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Bedouin Principles

Bedouin Judgement of their Horses


The Rwala Bedouins judged horses also on certain marks, called sijase (Musil): “A good mare has long ears, legs and neck; the croup, the root of the tail, and the coronet, zen, are short. The nostrils and eyes are large and the distance between the fore-knees broad and spacious. The forehead should bulge forward (gebhatha natta / jibhatha natta), the breast should be arched, and the forelock, mane, and hair of the tail should be thick.” Curly spots of hair were regarded as signs of good or bad qualities in the mare. Also color and white markings were of importance among the Rwala to judge a horse. If they recognized a bad mark they laid a black goat on the shoulder of the mare, killed it and let the blood run down over the horse. Abd al Kader speaks of three long, three short, three large and three broad attributes that make a good horse: neck, ears and tail should be long; back, fetlocks and root of tail short; nostrils, belly and hooves large; and chest, croup and jowl broad.


Dr. Abouzeid (cited from Schiele) has four aspects for every category: neck, upper arm, belly and tights should be long; ears, pastern, loins and root of the tail should be short; forehead, chest, croup and legs broad. More ways of judging horses are handed down to us from the Bedouins, comparing different distances of anatomic parts of the horse, the way it drinks water from the bottom, and others. It would lead to far to collect them all. We should concentrate our thoughts to the following statement that Schiele made: “The Bedouins judged their horses according to the following aspects:

  • genealogy (“pedigree”, strain)

  • performance and built

  • markings

  • color.


Textbooks were not known to them; their judgement was neither based on rules nor dogma, but on years of daily observations and the experience of their forefathers. They judged more The bedouin Horse intuitively and had their own tests for quality. Seen from our viewpoint much seems to be like dark superstition. Nevertheless they had succeeded to breed the best horse of the world by these so often mocked and derided ways” (translation by the author). 

In Bahrain: Old Speckled Jellaby, pictured at 34 years of age, sired his last foal the same year, born 1930 died 1968. 

Suwaity Mamdooh (Krayaan Sager/Suwaitieh Enaam) at Prince Mohammed´s stud in Bahrain 2017.

Bedouin Breeding Principles


This chapter will look on principles the Bedouins applied in their breeding of horses. The first question we have to ask is already an important one: Did the Bedouins have breeding principles? Yes they had. One principle was already discussed at length, strains. The intention of the strain was to denote the descend of a horse and its purity as being asil, i.e. belonging to the true Bedouin horses.


“Together rasan and marbat represent a necessary and sufficient condition for the Bedouin to determine the asalah or purity of a horse, and hence whether it is an Arabian or not” (Al-Dahdah). The usage of the term asil (pl. asayil, fem. asila) seems to be rather young, meaning pure from the root, and was also applied by the Bedouins for themselves. Older terms used for pure horses were: atiq, madbut/ mazbut. The term shubuw/ schubuwe, which means “to be mated”, is derived from the Arabic word shabby, “to breed”. If the status of a horse was not certain it could not be mated. Also with certain tribes some strains were not regarded as shubuw (for instance Tuwaisan, Wadnan or Jallabi families with some northern tribes, and Haifi and Mimrih families with eastern tribes, as information did not always travel easily between those areas (Al-Dahdah). Schiele tells us that in pre-Islamic times safinat was the original word for a pure Arabian. In the 8th and 9th century and later they were called arabi. Only after the 14th century, the use of kuhailan emerged, according to Perron first used for horses that have come from the Nejd. Hadudi, although cited by Löffler as word for a stallion used for breeding, was not a term for a horse, but for a breeding he-camel (Musil). Non pure horses were called kadish. Other names used were berzaun, hedschin, mukrif, mikseo, schari, maaroufin, and schimali. The term atik / atiq / atteki was used differently, from foreign to half-blooded to pure from old times (Schiele) (The latter may be wrong). So the first and most important breeding principle of the Bedouin was breeding only with horses of known descent and purity. Breeding within a family or strain, as postulated by Raswan, in the light of literature cannot be considered a badu principle. It was practiced in certain cases, but it was more the exception than the rule.

The second principle, or breeding rule, may be considered the emphasize on the mares, as the genealogies relied on the rasan wa marbat principle. The reader is referred to the large chapter on the strains under pillar four. From this rule we can easily derive the third principle: the use of stallions.


Most stallions were sold (at the markets in the towns at the edge of the desert or by export to Egypt and even India (on daus, Arabian ships) by Bedouin horse traders (Doughty). Therefore selection by man concerned mainly stallions, and to a far less degree the female Arabian horses. Only the best stallions were kept for breeding purpose, i.e. called shubuw. More precisely we should say that those males were kept that were regarded as best. From eye-witness accounts we know that some stallions were so famous that mares came to them in large numbers from far distances. One example may be Haleb of the Davenport horses who was said to have bred up to two hundred mares prior to his exportation to America. This number seems exaggerated but shows that the male lines were far less than the numerous female lines (see the enormous amount of different strains!).


Musil states: “The large clans have, as a rule, only one stud horse; this they never keep in the camp together with other horses but intrust it to the care of a specially selected slave, who pitches his tent in some gully beyond the camp, from there the stud horse can see no mares. To prevent the horse from catching sight of some runaway mare the slave hangs a full nose bag over its head early in the morning, leaving it on until evening and only taking it off while the animal is being watered. No more than two mares a day are covered, sabbuh or ´alluh, by the stud horse, one in the morning, natt, and the other in the evening, hasm. When a mare is in heat, mu´ti, she must be led in as soon as possible; otherwise her heat might pass, ektafat. The owner of the stallion asks the owner of the mare whether he wants a morning or evening cover, or both. If he decides for both, no other mare will be led in that day. For one cover the charge is one or two megidijjat and is called mohr al-hasan.” Musil also reports that the tribes did send their mares to famous stallions of other tribes: The Skur clan of the Amarat had a stud horse, so famous throughout the country that even the Rwala had their best mares covered by him. 

Horses of the Tai Bedouin in Syria, WAHO conference tour 2004, photos Karin Weirich.

Also Lady Anne Blunt reports of this lack of stallions: “ In former times when the tribes were rich and prosperous, it cannot be doubted, but they kept a larger proportion of horses compared with mares than is now seen. At the present time there can hardly be more than one full-grown horse kept for stud purposes to every two hundred mares. Indeed, the proportion is probably far smaller, and this fact alone is sufficient to account for much of the barrenness and much of the infertility of the produce, complained of in the desert.” On the other hand, we do not find such observations of a lack of stallions with Löffler or within the Abbas Pasha Manuscript. But we hear of famous stallions that served the mares of different tribes, sometimes coming from far, or the stallion is sent to another tribe in order to be used as a breeding stallion. Maybe the many stallions bought by the many commissions from Europe to buy horses with the tribes caused such an exodus of good stallions that the tribes were in lack of them by the end of the 19th century.


Therefore we may conclude that in subpopulations of Arabians in the desert we find a high degree of inbreeding on the sire´s side. The mares were bred to one or very few stallions and as result, many half-sisters from one stallion made up the female population in the next generation. And those were probably bred to a son of their sire or a grandson. This is similar to the ibn amm principle in the marriage pattern of humans: the daughters of a house-lord were married to his brothers´s sons (ibn amm). Therefore, although genealogies on the dam´s side were used to make the “pedigree” of a horse, the greater inbreeding factor lay with the sires. A similar development happened in the modern pedigrees: the dominance of very few sire lines, in the focus Nazeer, the sire of the 20th century not only in Egypt but worldwide. Dr. Nagel relates in his last book that in his breeding program he decided at one point to keep the son of Ansata Halim Shah, Salaa El Din, and sell all the daughters of this all important stallion off and at the same time use all his female lines. By this he kept to the third badu breeding principle of enforcing the sire´s side. Very few selected stallions put their stamp on the breed although their names did not shine prominently in the genealogies of the horses, as those were based on matrineal lines.

Haleb, farewell in the desert before his exportation to America by Homer Davenport, and Nazeer (Mansour/Bint Samiha) at El Zahraa, Egypt, photo Ekkehard Frielinghaus.

Thus the second and third breeding principles counterbalanced each other. The all importance and dominance of female descend and strains that is in the minds of most authorities and breeders, and that was also in the minds of the Bedouins of old, must therefore be corrected. Influence of dominant sires should be regarded as one of the pathways that made the Arabian breed, and therefore should not be forgotten.


The next question to ask is how the Bedouins decided which stallion to keep and which to give away. Paraskevas has given an answer that could not be formulated better: “Selection at the time of the dawn of Islam (and also later, annotation by the author) was exclusively focused on survival, and in the prevailing circumstances, that necessarily had to be desert survival and battle survival. Any mistakes in selection were promptly exposed by the intense use of the horses, and their merciless exposure to battle. The times were unforgiving. “Conformation to the desert” was clearly no empty motto. It was a life and death issue, and the Bedouins of the desert clearly understood that beyond physical characteristics, nobility was essential to reliability, and it was the character, the courage and the heart of the horse that were the essential qualifying prerequisites, and not simple afterthoughts. …El Moutanabi famously said: If you have seen nothing but the beauty of their flesh, then their true beauty is hidden from you.”

Rwala riders by Carl Raswan

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