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Volume 37, Number 2March/April 1986

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The Arabian Horse

In Europe

Written by Rosalind Mazzawi
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale
Additional photographs by P. Ploquin and Kat Walden

In Paris early this year, a spokesman for one of Europe's national Arabian horse societies expressed the hope that this year's races, shows and auctions would be as exciting as those in 1985. "For Arabians," she said, "1985 was a marvelous year. Lady Anne would have been pleased."

Lady Anne, of course, is Lady Anne Blunt, who in 1878-1879 went off to the Middle East to find and bring back to England some Arabian horses. (See Aramco World, May-June 1980). With her husband, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Lady Anne first rode to Najd, in today's Saudi Arabia, persuaded Najd ruler Ibn Rashid to sell some of his famous horses and shipped them to England where they formed the nucleus of an important breeding establishment called the "Crabbet Stud" at Crabbet Park in Sussex. Two years later they acquired more horses in Mesopotamia and a few years after that purchased an estate in Egypt about 30 kilometers from Cairo (19 miles). The estate, called Shaikh Obeyd after a respected holy man who had lived there two centuries previously, was used by the Blunts to stable other horses belonging to Lady Anne, among them mounts from the Abbas Pasha stud which was broken up in the 1880's, and some colts and fillies from the Najdi Arabians sent to Crabbet.

The Crabbet Stud was not, to be sure, Europe's only source of pure Arabians; through war and purchase many other Arabians had filtered into Europe over the years. In the early 18th century, for example, Peter the Great of Russia had already established the Imperial Russian Stud and in 1772, Catherine the Great owned 12 pure Arabian stallions and 10 mares.

Much earlier - in 1522 - the Ottoman Turks, who had repeatedly invaded Central Europe through the Balkans, sent 300,000 horsemen into Hungary, many, it is said, mounted on pure Arabians captured during Ottoman raids into Arabia, and by 1529, reached the gates of Vienna. But when fierce Polish forces came to the rescue of the besieged city, both the Poles and the Hungarians captured Arabians from fleeing Ottoman cavalry and, consequently, were able to breed fine strains of Arabian horses. As late as 1905, in fact, Hungary's army customarily assigned a Bedouin major to the post of Master of the Horse.

The Crabbet Stud, nevertheless, was special. Founded by Lady Anne at her family home in Sussex with the horses she had imported from Arabia, it continued to grow and flourish under the direction of Lady Judith Wentworth and Lady Anne Lytton, Lady Anne's daughter and granddaughter, until 1975. Then, sadly, it was broken up because the British Department of Transport cut the Crabbet estate in half to build an expressway.

In 1985, echoes of Crabbet were heard again. Lady Lytton staged - probably for the last rime in its original setting - what is called the Crabbet Convention, a gathering of some 500 Arabian breeders, owners and riders from places as far apart as the United States, France and Australia.

In her day, Lady Wentworth had established the tradition of an annual parade of Crabbet horses either in the late spring or early summer and in 1985 that tradition was splendidly revived; despite a drenching downpour, 90 horses were shown on the morning of July 29, all direct descendants of four notable Arabian mares bred by Lady Wentworth. The mares were Silver Fire, Rissla, Nasra and Razina. Then, in the afternoon, in what the program called a "demonstration of Crabbet," another 56 horses of Crabbet or Crabbet-cross origins, or with a mix of Crabbet-Polish, Crabbet-Egyptian and Crabbet-Spanish blood were shown - a sweeping look at the international and historic impact of this small English stud on Arabian horses throughout the world.

The Crabbet show, moreover, was just one of several successful European events that featured Arabians in 1985. Another was England's Arab Horse Society show at Ascot Paddocks between August 1 and August 3 where, in more torrential rains, a record number of owners, riders and horses turned out: a total of 490 owners and 1,500 horses. At Ascot, interestingly, several of the Arabians shown had been bred in Britain, but belonged to owners from the Middle East - including several from the Jordanian Royal Stables. This may sound quite normal, but, in fact, most of the countries that originally bred the Arabians have not been active in breeding Arabians - or even riding them - for many years. Now, however, as the Ascot show suggests, there is a revival of interest in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and North Africa.

Several of the stars of the Crabbet Parade also appeared at Ascot: Silver Blue Wings, Ringing Enchantress, Carrick Crystif, the dark liver-chestnut Crystal Magician - exactly the color of bitter chocolate - and Ormolu, much the same color, but with a magnificent silver mane and tail. But as in the 1984 show, the outstanding horse at Ascot was Ralvon Elijah, a bright chestnut with - an unusual feature - no white at all on his head, but two white socks. Ralvon Elijah is an excellent example of a first class Arab stallion - all the right features in the right places - yet it's only when he moves that you can see what the superlatives are all about. Ralvon Elijah is a true "drinker of the wind," as one Arab poet described the Arabian. He seems to float above the ground rather than touch it. In a line-up, other horses may look as good, but once he begins to move there is little doubt as to who will win. Only a few stallions and mares have this quality and they do not always manage to transmit it to their foals.

During 1985, there were also seven Arabian races, one of them at Kempton Park near London for 125 horses either pure Arabian or part-bred, i.e. at least 50 percent Arabian blood.

As in Arabia, the race at Kempton was different from Thoroughbred racing - largely because the horses are different. Thoroughbreds have been selectively bred for 200 years to run very fast for short distances; consequently the smaller Arabians simply cannot keep up in races of five kilometers (three miles) or less. Thus, in England, Arabian races tend to be exclusively for amateurs and the entire atmosphere is quite different. This was obvious at Kempton Park: though there was betting, the races seemed more like a gathering of old friends on a splendid Sunday afternoon. Because of this preference for amateur competition, some of the owners were audibly upset when two French-bred Arabians professionally trained and ridden won the international races.

At Kempton there was still another indication of the revival of interest in the Middle East; in the international races, the prize money was put up by the country of Dubai and presented by a member of the Maktoum family that, in 1985, came to dominate horse racing in Britain.

The Maktoums are not the only Arabs who are putting big money into horses in the United Kingdom. According to the Arab News and other publications in Saudi Arabia, horses owned by the Aga Khan won 29 races, Shaikh Ali Abi Kahsin of Kuwait has invested heavily in steeple-chasing and Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a relative of King Fahd and the first Arab to enter British racing in a big way, emerged in 1985 as the second most important owner there and in Europe: his horses won $464,814 in England and $351,021 in France. And of the 10 top U.K. prizewinners in 1985, six were Arab owners.

Nevertheless, the four Maktoums - Shaikh Muhammad ibn Rashid, the United Arab Emirate's Minister of Defense, Hamdan and Maktoum, all sons of the ruler of Dubai, and Shaikh Hasher, a grandson - have been a moving force in the British horse world the last few years. In 1983, Shaikh Muhammad paid $10.2 million for just one colt in Kentucky, and the estimated $700,000 that the Maktoum's invested in racing helped stimulate a boom in horses in the U.K. and Europe. In recognition of this commitment, Maktoum al-Maktoum was made an honorary member of the Jockey Club in the 1980's - as was Khalid Abdullah earlier.

France, which once mounted whole regiments of Spahis - Algerian cavalry - on Arabians and the closely related North African breed called Barbs, also hosted important events for Arabians in 1985: one, the annual Salon de Cheval in Paris each December, the other a National Championship in September.

In France, horse breeding is controlled by the National Stud Administration, which maintains 26 studs all over the country and requires that private owners present their horses for inspection and approval by the National Stud in their district. Only then can they be given official certificates - and it's a stiff inspection. Stallions, for instance, must receive 15 out of 20 marks, or points, to be approved as sires for either their owners' mares or those of other breeders.

The National Stud championships are held each September in Pompadour, a small town in central France with vivid recollections of the Louis XV favorite who, in 1745, was named Marquise de Pompadour. The 18th-century stud buildings which she had built there provide a pleasing contrast to the imposing medieval chateau in front of which the classes are judged.

Unlike the Crabbet Parade, the three-day French championships were held in glorious sunshine, and against a background of green trees and grass the Arabians looked magnificent. Indeed, judging by the quality of the horses shown at Pompadour, the quality of the Arabians being bred in France seems to be improving.

Arabians, however, must be seen in action - either saddled or in harness - to be fully appreciated and too often at Pompadour they were not: of 224 horses shown in hand (i.e. led) only stallions three years and older were ridden. There were competitions - dressage, jumping and crosscountry as well as steeplechases and two flat races - but far too few horses took part. Even the show champion, the magnificent eight-year-old Desigt de Pau, took no part in any competitions except in his own class.

As at the Crabbet Parade and Ascot, it rained still again November 8-10 as the season came to a close with the European Championships in Leiden, The Netherlands. But because the events were held in the capacious hall called Groenoordhallen, the weather failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the international teams of riders and owners who came from all over the world to compete for the 1985 prizes and to cheer the winners. At Leiden there were Arabians from The Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, France and - above all - the USSR. Of 18 horses that were placed in the championships, nine were descendants of Aswan, a famous stallion from the Tersk Stud in the Caucasus.

Born in Egypt and bred by the Egyptian Agricultural Organization (EAO), Aswan was sent to Russia as a gift from President Nasser to President Khrushchev upon the completion of the High Dam at Aswan which was built with Russian aid. An extraordinary animal, Aswan has sired numerous champions and has made the Tersk bloodline world famous.

Despite Aswan, the impact of the USSR on the breeding of Arabians has not been an unmixed blessing, since Arabians from Russia frequently carry a disease called piroplasmosis transmitted by a tick found in both the USSR and the USA. Interestingly, the disease has also created a curious trade in piroplasmosis-free foals in The Netherlands. Having developed antibodies, the Russian Arabians carry the disease but are not affected themselves, so mares are shipped to The Netherlands to deliver their foals. Because the disease is not transmissible through the placenta, the foals are born without the disease and because the tick does not exist in The Netherlands, they probably will not be infected later. After weaning, the foals can then be exported safely.

In Leiden, therefore, it was not surprising that the Russian influence was strong. The reserve filly champion, Plareri, is a daughter of Plakat, one of the best known stallions in The Netherlands and a son of Aswan. Plakat himself was placed fifth in the senior male championship, one son, Warandes Pascha of Belgium, was second in the senior male championship and another, Pasch Bianco, was fourth in the junior male championship.

Another winner from the Aswan line was the exceptionally good-looking Carmen. A one-year-old Aswan granddaughter, Carmen is a striking dark chestnut with flaxen mane and tail. This is now very fashionable whereas the once admired piebald and skewbald coloring no longer seem acceptable.

Oddly, the splendid Ralvon Elijah, who has won all the championships in Great Britain and who, last summer, was also supreme champion stallion at the Nations Cup at Frauenfeld in Switzerland, was placed fourth in Leiden after Prononce, bred at Tersk, and Warandes Pascha. Instead Haracz, a splendid gray of Russian Polish breeding, obtained the highest marks in his class of stallions: 135. This indicates the quality of horses on show.

For spectators at Leiden, riding provided most of the highlights. Though breeders consider riding relatively unimportant, the Leiden audience was expecting a good show - and got one; the three classes, for mares and geldings, stallions, and costume, provided excellent horses and fine riding. The stallion winner, Tron, is another product of Tersk, with one more Aswan grandson second and, in the mare class, Bright Dancer, a Crabbet-descended mare also winning.

The costume class was also enjoyable for horses, riders and spectators - as were the evening performances in which Arabians raced around the ring, carried out a dressage display, ran a real race in silks and performed a Hungarian Post display - the handler standing upright on their backs while they galloped and jumped a fence. All the riders in the costume class were female and though some of their attire could have been worn in an Ottoman palace, the prize went to Jasmin, an athletic-looking horse, with a rider in authentic desert clothing.

At Leiden, some owners expressed concern lest soaring prices and booming sales have an adverse effect on the Arabian as a breed and at the salon, as at Pompadour, one aspect of this problem came up repeatedly: the reluctance of owners to permit the horses to be ridden.

As noted, breeders tend to dismiss riding at the shows - and this, at both Pompadour and Paris, was noticeable - especially with regard to mares. Though stallions are trained to the saddle and harness in European circles and are splendidly displayed in dressage and parades, mares are not and this is the exact reverse of what happened in the desert. There, during the centuries when a purebred Arabian was the ultimate status symbol, mares were valued far more than stallions. They had more stamina over long distances. They could be more easily trained to be silent during attacks. They could be ridden right up to the time they gave birth and a foal could gallop right beside the mother 10 days later.

Today, breeders often do not ride their mares at all; the mares, say owners, are too busy foaling. But as a result mares are beginning to lead idle lives and that, say some alarmed experts, may eventually lead to a loss in stamina - a vital characteristic in the Arabian. Similarly, experts believe, the very success of the Arabian in market terms may have a destructive impact; when wealthy owners lavish food and comfort on them - to protect their investments - the horses that once lived on the spartan food of the desert will lose the very qualities that distinguished them.

Some aficionados also worry that the boom might make it impossible for owners to spend time with their horses. So much money is involved that some owners focus only on a return on their investment and Arabians, which have traditionally enjoyed and needed human companionship, will begin to lose their famous gentle dispositions.

At the Salon de Cheval, in fact, so many of the horses were shown only in hand that some observers began to discuss the possibility of Arab Horse Society legislation requiring that all stallions and mares four years and older, be ridden in shows. under saddle is the point of it all.

None of these forecasts have come true yet, to be sure. As Pascale Franconie and Jean-Claude Cazade showed in their 21,000-kilometer round-trip ride (13,000 miles) from France to Saudi Arabia in 1984 (See Aramco World, March-April 1985), Arabians can still come through when needed. Furthermore, with the development of long distance endurance riding, called competitive trail riding in the United States, the basic qualities of the Arabian may be even more in demand. Yet in Europe, the 1985 boom in breeding and selling sounded an alarm: fame today could mean failure tomorrow.

Rosalind Mazzawi has contributed several stories to Aramco World magazine on Islamic art, but her first love is horses. An equestrian journalist, she writes regularly for Plaisirs Equestres

This article appeared on pages 22-33 of the March/April 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1986 images.