Here is an Arab description of a pure-bred horse, a 'drinker of the wind': "The pure-bred is well-proportioned; his ears are slender and mobile; his bones are heavy; his jaws are lean; his nostrils are as wide as a lion's mouth; his eyes beautiful, black, and prominent. His neck is long; his breast is thrust forward; his withers are prominent; his loins are thick and short; his haunches are powerful; his ribs in front are long and those behind short; his belly is lean; his rump is rounded; his testicles are close together and well let down; his forearms are long like those of an ostrich and well muscles as those of a camel; the veins of the legs are barely perceptible; the hoof is of a black, solid color; the hairs of the mane and tail are thick and fine; his flesh is firm; and the tail is very thick at the root and tapered toward the end."
Arabs said that slender and mobile ears, as well as prominent, lively, alert eyes, proclaimed a
horse with a good, strong heart and an energetic constitution - worthy in war, almost beyond
price. Here were the makings of an invaluable warhorse: the ears had to move constantly,
pricking at every little sound, and the gaze of the eyes had to rove here and there, scanning the
horse's surroundings. Symmetry in a horse was all-important. In short, the horse should have:
Four wide things: forehead, breast, croup and legs.
Four long things: neck, forearms, belly, and haunches.
Four short things: loins, pasterns, ears and tail.
A pure-bred Arabian could also be known from his character. It was the sire--according to
Bedouin beliefs) who passed character, confirmation and moral traits (such as courage,
gentleness, docility and lack of vice) to all his foals. Arab breeders said that a mare, indeed, gave
nothing to her young; rather she was like a locked coffer, that whatever is put into her would be
preserved and later come out unaltered. A pure-bred stallion, meanwhile, would eat from no
nose-bag save his own; would love trees, greenery, shade and running water, and would whinny
joyously when he sights them. When he drank, he first ruffled the water, stirring it with a
forefoot; if prevented from doing so, sometimes he knelt and ruffled it with his muzzle. His ears
should prick constantly, his lip twitch, his eyes rove and he should turn his neck to the left and the
right as if about to speak.
The true Arabian would never consent to cover his own dam, his sister or his daughter; an inner instinct would prevent him. One such stallion, led to a disguised mare which was his own dam, covered her and then, seeming to sense the trick, in his chagrin plunged from a cliff to his death.
A pure-bred horse was also said to have: Three things long. Three things short. Three things
broad. And three things pure. The three long things were the ears, neck and forelegs. The three
short things were the dock, hind legs, and back. The three broad things were the forehead, the
breast, and the croup. The three pure (that is, solid) things were the skin, the eyes, and the hoof.
Here is a description of the ideal horse by an Arab rider: The horse should have high withers, lean
flanks without flesh. The root of the tail should be very thick at its base. The tail itself should
resemble a bridal veil. The eye should glance sideways through the veil of the forelock, like that
of a lovely coquette. The ears should prick like those of an antelope startled in its herd. The
nostrils should be wide, exhaling wind when the horse pants; the inner nostrils should be jet black.
The forelock should be thick, the hair of the mane thick, silken, and fine. The fetlocks, small.
The hoof, hard as a stone and rounded like a cup. The frogs, hard and dry, like date pits or nuts
which evade, without breaking, the blows of a hammer. The ergots thick. "They have ergots
which resemble the black feathers concealed under the wings of the eagle; like them, they become
black in the heat of combat." The neck, long and graceful. The ear, split in two (?) and the eye,
black and full of fire. "When my horse gallops toward a goal, he causes a sound to be heard like
that of fluttering wings, and his neigh resembles the melancholy voice of the nightingale. If upon
stretching his head and neck to drink from a steam which flows at ground level the horse stands
straight on his fore legs, without bending one of his forefeet, you may be sure that he has perfect
conformation, that all parts of his body are in harmony, and that he is pure-bred."
Judging the age and softness of a horse: the Arab carefully examined the horse's legs, and then as
a last resort, would pinch the skin of the forehead, drawing it tightly toward him. If it sprang
back without leaving a trace of his fingers, the animal was acceptable. If a mark or wrinkle was
left, the horse was considered too old or too soft.
Measuring the worth of a horse by its proportions: with a hand, an Arab judging an animal could
count the palms from the tip of the dock to the middle of the withers; then from the middle of the
withers to the end of the upper lip, passing between the ears. If the two measurements were
equal, the horse would be good, but of average speed. If the rear measurement was longer, the
animal would be mediocre. But the longer he was on the forehand measurement, the better he
Defects in Arabian horses: groves on the chin, from the rubbing of a curb bit. Narrow breast,
thick low withers, bowed tendons, thoroughpins. Spavin, especially where bordering a vein.
Sidebone and ringbone. Splints close to the tendons. Long, weak pasterns; or short, straight
pasterns. Windgalls going up the length of the tendon. Pegged shoulders. A long, hollow
back. Slack floppy ears, a short neck, narrow nostrils. The habit of scratching the neck with the
feet, the habit of switching the tail when galloping.
To test for a horse that cannot see at night or upon snow, knowledgeable riders would watch how
he lifted his feet when darkness falls. To test in daylight, they would spread a dark surface (ie, a
length of black wool) and make him cross it; if he walked quietly, he saw well. It was important
for a horse to have good night-sight, because horses were commonly taken on raids and had then
to be ridden under cover of darkness.
To test if a horse would interfere: one placed two closed fists together between his forelegs, just
below the brisket. If the inner walls of the forelegs touched the fists, the horse's chest was too
narrow and he could not help but interfere.
A deaf horse was shunned. These were known by these marks: expressionless, dangling and
turned-back ears; this was tested for by clucking with the tongue, and seeing if the horses
This anecdote was told about a famous stallion: one day his rider was upon him, wandering thirsty
across the desert when they saw a flight of desert partridge winging toward a spring. They
followed, and the stallion reached the stream at the same moment as the flying birds - an
extraordinary feat, for the flight of the partridge is swift; and even swifter is the flight of a thirsty
partridge hurrying to water.
An Arabian stallion lived twenty to twenty-five years, and a mare twenty-five to thirty years. The
mare had more endurance, but was without the stallion's worth in war.
For her part, a mare was considered an easier and smoother ride. She would not whinny in
combat, and was less sensitive than a stallion to heat, hunger or thirst. "The mare is like the
snake. Her strength (and liveliness) increase in times of heat and in torrid localities. ... This is
contrary to the stallion, who does not endure heat as well as the mare - whose energy,
undoubtedly due to her constitution, redoubles the hotter it becomes. She needs very little food,
and can be sent out to graze with the sheep and camels without her owner needing to trouble
himself overmuch about her care. However, the stallion must be better fed, and his master
cannot send him out to graze without also sending a groom to watch him - lest he scent a mare
and follow her."
For his part, a stallion in battle had a man's courage and savagery, and would fight on to the death
when a mare lost heart. He would be stronger, braver, and swifter in a breakneck gallop. Also, a
mare which came into heat on the battlefield would stop dead at the scent of a stallion, even if she
was in the midst of pitched combat and her rider had just asked her to gallop for their lives.
A stallion was usually bred no more than five or six times in a year. Too much breeding wore him out! Often he was bred no more than twice. Mating at liberty was a bad thing; also, during an unassisted mating it was not rare that the stallion puts his member between the mare's buttocks and was injured; or sometimes he put it into her rectum, causing the death of the mare.
During breeding, the mare was led to the stallion in the spring. She was judged ready when she
urinated upon hearing a stallion's neigh, when she secreted a whitish substance and immediately
lowered and turned her head to hear if he was approaching. If she was reluctant, her owner
pastured her for a day with a teaser--an experienced stallion who would play with her, excite her
and bite her and get her ready. (But not mate with her; such horses were probably rendered
unable to breed by an operation on the sheath?) The owner also reduced her feed before mating
her, and on the eve of her breeding, gave her no food at all.
When she was ready, she was taken her away from the camp, from witnesses and distractions.
This was done in the morning, to avoid the heat and swarming flies of noon. She was placed on
an incline, and the stallion, on a long line, was led to her. The handlers made him walk around
her and let him scent her. Then, when he became excited, they removed him and only let him
mount after seeing him secret a whitish, watery liquid; unless this was done, they said, he would
ejaculate upon first touching the mare. One man pulled the mare's tail to one side, the other
directed the stallion's member. After mating, they washed the stallion (if possible) and gave him
barley. The mare's owner walked her, after slapping her three or four times under the flanks; then
he painted henna on her loins, as an aid to conception. If afterwards she turned her head to gaze
at her own flanks, conception had occurred; if after seven days, when introduced to a stallion she
hugged her tail tight and rejected his advances, even kicking him if he persisted, she had certainly
An Arab horse was handled from birth and made part of the family. The women of the family
cared for her, fed her and were responsible for her condition - as if she was a beloved daughter,
they cherished her. (That is, the ordinary Arab family kept mares, and only mares. Fillies were
cherished; colts were sold. It was the mark of a wealthy man or a tribal prince, that among his
possessions was a stallion or stud of stallions.) Ideally, the Arab mare was not feed on grass, but
only barley and milk. A milk-fed horse had the best muscle development and endurance. When
the filly was about eighteen months old, a child rode her bareback; thus the child and the foal both
learned the art of riding. Between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-seven months, the foal
was trained to bridle and saddle. At thirty months, her bones and spinal cord were fully
developed and she could bear an adult rider.
She was taught never to run from his rider when the latter has dismounted, and never to walk
away--even when the reins have been thrown over her head and let drag on the ground. This last
was an invaluable lesson. This was because when an Arab killed a foe in battle, the first thing he
did was throw the enemy's reins over the enemy horse's head, ensuring that the horse would
stand docile while he rifled his downed foes' robes; if not, the horse would at once race off to
rejoin the other horses of the tribe. Because of it, an Arab arriving in a crowded market would
toss his mount's reins over her head, let them fall to the ground and put a rock on them, and walk
off without concern. Even if it was hours before he returned, the mare would still be waiting.
The mare was taught to stand quiet during mounting. Above all things, an Arab who led a
perilous life, riding to war and adventure, needed a horse that is easy to mount. When mounted,
a good horse should stand absolutely immobile.
At three or four years in age, the mare was introduced to the spurs. At this time, any vice she had
was corrected by punishment; before now she had never been hurt, but had been treated like a
beloved pet. She was taught courage by being ridden in frightening surroundings and by hearing
frightening noises. If she had bad habits that could not be corrected, she was punished with the
spurs until as docile and cowed as a sheep. In some places, to keep a horse from rearing, an iron
ring was put in her ear. When she reared, a heavy blow was struck upon this ring. When a mare
in training is spurred, the rider also struck her just behind the crown-piece of the bridle with a
short stick. If a young horse in training was unwilling to run, or shy about leaving the company
of other horses (a near-fatal defect on the battlefield) she was corrected in this way. She was
made to gallop breakneck between a double line of mounted horses, and if she faltered or
stopped, the riders of these horses beat her with whips while her own rider spurred her. Even the
most stubborn horse could not endure fifteen days of such lessons.
Between the ages of two and three, a young horse was trained mercilessly. Between three and
four years, she was pampered, given rest, care and abundant food. The reason was this: hard
work between two and three strengthened a horse, setting her muscle and joints, and ensured
lifelong docility. But after these severe tests were passed, the mare's entire constitution must be
fully developed by loving care. After the age of four, if she still had flaws, her owner would sell
her--and not dicker over the price.
The horse's tack:
Bridle. No throat-latch - so that it came off easily in battle. Blinkers were attached, to keep the
horse from distraction in war.
Spurs. Long, straight, fixed spikes.
Saddle. The girth was, ideally, tied so loosely that a hand could be inserted afterward. No
crupper straps (around behind the horse's rump)--these impeded its action.
Stirrups. Large, heavy, with short leathers. Placed behind the girth, not forward of it. An Arab
rider could be singled out with a look at his feet, whose skin formed a callus and whose bone
splinted and thickened from standing with his whole weight in the stirrups.
Reins. Long. Two knots were tied in them, one at the length which permitted a rider to keep his
horse at a walk without interfering with his freedom of action, and one at the length at which the
horse, having collected the muscles of his neck at the gallop, would be in hand.
Ring whip, for training in warfare and for battle. This whip was made with several braided
thongs tied on an iron ring, from which an iron rod ran, terminating in a second ring which was
used to hang the whip on a wrist with; a loose cylinder of iron was allowed to slide up and down
the iron rod, thus making a loud noise when the whip is swung.
Short club, elbow length, terminating in a thick head spiked with nails.
Long cane ending with a hook, to pick up booty from the ground without having to dismount.
Exercises a horse was trained in:
Departure at a gallop from a standstill.
Launching - that is, launching a horse toward a wall, a tree, a sheer drop or a standing man, and
stopping him short. Gradually the horse was trained to come to a dead stop from a full gallop, on
the brink of a precipice if needed; this was the great virtue of the Arab horse in warfare. A
master rider would launch his horse toward a precipice, riding at full gallop, and then rein him in
at the very edge, making him rear and turn a half-circle on his hind legs - his forelegs beating the
empty air above the void like a compass tracing an arc in space.
Wheeling. That is, making sharp turns to left or right (usually, left) at the instant the rider fired
his gun. To train a horse thus, one fired one's gun and in that instant, moved one's hand swiftly
to the rear and left, giving at the same time a blow of the other hand on the right side of the neck.
The horse would understand, and soon learn to answer the mere inclining of the horseman's body.
Sprinting. "The angels have two special missions in the world: presiding at the racing of horses
and at the union of a man to a woman."
Jumping. Arab riders schooled a horse in this three or four times a day, at first over small
The incitement. The horse was urged to rear up against an opponent and bite at him. The rider
reined in and pressed with the legs, while making a repeated sound 'cheit' - the more aggressive
the horse, the easier to train him in this. A well-trained horse, using this gambit, could unseat a
foe in combat. Also, after a raid, a horse thus trained could be made to chivy captured camels to
flee with greater speed.
. . . These maneuvers were meant for battle. Other maneuvers were taught for display and
fantasias: A) The caracole. The horse walked on his hind legs, scarcely setting down his front
legs before raising them again. B) The ballotade. The horse sprang into the air, with all four
feet off the ground; at the same time the rider tossed his weapon into the air and caught it again.
"To obtain this action, one holds in, urges with the legs, gives when the horse raises himself and
collects when he lands. There is nothing more picturesque than this exercise. The horses leave
the earth, the weapons fly, the wide folds of the long burrnoose flat and wave in the wind, thrown
back by the vigorous arms of the sons of the desert; this is, properly, the enchantment and triumph
of the fantasia." C) Kneeling. The mounted rider made his horse kneel. "This is the ne plus
ultra of man and horse." Not all horses could kneel. One schooled a colt in this by tickling him
on the coronet, pinching him on the forearm, forcing him to bend the knee. When the horse was
fully trained, all his rider would need to do was to take his feet from the stirrups, stretch his legs
forward, turn out his toes, touch the horse's forearms with his long spurs--and the horse would
Sports played on horseback:
The mounted rider at full speed picked up a sash spread on the ground. A highly skilled rider could pick up three sashes from different places.
Target practice. The rider started from a long distance off, in order to place his horse well. He
fired at a distance of fifty or sixty paces from the target. This skill was valuable when hunting
gazelle or ostrich at the chase.
Galloping a stretch while coins, placed beneath the feet in the stirrups, never slipped or fell. (An
Arab rode with his full weight in the stirrups at the faster paces. His saddle, being loosely
girthed, was kept in place by means of its size, shape, and the weight of the rider. Note: his
bridle had no strap under the cheek of the horse, so that if an enemy seized the bridle in war, the
rider had merely to fling his reins over the horse's head and the whole bridle would fall away -
leaving the foe with only the bridle in his hand.)
In the spring, stallions were bred. The horses were turned loose in the pastures, to feed on the
aromatic herbs that were abundant in this season. Barley was not fed to them, rather it was
replaced by ewe's milk which too was abundant in springtime; in other seasons, camel milk was
given them, but spring was the season of ewe's milk.
In summer, the stallions were kept from pasture. It would be undesirable to let them run with mares--and besides, in the summer, the tribesmen gathered close around waterholes and there were dubious strangers about who might love to steal a fine stallion if they came across one in a field. Also, it was always considered a good thing in the summertime, to have war-horses close at hand ... just in case something happened! The mares went out alone; the stallions stayed picketed in front of the tents, and all were watered twice a day, in early morning and in the afternoon after the sun had set. These were the times at which the water was coolest and purest; and barley was the best feed at this time.
In autumn, the stallions were allowed out to pasture again. They were watered once daily, at
two o'clock in the afternoon; at this time, the water was warmest during cool seasons. The
stallions stayed at pasture all winter long, feeding mostly on the native grasses. They were never
given hay; indeed haymaking was not known among the Arabs, and those who did know it, said
that feeding with hay made a soft bloated horse, prone to heat.
An Arabian horse had forty whorls in the hair on its body, to twelve of which good or bad fortune
was attached. These are the good whorls, and their meaning:
The whorl between the ears, of the crown-piece of the bridle: swiftness in races.
The whorl on the sides of the neck, the finger of the Prophet: the master will die a good Muslim,
safe in his own bed.
The whorl of the Sultan, along the length of the neck following the windpipe. Love, riches,
The whorl on the breast: the tent will be filled with booty.
The whorl on the girth: herds and flocks increase.
The whorl of the spurs, there on the flank: if inclined upward, safety in battle; if inclined
. . . And these were the evil whorls:
The whorl above the eyebrow: the master will die of a blow to the head.
The whorl of the coffin, close to the withers with a downward inclination toward the shoulders:
the rider will die in this horse's saddle.
The whorl of lamentations, found on the cheeks: debts, wailing, ruin.
The whorl of theft, found on the fetlocks: day and night the horse says: "Oh, my God! Grant that
I may be stolen or my master die."
The whorl on one side of the tail: trouble, misery and famine.
The whorl on the inside of the buttocks: wives, children and livestock will all vanish.
Color in horses:
White: a good white horse was like a silk flag without bare patches, and with a black ring about
his eye. The white horse was the mount of princes, but was unable to stand heat.
Black: like a night without moon or stars. Black horses brought good luck, but feared rocky
Bay: this was the hardiest and the most sober of horses.
Chestnut: the swiftest, best horses were chestnuts, they were the winners of races. This was the
color of horse the Prophet loved, and when a chestnut horse flew under the sun, he was the wind
Grey, dappled dark grey like the shade of the wild pigeon - like the stones of the river. A grey
horse is best esteemed when its head is lighter than the rest of its body.
Grey roan, iron grey: an evil color, called 'a sea of blood'; his master would be taken prisoner and
never fight again.
Wolf-color, or green - a dun horse. Preferably dark, with a black mane and tail.
Pied: "fly from him like the plague, he is the brother of the cow!"
Isabelle, yellow dun with flaxen mane and tail. Called 'the color of the Jew'. Arab riders
shunned such creatures, for they brought misfortune like stench trailing in their wake.
A white star on the head was fortunate. A stripe was also good, provided it reached down over
the lips; then his master would never lack for milk.
Stockings: four were evil. Two hind and one fore, good. One hind and one fore, on opposite
sides: excellent. Both hinds, good. Both forefeet, very bad. A bald-faced horse with four white
feet, however, carried his shroud along with him.
Worst of all markings, though, was a horse with a white stripe that did not reach his lip, along
with a white off-fore. Whoever saw him, prayed to God to be spared from the evil that
accompanied such a horse. He was like an hour's poison, that slew in sixty minutes.
Once an Arab had a fine mare which he had bred for the very first time, and many gathered round
to watch the birth. All were already vying to buy her offspring. The foal's head came out firth,
and had a star in the middle of its forehead. Its master rejoiced; his horse would surpass the
dawn. Out came the near-fore, and the cheering owner asked a hundred duros for his foal. Next
came the off-fore, with a white sock; down went the price to fifty duros. Then came the near-hind; it was white-stockinged, and the Arab, delirious with joy, vowed he would not sell his foal
for anything in the world. But then out came the fourth foot, pure white! And the owner
ordered the foal to be thrown on the nearest dungheap, for that was the sum of its worth.
Source: Horses of the Sahara, by General E. Daumas (first published in 1850)
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Last Updated on October 17, 2001 by Sylvia