the Arabian Peninsula) lived in harsh environments and practiced inter-tribal warfare. As a result, the horses that survived were the fastest, most responsive, most agile, and had the most stamina; they could survive for days on very little food and water. The Bedouin believed that the Arabian horse was a gift to them from their Creator, to be cherished and protected as a member of the household. Thus, for more than a thousand years, it was a matter of honour for the Bedouin, as well as an integral component of their continued existence, to breed their horses "purely," as defined by their own strict standards. The Bedouin created an oral system to identify each Arabian horse and ascertain its origin. They primarily rode mares and kept few stallions, and their method was based on female lines of descent, a practice which continues today with Al Khamsa enthusiasts. This matrilineal, or strain, system is hundreds of years old, dating at least as far back as 1660.
According to Al Khamsa Inc., strain names have at least two parts: the rasan and the marbat. The rasan (now called "strain" in English) represents the interwoven strands of the entire pedigree of the horse, following the dam lines for generations. The marbat adds provenance, generally representing the person who was primarily associated with that strain. For example, with the horse name "Kuhaylan Rodan," the rasan is "Kuhaylan" and the marbat is "Rodan," connecting the rasan to a man named Ibn Rodan who was famous for this group of horses.
The Al Khamsa Arabians are different from other developed (domestic) breeds of horses, as the Bedouin did not breed to a single breed standard. In all probability, there was always a variety of physical types within the Arabian horse since the only standard was imposed by the severe conditions under which the Bedouin lived. Utility and functionality were their overriding concerns. Beauty was greatly appreciated, but the principal objective of the Bedouin was to produce the swift, sturdy, amenable, and tough horses that would keep them alive in the desert.
By definition, Al Khamsa horses descend entirely from horses that can be reasonably assumed to have been bred by the migrating Bedouin tribes of the greater Arabian peninsula, an area which spans more than 2,400 kilometres from east to west and almost 3,000 kilometres from northern Syria to the bottom of the peninsula in the south. Within this vast area there were many dozens of tribes and clans, which never had one unified breeding program. The Bedouin appreciated a variety of bloodlines and types; diversity of type is evidenced by both photographs and written descriptions of Bedouin horses. This broad diversity is the reason the Ancestral Element concept was developed to help people identify the history of Al Khamsa horses.
First, Al Khamsa traces pedigrees back as far as they can go and calls these ancestors Foundation Horses. Currently, there are 192 Al Khamsa Foundation Horses represented in pedigrees of living Al Khamsa horses. Second, the Foundation Horses are divided into groups, based on a commondenominator: the country, stud farm, person or group who imported or was primarily associated with the Foundation Horses concerned (four Foundation Horses were acquired individually and are designated by their own names). These groups are called Ancestral Elements. When an Ancestral Element designation is seen in a horse pedigree, something about the ancestry of that horse is known.
While the names of most of the Ancestral Elements have been in use in North America for many years, exact meanings vary. The most frequently found Ancestral Elements are known as Egypt I, Egypt II, Inshass, Sa'ud, Blunt, and Davenport.
Egypt I Foundation horses were Arabian horses imported to Egypt between approximately 1840 and 1900. All modern Egyptian and Egyptian-Arabians trace to most of these Foundation Horses. It is no longer possible to find horses of strictly Egypt I ancestry. Egypt II Foundation horses are associated with the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) Arabian breeding program, established in 1914 and originally based on available bloodlines.
The former kings Fuad and Faruq (Farouk) of Egypt (combined rule: 1917-1952) maintained the Inshass Stud as their private venture. Most of their breeding stock came from established Egypt I and Egypt II bloodlines, but they also acquired nine additional Foundation Horses for racing and breeding or received as gifts. Four Inshass Foundation mares were gifts from the Sa'ud studs of Saudi Arabia. The Sa'ud family of Saudi Arabia has long been noted for their horses, which were supplied by a number of studs owned by various members of the royal family. Only those Foundation Horses that went to North America from these Sa'ud studs are designated as Sa'ud by Al Khamsa.
Lady Anne and Wilfrid Blunt made three trips to the desert between 1877 and 1881 to obtain horses. Through 1913, they added more Foundation Horses by using agents and/or aqayls, and also bought Egypt I horses to incorporate into their Crabbet and Sheykh Obeyd breeding programs in England and Egypt. Homer Davenport went to the desert in 1906 to acquire Arabians directly from the Bedouin. Twenty of the horses he brought to the United States have descendants from the Al Khamsa.
The complexities of strains, sub-strains, cross-breeding, "tail-line female" (tracing ancestors through the female side of the family), and Ancestral Elements can be overwhelming and confusing. But the more modern attempts to classify and breed true strains can be traced back millennia to the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, who, above all, valued the intelligence, the speed, and the "fire in the heart" of the Arabian horse, and who developed one of the world's most coveted breeds.