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The Horse of Muhammad
The Arabian horse came out of the great deserts of the East, but equine experts do not know precisely where any more than etymologists know the origin of the word Arab, which remains a mystery to this day. Yet over the centuries the stunning desert horse and the nomadic Bedu have become nearly synonymous.
Indeed, the Arab horse was hot-blooded; so was her master. The horse was the wind, and her master put a bridle to it.
As it says in the Koran, the Bedu horseman was a refined instrument of war, a wielder of death to all infidels; "By the snorting war steeds, which strike fire with their hoofs as they gallop to the raid at dawn and with a trail of dust split apart a massed army; man is ungrateful to his Lord! To this he himself shall bear witness" ("The Chargers" [100:1-7]).
The great horse probably existed on the Arabian Peninsula around 2500 b.c. The mystery of the Arabian's origin is certified by the extreme aridity of the desert climate; she couldn't have lived in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula without the aid of people.
Where did she come from?
"In the beginning there was a wild horse, and that horse was man. . . ." So goes the oldest of Babylonian myths. So the equine didn't come before man but at the same time. This is to say that the Arab people have not been known longer than the Arabian horse has been known. Actually, the name Arab, a Semitic word, refers not to a race or nationality but to an inhabitant of the desert, one who is either from the valley of the Nile or the steppes of southern Turkey.
In any case, the Arabian horse was bred some 3,500 years ago and raised as "a drinker of the wind, a dancer of fire," the Arab poets say. According to the Emir Abd-el-Kader, a nineteenth-century Arab king, the lineage of breeders is as celebrated as the horse. And it goes from Adam to Ishmael, from Ishmael to Solomon, and from Solomon to the prophet Muhammad.
Ishmael, the cast-out son of Abraham and maybe the first Bedu tribesman, bred and refined the Arabian stock. An even earlier breeder, though, was Baz, the great-great-grandson of Noah. The archetypal mare Baz was named after him and bred to the stallion Hoshaba.
The Bedu horse breeders were an odd lot of belligerent yet congenial people. They would accept a desert guest as if he were a family member. The unwritten code of honor called for a traveler to be honored and fed in camp, and this included his entourage and his animals, which could number in the hundreds.
All a visitor had to do was touch a Bedu tent pole, and he became a welcome guest. His horse's bridle was then hung from the highest part of the tent to show the great respect the stranger was going to be given.
Thus did the tribes find themselves in the company of other horsemen like themselves. These were men with whom they shared secrets and passions and for whom they suspended ancient tribal disputes. In this way, the Arabian horse became a healer of nations. Not only did she transport the guest to the host, but she would often become the mother of blooded foals that united everyone. So peace was achieved when a desert wanderer and his horse came into a strange camp and found a haven from the sun.
In time, the pact was sealed by stallion, mare, and foal.
The Bedu raced their best horses, and the winners of these races got the finest stock from the loser's herd; this diversity made champion racers, horses of myth, well groomed and proud. An unknown Arab poet of long ago wrote, "The nostrils of a racer are like petals of a rose. . . . The neck is an elongated wave from which floats brilliant ripples of silken mane. . . . The ears, inward pointing, are lilies in trembling water, and the whole body of the mythical, yet fleshly, horse sways with the supple strength of wind, sun, and sand."
King Solomon disregarded the Israelite law that forbade the keeping of horses. He encouraged horse breeding by building stables for forty thousand horses of Arabian blood. Some of these were taken by King Solomon's son Menyelek, who bore the sacred Ark of the Covenant from Judah to his home in Ethiopia.
Menyelek's caravan traveled, they say, as if upon the wind. The sacred text the Kebra Nagast tells us it was watched over by angels:
Upon his command the king himself rose up and followed the road taken by the men of Ethiopia; and the mounted horsemen who went with him rose hard ahead and, at last, came to the country of Egypt. The soldiers of King Solomon questioned the people there, and the Egyptians said to them, "Some days ago the travelers you seek came by here in wagons which moved swifter than the eagles of the heavens."
Mythology has woven a tangled web about the feet of Solomon-a snare from which he couldn't extract himself. He loved horses and wanted a great stallion, but he had to break Moses' decree-"The king shall not multiply horses to himself"-to get what he wanted. Yet when he broke the command of Moses, he forgot the hour of evening prayer-and this, according to Muhammad, brought on Solomon's downfall.
However, we also know he had other problems-his wife, for instance. He married the Pharaoh's daughter. She worshiped idols-golden insects, fish, and horses. In the Koran, Solomon laments, "Truly, I have loved the love of earthly good above the remembrance of my Lord, until the sun hath been hidden by the veil of darkness. . . ."
Sunlight and horses. The two are expressive of divine grace in Arabic literature and, indeed, the horse of the sun is one of the oldest metaphors of mythology.
Equine sacrifices were done to glorify the sun. Ancient horses figure largely in solar rites. The Greek writer Xenophon said that the Persians and Armenians made horse sacrifices, as did, of course, Solomon.
Horses were put to death and dismembered, and at the same time, live equines were chosen for their beauty and harnessed to white chariots. They were crowned and consecrated. Mares became sun horses by learning solar dance patterns, including one that is, strangely enough, practiced by some Native American tribes to
Muhammad's influence on horse breeding doesn't have the complexity of Solomon's, but it proves the horse's high status in Arab society. Muhammad was single-handedly responsible for reshaping the Arab nation; he changed his followers from sheep and camel herdsmen to horse warriors who, if they should be slain in battle, would be given eternal bliss in paradise.
Moreover, Allah would indulge sins. All a sinner had to do was give a grain of barley to a horse. Muhammad also proclaimed that the horse's back was the human seat of honor. Yet how this back was chosen is an allegory all by itself. According to horse expert Stan Steiner (Dark and Dashing Horsemen):
Even after Muhammad had built a stable full of horses, it says in the Koran that he did not entirely trust them. He decided to test their loyalty by depriving one hundred horses of any water for three days, and when they had been maddened with thirst, he let the horses go to find water. As they stampeded he ordered that the horn of battle be blown. Most of the crazed horses ignored it; there were only five, all mares, who answered the Prophet's call and trotted obediently to his side. These five became the Five Mares of the Prophet, his most loyal mounts, and their foals alone were honored by the name asil, Arabian horses of "pure blood."
Arabian horses were therefore given the best and most royal respect. They slept in tents with their masters and mistresses, and they ate from their bowls. Owning a horse and caring for it was a sacrament, an Islamic virtue praised in Muhammad's book of rules, the Hadith. Muhammad was the one therefore who developed the original test of mare fidelity. A breeder of Arabians in the nineteenth century got an unridden filly and rode her across rocks and hot sand at full speed for sixty miles. Afterward-with no rest-she was forced to swim for a period of time, and if after completing this exhausting ordeal she would still eat as if nothing had happened, then her breed was determined to be pure.
Muhammad's personal horse was named Al Borak, which means "lightning" in Arabic. This mythical white-winged mare was said to have a human head, thus proving the ancient metaphysical belief that horses and men were once joined.
After Muhammad's death in a.d. 632, his followers said that he was borne to the Seventh Heaven on the back of Al Borak. Follow-ing the passing of Muhammad-in the years that succeeded the actual event of his death-mounted Muslim armies conquered half the known world, spreading east and west until they were finally defeated, one hundred years later, by the Frankish knight Charles Martel.
When Islamic rule ended, the Arabian horse began to travel out of Arabia into the world at large. Martel started his own breeding program, and this, in fact, was facilitated by the invention of the firearm. The loss of heavy armor and the horse that carried it made way for the new knight, who rode an Arabian-blooded horse and carried a long gun.
The Crusades brought bloodstock to England and France, and at its culmination, three crucial Arabian stallions-the Darley Arabian, the Byerly Turk, and the Godolphin Arabian-founded the Thoroughbred breed between 1690 and 1728. In the time of Louis XIV, the Arabian was so sought after that a French consul in Arabia had to beg in order to buy one for his king. The Arab owner of the horse sought by the consul had scarcely a rag with which to cover himself. His children were starving and his house was a shambles, yet he held on to his horse. He was offered gold for the animal. Weeping, he spoke these words: "To whom is it I shall yield thee up? To Europeans who will tie thee close-who will beat thee-who will render thee miserable? Return with me, my beauty, my jewel, and rejoice the hearts of my children."
The European horse soldier was enchanted by Arabian myths, and he subscribed easily to the myth of the sun horse. Christopher Marlowe, echoing the poets of Persia, wrote,
The horses that guide the golden eye of heaven
And blow the morning from their nostrils.
In midsummer, medieval bonfires blazed with the wooden head of a horse carved in effigy. In Russia, a bridle cut from the bark of a linden tree was burned as a sacrament. These pagan bonfires were usually built in front of the town church to please the clergy, and they did, for a time.
Yet all of this pageantry came from the Arabian horse. She gave nobility to battlefield and ballad, bas-relief and personal prayer. No horse cast more holy sparks into the world of Christendom. No horse had more sun in her or more history or more religion than the wild horse of Ishmael, which came out of the desert to serve mankind.
The Characteristics of the Arabian
The Arabian is finely crafted, with a short head that in profile shows a concave or dished face. The forehead is convex, forming a jibbah, or shield shape. The horse's small muzzle is said to ideally fit into a person's hand. The eyes, deep and large, are thought to be soulful in the mare and wisely alert in the stallion.
Upper equine beauty is defined by a high-set arched neck. A naturally lofty tail determines perfection in the hindquarters. The Arabian's chest is muscular and broad, and the legs, although delicate-looking, are strong, ending in small, articulate hooves. Height is between fourteen and fifteen hands. The fine, silky coat is chestnut, bay, and black, often with white markings on face and legs.
Keen intelligence is perhaps the best-known quality of this remarkable equine, but this is also a horse of great swiftness and endurance. On the trail and in the ring, the Arabian excels as a mince-footed dancer with no equal. The sum total of greatness in the Arabian is not just her incredible beauty-it is her ability to bond with humans.
This cardinal feature comes from thousands of years of genetic coding. These horses, like the Great Danes of canine lore, bedded down with their owners and supped with them. Indeed, a visitor to an Arab tent once remarked that the horse lay dozing in the center of the family enclosure with sleeping children sprawling upon its shoulders, flanks, and neck.