On the parameters that make the Arabian Horse a ‘breed’

By Matthias Oster

Posted on September 30th, 2010 in General

The term breed, in my opinion, defines a closed (more or less) poulation within a species. A breed does not neccesarily need a stud book, but this is the way we define our breeds in the western world today. Before the time of using stud books a breed could and was defined by the following parameters:

1)  its place of origin (country, region)
2) the existence of a group of breeders
3) purpose for breeding
4) a certain phenotype

Not only Arabian horses but all other breeds existing before the beginning of stud book records apply to those 4 categories. Today for (nearly) every breed a standard is fixed by those who keep the stud books. If a stud book is introduced, someone has to decide which horse is registered and which one not. Sometimes a horse is registered in a sublist and her (because that applies mostly to mares) offspring by registered stallions are registered under certain rules, or a horse of a different breed is accepted for reason of breeding progress.

The Arabian breed has also been put in studbooks that follow the same principles as all studbooks of different breeds do, except for the fact that Arabians are considered a pure breed, so no foreign blood is allowed.
Arabian horses have not been listed in a written studbook by the beduins but still for centuries  are considered a breed that is pure, by the bedouins themselve and by non-bedouins, be they from the orient or occident.

The definition of the asil Arabian breed has been discussed on this blog some time ago and it was pointed out that we deal with a socio-cultural definition.  Horse and bedouin belong to one unit. Within this unit we have no problem regarding the definition of the breed, i.e. the definition of asil, i.e. the credibility of the oral tradition of  belonging to the breed of Arabian horses. The definition is clear and sufficent within the socio-cultural environment. But the moment it leaves this unit it becomes questionable. Here the written records must step in. The problem is, it did not or only after some time in many cases of horses that are considered asil. Here our questions must begin and we have to decide – can we believe in the asil origin or not. The question of credibility is vital and here it comes to personal opinions.

Regarding the history of the breed we also have to look at the oral tradition of the bedouins and compare it with written records from outside. The latter has been done by Patrick, Tzwia and others in this discussion.
If we go back in history we come to a point where the sociocultural unit of Bedouin and his horse is broken. Is the Arabian breed older than this unit?

For me, yes it is older, but this is a personal opinion based more on feelings than facts. The term Pre-Arab is used by many, also by me, but for me it is still the same kind of horse, the horse of King Salomon, the horse of the Pharaons, or even the horse in the time of Noah. Mostly I draw my inspiration for this believe from the unique character of the Arabian horses in general.

8 Responses to “On the parameters that make the Arabian Horse a ‘breed’”

  1. The Arabian Breed has been placed into studbooks? Yes, as you stated, not by the Bedouin! This is very noteworthy, the outside created the books on their terms, not the Bedouin’s. Pronouncing a type? again not the Bedouin’s.

    This is the discussion, when do we defend the orginal Bedouins Horse?

    Read again, ” Daughters of the Wind: Edouard Al-Dahdah’s
    blog on desert arabian horses, past and present. This discussion is not about countries, papers, photo’s, as I read it or understand. This blog is about orginal and can
    we away or outside the desert ever understand this is not about any of us. These horses, we Love, are what this is all about. Who knows them best you, I or the Bedouin? Certain I am the registry of the world does not!
    Perhaps this blog will begin to bring into focus, what is
    in the field? A horse, yes, but more, an orginal being
    who is sharing this time, “our” Time.

    A gift of the bedouin and his horse, we are.

    Jackson – Bedouin Arabians

  2. A very interesting post, Matthais. The Arabian horse is indeed a gift from the Bedouin to all who love and appreciate him and would preserve him today.
    From the reading and research that I have done on the subject, I would agree with Matthais that the Arabian “breed” or at least the “pre-Arab” pre-dates the era during which most scholars agree the bedouin adopted the horse and made it a central figure in the bedouin and encompassing Arab culture — this occurred much after the period when the bedouin created a strong ‘sociocultural’ relationship with the camel, the ‘lynch pin’ around which hinged their entire nomadic lifestyle, and the very possibility of survival in the desert environment.
    It is, to be sure, the Bedouin who has brought this ancient breed forward from the shadowy past, who bred and preserved it according to its fascinating and unique tradition over many centuries, and along with nature shaped it into the breed so beloved to us today.

    Jackson hits it right on the head when he asks — “Who knows them best? You, I or the Bedouin?” I think that all of us participating in this blog agree on the answer.

  3. So since Camel domestication predated horse domestication one would suspect that horses were used for raiding to capture food on the hoof and loot. Then of course the Romans would have responded by launching punitive expeditions, so the tired out war mares were tethered to the Camels and the bedouin made use of all that open space to hide in. But we know that the Romans for one example could never catch up to the Bedouin. And of course there were always the caravans to rob or exact tribute from. The Camel enabled the bedouin to Strategically use the emptyness of the desert by making it possible to sustain life for periods of up to several weeks and the Asil Arabian enabled the Bedouin to tactically use that desert by moving quickly through it to strike hard and get away fast.
    How long did it take the bedouin to figure out the military advantages of using horses to augment their (camel) supply ships? Certainly not the thousands of years that some historians would have us beleive. It just doesn’t make sense to suppose that Camels were domesticated and widely used by 1500 BC, and the Bedouin thickheadedly didn’t figure out how much more materialy abundant their lives would be if they used horses until the time of the rise of Islam more than 2000 years later. I don’t buy it.
    There may be a corollary here that it did indeed take several hundred years to set the gene pool of the Asil as strains of horses were tried by the Bedouin and discarded because they couldn’t stand up to the harsh conditions. This might explain Cothrans research conclusion that most of the “desertbreds” he tested showed fewer genetic markers and less genetic variation than did other breeds and lines..Because with increasing numbers of genetic markers arising it might mean that subsequent generations were being bred further away from the root Asil stock.
    Bruce Peek

  4. One question remains for me: The horse could not live under the conditions of the desert by itself but only with the help of men who relied on the camel themselves. Horses were of great value in those times and if the nomads took horses by force and brought them into the desert those horses must have been a burden because they had to be fed or they died.
    Would You incorporate such a burden into Your warfare?
    Nevertheless the horse became a vital part of bedouin life and culture, including warfare. A culture dominated by a codex of honour and truth, going back in pre-Islamic times, much like in the times of the patriarchs of the Old Testament.
    There must have been different factors involved than only usefulness of the horse for war or raid. How did this bondage develop between bedouin and his horse? Fact is that Arabian horses show a kind of character that no other breed has to offer, even if you find horses of wonderful character in any breed, but not that man loving attitude that we all love in our horses.
    The bondage between bedouin and his horse is love, from both sides.

  5. Bruce wrote: “This might explain Cothrans research conclusion that most of the “desertbreds” he tested showed fewer genetic markers and less genetic variation than did other breeds and lines..Because with increasing numbers of genetic markers arising it might mean that subsequent generations were being bred further away from the root Asil stock.”

    You must take into account that the horses close to the desert that Cothran tested were from small, tightly bred groups bred from only a few representative foundation horses. That would restrict the markers to what was in those foundation horses, no matter what. That seems to me to be the important point here.

  6. Matthias: both horse and man needed each other to survive in the desert. The Camel would have helped out most as a draft animal able to carry much heavier burdens than the horse like water bags without having to consume so much of that water. The bedouin without horses though would have been much more vulnerable to raids from their neighbors because they would not have been able to pursue those who robbed them. So I think the Bedouin survival system would have functioned best once horses of good quality were sufficiently available that a given tribes cavalry could take the offensive when needed and also defend against encroachment too.
    Bruce Peek

  7. Bruce, can you list a citation for Dr. Cothran’s research that you mentioned? I know he has a study underway now, but wasn’t aware he had published anything about the desertbreds yet.

  8. I don’t think he has formally published a paper. But he has been very approachable and willing to talk about what he has found by doing research. I first became aware of his info from reading the Cravers newsletter a number of years ago. If irc initially be discovered that general list american arabians were less genetically alike than some european warmblood breeds. That Shagyas were tighter that is showed more likeness and fewer differences, than the general list arabs and that what he called at the time the blue stars, were the most similar genetically of any breed of horse he had ever studied. He also said that the Blue Stars showed fewer genetic markers than others, which to my way of thinking would be consistent with them being the worlds oldest breed- because over time as a breed develops genetic change ocurrs along with markers of that genetic change. He’s easy enough to get ahold of, just google him up. He’s at the Univ. of Texas iirc.
    Bruce Peek

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