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Secrets of the Arabian Horse

Standard of Ur, southern Iraq, circa 2600-2400 BC

How many courtly poems have been written to the Arabian horse? How many evocative Bedouin songs have risen into the night sky above a desert encampment in praise of this noble animal? These petite-but-tough galloping champions of the sands have been treasured in the West, too. This horse, the most iconic symbol of Arabian romance and pride, has been as much admired for its sensitive beauty as it has for its speed and powers of endurance in the inhospitable territories in which it has been bred since at least 3,500 B.C.E.

Entire peoples and cultures have been characterised by the horse and its central role in society—in peace and war, in mythology and literature. As travel is one of the defining features of human development, so the history of the horse is in essence the history of civilisation, a force for change in ancient cultures. Both pure Arabian bloodstock and its descendant thoroughbreds continue to win world-famous races today.

The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot is the title of a major exhibition at the British Museum and its accompanying book. This is the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, and the exhibition is organised this year, no doubt because the Queen so loves horses. She rides them, breeds them and cheers her own on to win so many classic equestrian events.

Horse-man rock art, Bir Hima, Saudi Arabia

The exhibition shows the influence of horses in Middle Eastern culture from their domestication around 3,500 B.C.E. to the present day, with Olympic trophies on the horizon. Famous pieces from the British Museum and Saudi Arabian collections demonstrate this ancient history, such as the cylinder seal of the Achaemenid Persian King Darius, dating from 522-483 B.C.E., showing him hunting lions in a chariot. The ‘breaking’, or training, of wild horses for domestic use probably took place on the steppes of southern Russia, with horses introduced into the Middle East around 2,500 B.C.E.

Another thesis is that the Arabian horse originated in the Sabean kingdom of what is now Yemen. With the frankincense trade routes linking so much of the Middle East, King Solomon (r. 970–931 B.C.E.) obtained horses from the Queen of Sheba and gave one to some visiting Omanis. In just a few decades this stallion had 157 descendants, which were famous all over southern Arabia. In subsequent centuries countless numbers were exported to India.

The second part of the exhibition is entitled Before the Horse, showing the use of asses and donkeys for transport—particularly as harness animals—pulling cumbersome but technically advanced vehicles. This was famously depicted on the Standard of Ur, and a silver rein ring decorated with a donkey discovered at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. But gradually horses became the means of fast transport in these early societies, used to pull chariots, wearing elaborate bronze harness ornaments. The love affair between human and horse had begun, and progressed with respect and affection as the horses were increasingly used for riding, too. One of the earliest depictions of a horse and rider is a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia (Iraq) dating from around 2,000-1,800 B.C.E. Another early representation is found in a tomb painting from Egypt’s New Kingdom, c. 1,400 B.C.E.

Horses were a vital component in warfare and hunting, reflected especially in the art of ancient Assyria (900-600 B.C.E.), whose ornate horse trappings illustrate the prestige and status of the horse, rider and charioteer. Famously, the Achaemenid Persians used ‘post horses’ charging along the royal road to deliver messages. In the Parthian period (200 B.C.E.-300 C.E.), their horsemen were even acknowledged by their enemies, the Romans, for the ‘Parthian shot.’ This shot was devastatingly delivered by an apparently-retreating horseman, who turned to shoot arrows backwards. Their renowned horsemanship was celebrated by terracotta plaques and bronze belt buckles on view in this show.

‘The Cambridge Telegraph’, a mail coach about to depart

From the 7th century C.E., the growing importance of the horse to the Islamic world became apparent in exquisite Persian, Turkish, Arab and Mughul miniature paintings, ceramics and manuscripts. The lightweight, fast-moving Arabian horse was instrumental in spreading the Islamic faith as far as China to the east, and Spain to the west. Indeed, the Prophet Mohamed praised horses on several occasions, and instructed his followers to take good care of them. A beautifully illustrated manuscript on show in the exhibition, the Furusiyya (14th century C.E.), is a manual of horsemanship. It includes information on the proper care of horses, advanced riding techniques, correct weapon handling while riding and elaborate manoeuvres for parades.

Beloved steeds, famous for their speed and spirit, bore princes and nomadic Bedouins. Horses were a significant part of traditional Bedouin life, along with falconry and hunting with dogs. Certain Arabian horses have been celebrated for centuries for their elegance, character, courage and stamina. There is a story of a champion horse, Al-Kahila, who was stolen. His Bedouin owner sent his son after the thief, secretly praying that his son would not catch up with his beloved Al-Kahila, preferring to lose him rather than admit that the horse could be overtaken.

The first shipment of Arabian horses to Britain took place in the 17th century. Three Arabian stallions were mated with native mares to produce bloodstock that became famous as the English thoroughbred. DNA testing of a horse called the Darley Arabian indicates that 95 per cent of modern thoroughbreds derive from this one horse. A painting of this horse by John Wooton from 1704–30 is on display. When the emperor Napoleon withdrew his army from Egypt, he took 221 Arabian stallions and 31 mares to France.

The Arabian horse was developed through selective breeding, creating the distinctive head profile, the ‘dished’ nose, and dashingly high tail carriage. Based in Saudi Arabia, Lady Anne Blunt (1837-1917) helped to protect the purity of the Arabian breed and began to import them into Britain. Her memorabilia in the show includes watercolours, photographs and diaries.

Most Arab countries now devote great attention to breeding and racing their horses, honouring an aspect of their heritage and culture. Breeding stables have been set up, often palatial in design, their air-conditioned stalls housing an exploding equine population. Over 1,000 racehorses registered in the United Arab Emirates are tended by specialists and trained by experts. The ruling family of Dubai, the Maktoums, are leading owners; the Aga Khan prefers to have his racehorses bred and trained in Ireland and northern France.

The exhibition concludes in the present day with paintings, prints and trophies from memorable equestrian events like Ascot, always attended by the British royal family, celebrating the remarkable bond between horses and humans for thousands of years.

The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot runs at The British Museum from 24th May-30th September 2012. The accompanying book of the same name by John Curtis and Nigel Tallis is also a Royal Jubilee Tribute.

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Juliet Highet
Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture. She is currently working on her second book, Design Oman, having published her first book, FRANKINCENSE: Oman’s Gift to the World, in 2006.

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