Strains of the Arabian Breed


“The terms strains and families  constantly  crop up in literature as well as  in discussions  about the Arabian horse, and although it has often been said that too much weight is attached to them  (or not enough, depending on one´s viewpoint), this aspect of breeding is one  of historical  importance that should be given credence and explored further.”                                                                                   Judith Forbis in: The Classic Arabian Horse

These words by one of the best regarded authorities on the Arabian horse of the last decades brings us directly into one of the most controversial aspects of breeding Arabian horses. On one point everybody agrees: there have been families or strains within the breed since remote times, but how remote this is, we do not exactly know, and which significance these strains possess is not agreed upon at all. The term kuhaylan/ or koheilan Rzewuski /kehilan Blunt /kohlan Rzewuski/ köchlani Niebuhr/ kaihlan Mariti/ kahilan Fouche/ queiland  Ferrieres/ kahhilan Arvieux was used to describe any pure Arabian horse (with Arvieux the oldest source as he was French consul at Aleppo from 1679-1686) . And the strain of Kuhaylan Ajuz was considered by many authors (including Blunt and Raswan, but also the Abbas Pasha Manuscript) to be the oldest one from which all other originated. Brown Edwards points out to the fact, that “there has been no reference in any writings at all to strains other then the kehilan (and even that not by name) in the time of Mohammed, nor any even as late as 1330 AD when Sultan el Naseri had pedigrees traced, though they turned out to be more fiction than fact, … In the fourteenth century by el Naseri records, there were no strains at all. He did however mention the “old breed” (Kehilan-Ajuz) and a “new breed” (Kehilan-Jadeed). By 1700 however, there were definitely strains, as the world famous Darley Arabian, foaled in that year, was of the Maneghi strain.”

According to Rzewuski in the beginning 19th century the Bedouins used, in an example, the following specification for a pure horse from the Gilfieh/Jilfah strain bred by the Weld Ali: nejdi koheilan el-bedawi el-anazeh men weled ´ali gilfi. A strain, or extended family, or blood line, is a part of the Arabian breed which has a common ancestor, in the case of the Arabian horse a mare, from which all descend. In most cases the strain consists of two names, but there are also references to only one name. In English speaking usage the first name is called strain, and the second is referred to as substrain. Burckhardt, as well as Rzewuski speak of “races”. In German the term “Stamm” is used (translated into English: breed; “Stamm” is a somewhat confusing term, as the same German word is used for the Bedouin tribes). In Arabic the term for strain is rasan (rope), and the substrain is marbat/pl. marabet. The term marbat is today also used for a stud-farm and the word means “the place there the rope is tied” (Al Dahdah). Raswan gives both rasan and marbat as substrain and nasl or nisbe (the trunk of a tree) as the term for the strain. Although tradition speaks of one root mare for every strain, mtDNA findings (discussed in the science chapter) suggest that this may not always be the case but rather a group of mares that combined the starting point of some marabet or “studfarms”. For Lady Wentworth there is “the value of strain names as identification marks”.

As discussed in an own chapter, there are many traditions and legends of Arabs or Bedouins on the subject of the horse, some of them from pre-Islamic and some from Islamic times. According to Jabbur many books were written on the subject of the Arabian horse (kutub al-khayl) by various Arabian authors, “most of which are lost, but have come down to us in some of the works of later authors, as we see in the book Tarikh al-khuyul al-arabiya (History of the Arabian Horses by Abd Allah Ibn Hamza from the 13th century)…. He discusses the strains of horses…” and it would be interesting to know more about it. Also there is a book Kitab ansab al-khayl fi l-jahiliya wa-l-Islam wa-akhbariha (Book on Pedigrees and accounts about Horses in pre-Islamic and Islamic Times) (Jabbur). The word arsan/pl. ansab is used by the Bedouins for pedigree (Jabbur), but we should keep in mind that something different than our western understanding of a pedigree is meant by this word. Maybe genealogy is a better translation. The first reports on the habit of genealogies are by Arvieux, Rocque, Fouche, Mariti, cit. from Ammon, but this author also gives Rosetti´s observation, who strictly denies any genealogy by the Bedouins. For sure we should not understand genealogy as a written and exact account on the forefathers and foremothers of a horse, but as an oral account by which Bedouins gave proof of the descend of the horse, in the same way they spoke of their own genealogies. Ammon has the translation of a hujia in his book dating from 1722 and stating that the horse was a “Manaki Schadahi”, to the author´s knowledge the oldest reference to rasan wa marbat. Al Dahdah gives the year of 1660 for the mentioning of the Tuwaysan strain by a French traveler.  So we may conclude that the usage of rasan and marbat dates back before the 17th century, but when this habit developed and where we do not know. In pre-Islamic times breeders more relied on stallions in their genealogies and only later changed to the mares (Schiele, Rzewuski). But also in later times we find the habit of making up genealogies after the sire in Saudi Arabia: The Austrian consul Zuccoli, who had been with Ibrahim Pasha on his war against the Wahabbies in 1819, told Fürst Pückler about the stud of Abdullah Ibn Saud: “The horses take their naming/descend after the sire.” And the mare Gazala, imported to Germany  in  1972,  bred   by  the  Shammar  near   Hail, had a  five  generation  pedigree  in which the terms for the family (strain) were given after the sire (Schiele).

Palgrave (1863) was “inclined to consider the greater part of these very pedigrees, and still more the antiquity of their origin, as comparatively recent inventions, and of small credit, got up for the market of Bedouins or townsmen. …Once arrived at this last district (annotation: Shomer or Jebel Shammar), I heard no more of Siklawee, Delhamee, or any other like genealogies;…. In Nejed I was distinctly assured that no prolonged lists of pedigrees were ever kept, and that all enquiries about race are limited to the assurance of a good father and a good mother…”.

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