Origins of the Arabian Horse

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Origins of the Arabian Horse


by Mornay of Anglesey

First printed in the Caidan College of Equestrian Arts Journal A.S. XX

Once, so long ago that time itself lies shrouded in the mists of yore, Allah, the merciful and compassionate, looked down upon his Bedouin peoples. His gifts to them of the camel gave them transport and from its hair they wove their tents. It gave them milk and meat; even its urine found use as a perfume for their azure-eyed maidens. His gift had been put to good use, but somehow… something was lacking. Their nomadic lives were so hard and, at times, grim. There was little to inspire them and give them joy. Verily something more. Perhaps another gift. Here Allah paused, for well he knew that mere ease of living decays the soul even as a tool untempered bends and breaks, its task unfinished. Did not His Bedouins themselves have a saying, “A man should not walk on silk until he has first walked on sand.”

No! His Bedouins needed not lush pastures nor fields burgeoning with grain, but inspiration… something to excite their admiration and love… to bring joy into their very souls. No mean gift, this! And lo, the very thing came into His mind.

Allah, may his wisdom be always great, then commanded the Mare of Night to descend to Earth and enrich the souls of men. Cantering through the vast starfields and the black velvet depths of space on that long journey, she cast a silver shoe. Spinning from her flashing hoof, it glowed on high circling the earth as the Mare of Night came down from heaven.

The rest of the tail my lords, my gracious ladies, is history. Out of Arabia Deserta arose an intelligent, spirited, loyal, horse-like creature of high courage and great stamina… a steadfast companion to deserving men, descending, so ’tis said, from the Mare of Night and the son she bore to Earth, Allah’s gift to his favored people. And that is why the moon shines on high (‘though some of us know it’s HER shoe) and why the Bedouin shod only three of their horses’ feet with their curious, round, plate-like shoes.

What? You wouldst fain know More? What this creature is and from whence it came? But I have… oh very well.

Know ye then that the Arabian is a distinctly separate species of equine animal much as the zebra is. Horses, Arabians and zebras all belong to the genus, Equus, but are different species. This is seemingly understood by most people as regards horses, donkeys, and zebras, but is generally not in the case of Arabians.

Doctor Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York classified the Arabian as a distinct species (Equus africanus, Sanson)… “descended from wild ancestors of different origin from that of the northern horse.” He notes certain distinct skeletal features, the principle one being the absence of one lumbar vertebrae which is noted by Sanson in 1866. Some of these features are:

  • (1) Five instead of six lumbar vertebrae;
  • (2) 16 to 17 vertebrae in the tail as opposed to 18 in the horse;
  • (3) Relative width to length and prominence of the brain case coupled with the low and lateral position of the orbits yields a larger brain;
  • (4) A depression in front of the eye socket; and,
  • (5) The depression of the profile of the face below the orbits which gives the characteristic “dish” profile.

Another very important difference is the greater density of the bone in the Arabian as contrasted to the other types. Density like this is also seen in deer which accounts for strength and soundness of these species in view of their deceptively delicate, fine-boned legs. You can now begin to understand that the Arabian is not just another “breed” of horse, he is a unique species unto himself.

Today it is generally acknowledged that four species of the genus Equus had become scattered across the face of the planet and were utilized in some fashion by man before recorded history. These were:

  • (1) Equus przewalskii, The steppe horse of Central Asia, the red-brown ancestor of the Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese ponies;
  • (2) Equus Tarpanus, the dun-colored horse of Russia, the source of the ponies of the Huns, Tartars, Scythians, and all the hordes of Asiatics that swept over Europe again and again ending up in Norway and Britain as the Celtic horse;
  • (3) Equus robustus, the slow, cold-blooded horse of the green flatlands and forests of Europe, the Great horse of antiquity; and,
  • (4) Equus agilis, the horse of the high, desert plains of Arabia and Africa, known as the hot-blooded horse of the South, possibly introduced from Northern India.

From the various blending of these sources have sprung the horse breeds of historic times. These are by no means the most ancient species known. The Museum of Natural History in Denver, Colorado, had a very fine exhibit (at least when we lived there twenty-five years ago) tracing the evolution of the horse. One of the earliest of these was “Phenacodus primaevus,” a small creature twenty-one inches tall with five toes on each foot living in early Eocene times. Later in this same period we find “Eohippis”, fifteen inches high, with three toes on the hind and four on his front feet.

In the Pliocene age, 10 million years ago give or take a few million, we find the progenitor of the true Equus genus, the Pliohippus. Professor Osborn says that in the Pliohippus “we find a truly aristocratic, little fossil horse which has all the characteristics, delicacy of the limb, compactness of hoof structure, perfection of the grinding teeth, such as could have been ancestral to the prehistoric Arabian of the Stone Age period.” The Pliohippus is found most abundantly in Western Nebraska so it is conceivable that the original homeland of the Arabian was the western deserts of America. If so, what a long journey through time and space our little aristocrat made from his old birthplace.

Let us take a brief (and very brief it has to be) look at some of the stages in his long quest. Still in that long Pliocene age but much younger than Pliohippus were the fossils of Equus sivalensis called the “Siwalik” horse from the discovery site in the Siwalik Hills at the foot of the Himalayas between the Sutilej and the Ganges.

The Siwalki horse is similar to the modern Arabian “in the degree to which the front part of the skull is bent down on the facial axis, in the presence of a pre-orbital depression, in the great relative width of the upper molars, in the complexity of the enamel foldings in all the upper cheek teeth, in the shortness of the grinding surfaces of large upper wolf teeth.” It is most probable that the Arabian descends from the Siwalik horse of Northern India, one of the first of the true Equus horses.

It is quite apparent that the Arabian type can be traced into remote antiquity and is certainly not an invention of historical man. All in all… the “Mare of Night” has proved an apt description for she came out of the night of the far past. But what about the more recent past?

In the Grotto of Combarelles in Southern France are drawings of hundreds of horses engraved on the limestone cavern walls in early Neolithic times after Cro-Magnon man had suddenly replaced old Neanderthal. These drawings date from 40,000 to 25,000 years ago. In addition to depictions of the coarser Nordic and Steppe types of horses are found many drawings of the Arabians with their species characteristics plainly discernible: the small, fine muzzle, pointed ears, the deep jowl, the short back, the finely chiseled facial profile – in fact, the principle characteristics for which our modern Arabians are noted. From Equus sivalensis we have progressed to Equus agilis. As W. R. Brown concludes, this little Stone Age Arabian was not formed even then in a single century nor in a hundred centuries, but was forged slowly in the cauldron of time in the regions south of those great forests which were the home of Nordic horses and Nordic men. To the South in the high desert plains, Equus agilis now roamed with prehistoric man.

Coming on up to the second millennium (2000 BC) in Asia Minor, a great and powerful people, known to us as the Hittites, ruled from their capital, Boghaz Keui, in Cappadocia. The Hittites even then were adept in horsemanship, in riding as well as driving chariots. From their tablets, we see that they even wrote a treatise on horse breeding. A sculptured relief at Senjirli portrays a warrior riding a horse with a well-arched neck, a noticeably triangular head with a large, prominent eye set well down toward the middle, an extremely narrow muzzle and high tail carriage. The warrior also carries a small bow and is holding up by the hair the head of his enemy, but it is the horse which is of interest here for Equus africanus himself has appeared. This same type of horse appears on later Hittite monuments such as the relief of the lion hunt from Malatia, now in the Ottoman Museum in Istanbul. Here, again, the characteristics of the Arabian are depicted. The sculptures were intended to portray a specific type of horse for Dr. Theodore Shear, Professor of Archaeology at Princeton University compares these monuments with another one showing a Spartan cavalryman where the horse’s head is heavy, the eye high, and the tail low. This obviously portrays an early Greek horse whose blood had not yet been mixed with the Eastern horse.

It is a mistake too many modern writers make to assert that because a work is “primitive” or wrought in the remote past that the artisan of that day could not see what we see and did not mean to portray what he did. Now conceited can we get? At any rate, Poulsen associated this Spartan horse with the Hittite sculptures with the inference that these were “artistic” or craftsmanship differences and that the models were not different breeds. Dr. Shear states that this is unwarranted and his point is well taken.

The first mention of horses in Egyptian history (as well as the Bible) is between 1715 and 1689 BC when Joseph “rode in the second chariot”. Professor Petrie and others have said that chariots appear not to have been used prior to Ahmose I (1587 – 1562 BC) and Professor Owen states that horses are not found on any of the early Egyptian monuments. They appear to have been brought into lower Egypt when a people called the Hyksos, Cushites, or Scythians invaded lower Egypt. They came from Western Asia through Syria and Arabia. Upper Egypt was not conquered and Thutmose I finally threw them out but some of their hoses remained and began to appear on obelisks after this time.

Previous to this “no allusion has been made by any writer, sacred or profane, to horses in ancient Egypt, Libya or Ethiopia, and no wild horses were ever represented as existing in Abyssinia or Nigeria”. Interestingly enough, annals from India record a great migration of a powerful people “who formerly governed all the land from the Indus to the Ganges and were called the Pali”, westward into what is now Arabia, Egypt, Africa, and into Europe. It is thought that this rapid invasion was accomplished on horseback.

However this may be, of interest to us is that from 2000 BC to late in the millennium, the horse of the south (the “Eastern” horse), the hot-blooded Arabian type spread out of the East (India?) into Arabia, Egypt, Africa, and on into Greece. According to Greek history, Bellerophon was the first to tame and ride the horse there. The beginning of equestrian arts in Greece dates from the 14th and 13th centuries BC. Ionia acquired the “Eastern” horses as their art shows. Professor Shear says that the Eastern horse appears on the Francoise vase in Florence and that…”it is interesting to note that where the Ionian strain of art predominates the Eastern type of horse prevails.”

Along about this time the Canaanite tribes received these horses from the “Hyksos” as well as some from Egypt. It was from Egypt that Solomon procured for himself an immense stud and introduced horses to the Israelites. These horses were so beautiful and so “gladdened his eyes” that legend says they caused him to sin by forgetting his evening prayers. For once it wasn’t the Devil that made him do it!

The presence of wild horses in Arabia and other places after this time (and from which some writers claim the Arabian horse descended) can best be explained by remembering how easily the horse returns to the wild state when he escapes – remember our American mustangs! Could we build a case that American horses originated in our Southwest? (In point of fact, the mustangs have been pretty effectively rounded up and today a new group of escapees is running wild). If we had somehow “lost” our history, it might be a tempting hypothesis!

The horses of the Arabian type that were brought by the Hittites, or the Pali, or the “Hyksos” or whomsoever to the Arabian desert found themselves in a crucible where they had to withstand heat, cold, thirst, poor feed, exposure and the need to travel many hours over excessive distances merely to survive. These fierce conditions honed the species until it became what we see today.

The Arabian is called “hot-blooded”, a term that refers to his blood vessels being nearer to the surface of the skin than in other species and not, as many think, a reference to temperament. By way of contrast, the descendants of Equus robustus have their blood vessels buried more deeply (a result of the cold Northern winters) and when you ride bareback you feel less warmth – hence, “cold-blooded”.

When did the Arabian return to America, the last stage in the long quest? The first such recorded of Arabian type was Colonel Wyllis’ horse, “Ranger”, who was brought to New London, Conn. in 1766. Through some of his progeny he attracted the attention of General “Light Horse” Harry Lee of Revolutionary fame which led to his being taken to Virginia by Captain Lindsay. George Washington was given a son of the “Lindsay Arabian” by General Lee. George liked him so well that he purchased more of the blood to pull Martha’s coach.

The Confederate General Breckinridge owed his escape from the Union Army to two newly-broken Arabian 3-year-old fillies he begged from Keene Richards Arabians of Georgetown, Kentucky. After the battle of Shiloh, he rode them all the way to Virginia outdistancing the Union officers completely.

General Grant was allowed to pick two stallions from the stud of the Sultan of Turkey during his journey around the world after his presidency in 1879. He brought back “Leopard”, an Arabian, and “Linden Tree”, a Barb. These imports created quite a stir in the horse circles of that day.

The blood of these early Arabians was utilized in the improvement and formation of some of our other breeds of horses and was lost to the cause of maintaining purebred Arabians in America. The Arabian horses of today descend from imports beginning in the 1890’s, but that’s the subject of another article.

So at last the long journey has returned to the starting point and our tough, intelligent, beautiful, aristocratic little Arabian has finally come home.


Salaam Aleikum
(Peace be with you)

Mornay of Anglesey