A simple framework for assessing the purity of Desert Arabian Horses

By Edouard Aldahdah

The idea of an international registry for Asil Arabian horses has been gaining momentum over the last few years, not only within Western Asil breeeders’ circles, but among Arab breeders as well.  Such a registry is long past due and would be the purists’ answer to WAHO.

Several Western organizations have come close to establishing such a registry. The largest effort so far is that of the Asil Club, which in addition to bloodlines represented in Western breeding [Egyptian bloodlines, various bloodlines from the USA, the Asil remaining lines from Crabbet in the UK, Weil-Marbach in Germany and Babolna in Hungary] also includes the horses of the Royal Arabian Studs of Bahrain and those of the Saudi Arabian government stud of Dirab.  In the 1970s, the Asil Club has also considered adding the Tunisian horses to its list, and is currently considering adding the Syrian horses (more on this move later, and what I think of it).

Then there is Al Khamsa. While their roster is not the most inclusive (indeed, they tend to consider only those horses whose descendants came to the USA or Canada), it is without a doubt the most serious effort at researching the horses’ background and establishing their authenticity.

Most recently, the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse has been trying to establish such a global registry of Asil horses, but I am not abreast of the latest developments on this front [I need to call Anita].

A few years earlier, US and European preservation breeders like Rosemary Byrnes Doyle and Hansi Heck-Melnyk to name just a few, gathered in Abu Dhabi during the WAHO conference there, to discuss the idea of an International Registry of Desert Arabian Horses (not sure if that was the exact name they gave it). They got a lot of initial traction, but the effort ultimately faltered because of the difficulty to reach an agreement on what is the definition of an Asil horse. The reason why they felt that a definition was important was because it allowed to determine which bloodlines were Asil and which ones were not.

The matters was an easy one as long as  Asil Arabian bloodlines bred in Egypt and in the West are concerned.  Al Khamsa and the Asil Club, and other too, are in near complete agreement about which horses are Asil or Al Khamsa eligible, and which ones are not.

But what about the others, the ones still in the countries of Arabia Deserta, the original homeland of these horses? What about the Bahraini horses? It is complicated. What about the North African horses? It gets more complicated. The Syrian horses? Even more complicated. And the Iraqi horses? Here ones reaches levels of complication never attained before. And I am not even mentioning potential Asil horses from Iran, Turkey, Libya, and other countries on the fringes of Arabia Deserta.  

How can one ascertain the purity of these horses in an environment where, until recently, such knowledge was transmitted orally, and where opinions and sources of information differ tremendously?  One cannot help being drawn into issues of legitimacy, which complicates the task even further. You’d hear things like: ”Who are Western breeders to determine if our horses are Asil or not?” or even better: “We Arabs know more than Westerners do, because these are Arabian horses”.  

In my opinion, both Arabs and Westerners are equally well positioned to do the job of identifying and preserving the world population of Asil Arabian horses. This is why they need to work hand in hand, and why they need each other. Westerners are well positioned because they already undertook this registration effort in their own countries, with some success (e.g., Al Khamsa, Asil Club). Arabs are well positioned because their standards of purity are different from those of the Westerners, and because one needs to abide by these standards if one wants to preserve the horses of the Bedouin the way Bedouins did for centuries. That said, not all Arabs are Bedouins (far from it), and Arabs do not have the monopoly of knowledge on Arabian horses..  

That said, debates about definitions are endless. One could discuss forever what purity means, and if desert-bred automatically means Asil, and what is Asil, and who decides what is Asil and what is not, and according to what criteria, etc… The discussion is fascinating, but there is a point of diminishing returns, a tipping point where discussion need to end and action needs to start, even at the expense of precise rules of the game.

In the interest of practicality and of getting things done, I suggest the following simple framework to assess the eligilbility of desert Arabian horses in any future Global Asil Horse Registry (GAHR).

It consists of three levels of eligibility in the form of concentric circles [Jane Ott’also had three levels: BLUE STARS, Blue Lists, and Sublists, but mine are different]. There are specific eligibility criteria attached to each level of course, and a lot to say about who has the privelege of fixing these criteria, but lets hold on to that thought for later. Note that these criteria apply for those Arabian horses of desert bloodlines, currently living in Arabia Deserta (Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabian, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Lebanon).

So, here goes:

Level A: These are the purest of the pure, and include any or all of the following criteria:

– the ones there is a broad consensus about in their place of origin

– the ones we are fairly certain (as certain as one can be in an oral culture) can be traced back to a long time

– the ones bred by the owner of the strain

– the ones kept in relative isolation

– the ones not bred to outside stallions except very choiced ones

– the ones we know for a fact don’t have an admixture of foreign blood.

Level A horses are comparable to the best-authenticated Al Khamsa Foundation horses (for example: Queen of Sheba and Sherifa of the Blunts, Urfa, Reshan, and Haleb of Davenport, and Jalam al-Ubayan and Turfa of the Saudi Arabian imports to the USA). These are few and precious.  
 
Level (B):  These are the ones we guess are pure, or should be pure, or rather about which there is no reason to think they are not pure, although:

– they no longer belong to the original owner of the strain

– they changed owners and tribes frequently (thus maximizing the risk of exposure),

– they have been bred to stallions outside the tribe, etc.

This is the category the wide majority of the Syrian horses falls in. They are comparable to the average Al Khamsa Foundation horse: many Danveports (Kusof, El Bulad, Houran, Farha, etc), a couple of the BLUE STARs (such as those “said to be from Ibn Saud”), many Egyptian horses (El Samraa, El Shahbaa, El Deree), etc.
 
Level (C): These are the ones we need to learn a lot more about so they gain Level B status. They are comparable to the Al Khamsa horses we know little about (e.g, Maidan, Kismet, Dwarka, Mameluke, etc)

Of course, there is an additional level. which consists of the ones we know are not pure, or we seriously doubt are not pure, and these have no place in the registry. Let other worry about them.

17 Responses to “A simple framework for assessing the purity of Desert Arabian Horses”

  1. Edouard,
    This is a fascinating and wonderful concept. I look forward to discussing this with you at the Al Khamsa convention in Tulsa.
    Pam Studebaker

  2. Interesting.

    Then you would dismiss the documented statements of Mutlak, the chief of Ibn Sa’ud’s stable at Al Kharj, and place these horses in a lesser `belief` than JALAM AL UBAYAN? Those breedings occurred under the same watchful eye as the breedings of the original tribe from whence they came.

  3. Here is my answer to some questions I received privately on my recent comment, without the sarcastic, rancorous comment itself. Since it was addressed privately, I will leave it private…. but my answer will shed some light on the origin of the horses we have.

    Sam Roach was an expert in GOOD horses, not breeding Arabian horses according to tradition. If he had been the breeding expert, he would have asked for horses in each gender of the two strains he got. He would have Abayyan stallion and Abayah mare. He would have Hamdani stallion and Handaniyah mare. We would have provided for us the same strain within which to breed.

    However, among Sam’s many skills, he was a good judge of character. He spoke with greatest respect for Khamis bin Rimphan and for Mutlak al Atawi al Otaibi. Mutlak was the chief of the horses at Al Kharj when Sam received the great gift. Mutlak knew EVERYTHING about the horses. Sam was witness to this knowledge, care and concern. Mutlak was of Bedouin family. After Mutlak came Samaran Al Haifi Al-Otaibi and after him came Salim al-Usaimi Al-Otaibi.

    It is not the rank of the owner that makes the horses pure. It is possible to believe an honorable man and his honorable witnesses. Is that not the method of provenance in desert breeding?

    Of course there were many horses gifted to the King, but our horses are not those gifted horses, nor descendents from them. The gifted horses were in other locations than Al Kharj.

    Maybe it is time for Al Khamsa to make corrections. The strain name is Hamdani Simri. This is not information we have always had. We are open to learning and new information. There is much we don’t know….. all of us.

    The comment to me also brought up the fact of Prince Khaled breeding from the stallion Twaik (his spelling).

    I would presume nothing about Prince Khaled. I do not have the honor or the pleasure of knowing him. If I were to guess, I would guess he breeds what pleases him, as do we all.

    What do you breed?

  4. I don’t think I was referring to the Roach horses when I spoke of some of the BLUE STARS in level B. I will need to go back to my notes and see which horses I was referring to. That said, it would be great to have your permission to quote from the hujaj of the Roach horses, as published in AKIII.

  5. I am a witness

    all Horses of Edie Booth is Very pure Asil Horses and Hamedani Samari
    Number one

  6. Certainly the hujaj for the horses of Al Kharj are not my property. The hujaj are of integral interest to us who have the great gift of the horses, but they belong to history. These documents belong in the Public Domain.

    I am glad that I was able to collect the information and make it available for publication in the AK III. But it belongs to all. You do not need my permission to speak of this old text. I believe you have the background and wisdom to render accurate and respectful comments.

  7. Hmm, what if the DNA of all “new” horses and maybe old could also be tested by the methods to determine strain (UC Davis) and relative consistency (Gus Cothlan(sp??))
    If we had these two tools, it could verify many horses and also facilitate better recording. This registry for Asil horses is a fascinating idea. We could implement the SPARKS (endangered animal) matching database to provide complementary “ideal” matings for breeders so we could create, establish and maintain bloodline diversity, so crucial to the future. I also believe it would be necessary to establish phenotypes such that they could not be permuted by show ring pressures. Perhaps there is another registry dog or horse that has kept an ancient breed to its original qualities that we could study and perhaps leverage ideas from?

  8. I don’t believe that you can tell strain from DNA. Too bad!

  9. The interest in a global registry for the desert arabian horse is indeed a complicated matter, but certainly an exciting one that warrants perseverence!

    In an earlier post, ‘Tassan’ mentioned the concept of pooling knowledge, and making it available for guidance for breeders dedicated to making educated breeding decisions toward a direction that maximizes today’s efforts with the big picture of the desert horse as a group – as well as it’s smaller subgroups – in mind for the long-term future.

    I would personally welcome such global insight and advisory input in my current breeding efforts today and invite private contact from anyone with interest to do so.

  10. What a fine blog and interesting discussions. Both as an anthropologist interested in oral vs. written histories (and inevitable controversy) and an avid horse enthusiast and amateur breeder (of various Pakistani breeds), I’m fascinated by the discussions here.
    I have one piece of advice for all who are making a noble effort to preserve the asil character of the true desert-bred Arabian horse, but the advice comes at the end of a very long introduction which I think is necessary. The ‘westerners’ (the Blunts, “Khamsa”, Hungarians and French studs, etc) were able to establish and record purity of Arabian horse partly because they had a dispassionate distance from the reality of Arabia of the time they imported these horses (and partly because they were already in the stage of written culture known as “print culture” to historians). Similarly, the Russians established a stud book for Akhal Teke which is nothing more than what we call a Turki or a Turkmen horse, but having set breed standards, written records and a certain ‘myth’ in print, Akhal Teke has become a standard, recognised breed whereas many other variants of the Turki horse in Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan, India remain unrecognised. Locally they are recognised and hotly debated and disputed, the main topic of dispute is always the owner: his social status, his ability to preserve the purity of the strain (which is somehow linked to the “purity” of his family: e.g. I think a strain owned by the Aal-Saud would be considered more “asil” in Suadi Arabia than, say, a strain coming from the family of the family of vanquished foes of Aal-Saud (the Shairfs of Mecca, e.g.) or the non-Beduin Syrian, Egyptian, Omani, etc. families). Similar controversies and passionate debating over oral genealogies of horse breeds in Pakistan have almost killed our local breeds. The great horses in pictures from 1950s or earlier, almost identical to the modern Akhal Teke are lost now, either due to inbreeding by a family who did not want to introduce “foreign” strains or by crossing with Arabs and Thoroughbreds rather than other local strains (again, due to family rivalries: an English Thoroughbred has less “tribal baggage” than a local strain owned by a rival family, and our horses, much more prone to disease need infusion of more hardy blood to keep their already pathetic average age of 12 years from falling lower yet).
    By the way, most of our Arab horses come from Oman and Hejaz, imported by the British Army in the 1800s (and still largely bred by the Army with complete records, stud-books, and very detailed genealogies, including the original Hujja at the time of purchase); some old families still preserve the hujjaj of horses imported or sent as gifts before the colonial days, although they have lost the purity (unless the horses were “acquired” by the army and they preserved the purity of strains, like 60 “Taazi” or Arabian stallions from my family acquired by the British Army in 1849; these horses were from Oman mostly and some from Najd. According to family history, 30 stallions were given to us as gift from 300 stallions sent from Mecca as a gift for Emperor Akbar. Then another 300 were imported in mid 1700s but only less than 100 arrived on Portuguese ships. My ancestors mostly kept pure or “asil” Taazi stallions but very few Taazi mares to sire what we call “Turkentaaz” (first generation Turki-Arab cross, which was considered a superior war horse). The descendent of these Taazis, kept pure for breeding to produce war horses in an era when warfare was chronic, (60 stallions) were taken by the British Army; currently about 400 of their descendent, in Asil form are owned by Paksitani Army (and some by Indian Army) with details records of breeding and original hujjaj (provided by Iranian/ Balochi merchant) and receipts, including freight by Portuguese ships. The descendents of the horses gifted by Emperor Akbar are not considered Asil because records do not exist and their conformation is slightly different. The Taazi (Arab) and Turki horses in my family that were not acquired by the army have degenerated into much less impressive strains thoroughly mixed with many local breeds and thoroughbreds; this was because of lack of “gene pool”, economic difficulties (e.g. we could breed any of our mares with asil army stallions for free, but the distance from army remount meant that no one bothered), end of warfare, and therefore the need to breed excellent horses, loss of desert (we used desert for horse breeding, but most of it was taken away by the British, leaving us with fertile land by the rivers and few acres of desert which were not adequate for breeding horses) but mostly because of family and tribal jealousies (e.g. our “Asil” Taazi mare could be put to a thoroughbred horse, but not to the “asil” Taazi stallion of a rival, neighbouring family), etc. I hope the same does not befall on the Asil Arabs of the Arabian Desert.
    Anyhow, that introductory explanation aside, I suggest that, apart from the very rational criteria written by Edouard, you keep the primary classification of various strains of asil Arabians based on conformation and temperament purely. From my observation, conformation and temperament very easily indicate to a good observer which strain and blood line a horse descends from. In Pakistan, unlike in Arabia, the horse takes after the characteristics of its sire, and observation proves that while Arab horses take after their dam’s conformation more, our horses take more from their sire’s, but it is still very easy to see mixture of blood-lines and strains from the temperament even when conformation indicates purity or “asil”. I have observed the same in cows, camels, greyhounds, Taazi-hounds (Salugi), Alsetians, pointers, Labradors and many other animals including birds: conformation and temperament are the best indication of an animal’s pedigree.
    Good luck to the Taazi friends and their effort to preserve the noble desert Taazi horse of Arabistan!

  11. Wow, “Asdiwal”, this is some of the most fascinating think pieces on the subject of ‘asil’ which I have read recently. Wow. With fascinating information on Arabian breeding in Pakiston on top of that.

  12. Agree! Thank you so much for taking the time to introduce the horses of Pakistan, and your thoughts on asil breeding as well!

  13. Interesting Asdiwal, though sad to hear of the loss of Pakistani breeds that you describe, which region of Pakistan are you primarily refering to? I was unaware as well that Akhal Teke were as little distinct as you say from other Turkmen horses… I will try to read more about this.
    re Arabians, further to your comments, in terms of breeding the absence of ‘tribal baggage’ meant that the Blunts for example freely crossed horses purchased from the Anazeh with Ali Pasha Sherif horses resulting in my view in some of the most wonderful Arab horses, the legacy of which is obvious worldwide today. ( Leaving aside for now Skowronek who it has to be said brought typically Arab quality and refinement but also clearly introduced a ‘problem’ with ongoing repercussions).
    In terms of the Asil horse in America today (which I am fairly ignorant about, so may be way off the mark here), is there ‘tribal baggage’? Are the ‘SE’ tribe too proud /conservative to cross breed their horses with the ‘Davenport’ tribe and both reluctant to use other less iconic bloodlines?? I do realise that straight conservancy is essential, but a long ago post by Edouard re ‘mixed source’ horses and what a poor term that was made me think… Davenport x SE is fairly analogous to the genetic basis of Crabbet breeding (which I personally greatly admire) …. but ASIL.
    Asdiwal I respect your observations but personally don’t think that genetic dominance in any breed can be entirely sex linked, though obviously there are individuals (mares, stallions, bitches, bulls) who are very prepotent and carry dominant genes who will ‘stamp their stock’.
    Finally, a Welsh person with very fond memories of time spent in Pakistan about 20 years ago I am sorry Asdiwal for the problems that were caused by the British army in terms of ‘accquisition’ of land.

  14. Edouard its a wonderful experience to read ur articles always on arabian horses.i am from pakistan and im very keen about arabian horses.we hav great arabian blood lines in our army stud .i want to email u sum pics of pakistan arabs and have ur views on them .can i have ur e mail.

  15. Hi Haroon, thank you for your message. It’s ealdahdah@hotmail.com. We need to resume the conversation about Pakistan’s Arabian horses.

  16. You are right asid wal.im frum sargodha and horses sumtimes are compared on the basis of their ownerz social status and i just got the pakistan arabian stud bok recent edition its a big releif that our army is preserving the arab bloodlines zealously they have one big drawback they are not open to commön man i mean just to c these arabian horses u have to go throug a lot i think they shoud encourege people who want to breed arabian secondly they dnt show off what they got i saw a stalion abu al fawares now dead .he had nazeer blood from both side .he was heavenly and nt just a doll like some western arabs was a great mover under sadle..I WISH EDOUARD HAVE SEEN HIM IN FLESH

  17. I wonder why there is no large research project similar to the National Geographic’s Genographic Project,on horses?
    This would really clear up much of the confusion and help in identifying both the location of the first domesticated horse and its various strains.
    I am sure many Arabian horse owners would contribute their horses’ DNA and participate in the project.
    This will allow an objective approach to classifying Arabian strains and their origins.

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