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The real armour of the Badaween horseman, offensive and defensive, is the speed of his mare.                             

Roger D. Upton

Horses stepped daintily on to the bridge with fine muzzles, arching neck and tails carried high.                                                 Sir J. B. Glubb

The horse is not a desert animal like the camel. As Musil observed: “In the inner desert the horses have no place and would perish, did not the Bedouins look after them better than they look after their own children. …Horses therefore were of no economic value (compared to the camel, annotation by the author) but serve merely as weapons for the getting of booty and influence.”


The only reasons for the Bedouins to own and raise horses was their usefulness in battle and their prestige. Their economic factor was small compared to the camel, but the horse changed the Bedouin society tremendously. “It was much easier to make or repel an attack on horseback than when mounted on camels” (Musil). Only camel herding tribes bred horses, as both the horse and its master depended on the desert-adapted dromedary. “The more horses a tribe owned, the more feared it was by its neighbors and the greater its power” (Musil).

Hamdaany Ra´an (Jellaby Hataa/Hamdanieh Khaznah) at the Royal Stud of Bahrain.

In this chapter we will examine the place the horse could occupy in the Bedouin world, its socio-cultural context.


The Importance of the Horse


The horse played an important part in Bedouin society. Jabbur claims “the animal most closely linked to the Bedouin after the camel, and the one that takes preference over the camel as the thing dearest to him …is none other than the horse, the name of which is so closely associated with the Arabs that their horses are called Arabian horses (al-khayl al-´irab). …They lavished such attention on horses and showed them such tremendous affection that this animal ranks as the one best-loved by the Bedouin. As they said: ´Their backs are a source of protection (hirz) and their bellies a store of treasure (kanz).` And such was their attitude both in pre-Islamic times and after the rise of Islam since the days of the Arab Prophet.” No wonder the poets of Arabia have sung numerous praises on their horses (see here).

Tuwaisaan Talleb (Rabdan Alwasaj/Tuwaisah Khabaari) and Musannaan Awaad (Rabdaan Baher/Musannah Ghazwa) at the stables of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Khalifa, Bahrain.

Jabbur writes: “Their attachment to horses reached the point, they claim, that they only took pleasure in the birth of a boy, the foaling of a mare, and a rise of a poet to eminence. For tying up their horses they used spots nearby, in the places between the tents, and called the horses tethered there muqarrabat, ´the ones kept close by.` The Bedouin poet Zayd ibn al-Muhalhil al-Ta´i, known as Zayd al-Khayl (´Zayd of the horses`), said of his horse al-Hattal:


I keep al-Hattal tethered at a nearby spot,

For I see the years bringing explosions of war.

I treat him like ´Urwa to share winter´s lot,

And compared to my wife, I value him more.                                                  (´Urwa was the poet´s son)


The importance of the horse, is also demonstrated by the following known sayings: The angels are present at no amusements, save three - the amusement of a man with his wife, horse racing, and battle (Al-Damiri). Benefit will lie knotted in the forelocks of horses until the Day of Judgement, so long as their owners are attentive to them (Al-Bukhari). 

Musannan Awaad in Bahrain

And Jabbur continues: “Sufficient proof of their importance is the verse found in the Qur´an: `Prepare for them what you can of force and strings of horses, that you might thereby strike fear into God´s enemies and yours.´ (Surat al-Anfal, 8).


Al-Damiri (in his book hayat al-hayawan, translated `the life of animals´, annotation by the author) even claims that it is sufficient honor for the horse that God Almighty has taken an oath by it in his Book, saying: `By the snorting chargers´,referring to war horses that make chesty sounds, or snort, when they gallop.”


Al Adiyat (The Chargers)


In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

By the snorting chargers

Running swiftly to the battle

By the strikers of fire Dashing their hoofs against the stones

By the dawn raiders

Making sudden incursion on the enemy

Blazing a trail of dust

And cleaving forthwith the adverse host

Verily, man is ungrateful

Unto his Lord;

And he bears witness thereof by his deeds;

For violent is he In his love of wealth.                               (Sura 100, from Forbis)

The role of the horse as war-horse and horse of the nobles is widely known. Lawrence also gives the following anecdote on the habit of nobles in Arabia to ride horses as a sign of their standing: "Poor Arabs wondered why I had no mare; and I forebore to puzzle them by incomprehensible talk of hardening myself, or confess I would rather walk than ride for sparing of animals: yet the first was true and the second true." 

“... Such was not the way of life of the Arab horse, which shared the tent with its master´s family. How often, sleeping the night as a guest in some Arab tent, have I woken up to find a mare standing over me or lying down beside me. The horses would move into the tent for shelter from wind or rain, but never would they place a foot on any of the recumbent sleepers. In the morning the horses would be turned out to graze, wandering alone across the desert, often out of sight of the tents. But as the sun sank into the west, the mares would come wandering back, each picking out her master´s tent, and this even when the tribe was moving every day to fresh camping grounds.”                                                                 Sir John Glubb

Photo Carl Raswan

Horses in daily life

In his book “The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins”, Musil has compiled maybe the most extensive data on the Bedouin society in the years before World War One when it was still intact. Because of his interesting observations, we will cite a large proportion from his chapter on the horse, applying not only to the Rwala, but also to all other tribes. But we will begin with Jabbur, who brings the relation between horse and men in the desert to the point: “Were it not for the Bedouin´s extreme solicitude, many of their horses would perish.”


And Musil explains: “Nothing causes the Bedouin so much labor and trouble as a mare. It is easier to raise and bring up five children than a single filly, as the children require especial care only in their first two years but the care of a mare has no end. It is necessary to provide her with food and drink, to protect her against heat and cold, to guard her from disease and robbers, also to quarrel with the other part owners, etc. It is the business of the women and slaves to feed the mare and to care for her - all the Bedouin man will do is to give orders. As soon as he rises in the morning he shouts: “Wake up the mare” and his wife and daughter hastens to fill the food bag with barley and hang it over the mare´s head. Towards evening, before the sun touches the horizon, he again calls out: “Hang it on the mare!”, And it is his wife once more who has to fill the bag and put in on the animal. At noon the master commands: “Water the mare!”; and the wife pours water from the large leather bag - which she must often carry on her backs home from the well - into a bowl and holds it before the resting mare. The animal is led to the well only if this is in the middle of the camp and there are no signs of danger. “ Jabbur adds: “Among the Bedouins it is taken for granted that the entire family is at the service of the mare. The wife gathers greenery for it if herbage is in short supply round about the tents, and fetches water for it from distant wells or pools if there is none nearby. The son takes it to the nearby grazing grounds and guards and protects it there. The master of the household makes sure that the mare is covered with a blanket at night in cold spells, or when the animal is perspiring, and that it is groomed and has the feed bag hung on his head.” 

Doughty, Musil, Raswan and many other authors report that the mare or foal get camel´s milk to drink. Dromedary milk, very similar to cow milk, has a large amount of protein (3,1 %) compared to horse milk (2,5 %). 3,5 % of fat in camel milk is much more than 1,9 % in mare´s milk, and lactose is 4,4 % in camels compared to 6,2 % in horses. Ashes differ also with 0,8 % in camels to 0,5 % in horses. Nothing is reported on incompatibility reactions that may result from this species difference. The importance and standing of the horse in badu society can also be seen from the following explanation by Musil: “No mare can be without water for longer than twenty-four hours. The whole camp my suffer from thirst, ras-az-zma´, and the children cry for a drop of water, but the master unmoved, will pour the last remnants of water into a dish and set it before the pampered mare. Frequently some spirited mare shies, sasat, causing the others also to shy, sawwasat al-kheyl, and all to run out from the camp, but the Bedouins sits undisturbed, leaving the women to hurry after the animals, calm them, and bring them back home.”

Mlolshaan Wesam (Kuhailaan Aafas Rakaan/Mlolesh Samra) at the Royal Stables of Bahrain.

“The forelegs of a mare are nearly always fettered with an iron chain called hadid (iron). They are closed and opened by a key which is usually in the care of the owner´s wife, daughter or sister. It is also the duty of these women to harness the mare, especially when an alarm cry is given. Then the rein is thrown over her head and the bridle put in the mouth. …The word for a horse saddle is merseha, “Saddle the horse!” mersehu-l-kheyl.” The saddle consists of a leather or quilted, woolen cushion, zerije, sewn to a cloth cover, libbade, and firmly fastened to the saddle. The saddle is also supplied with girth and stirrups. The rein is very simple; the bridle proper, anan, with an iron ring, ´azeda, is but rarely used.” In contrary to Musil, many authorities claim that the Bedouins did not use stirrups. “The Anaza are excellent horsemen, and they have the finest horses in the world. They do not use bits or stirrups, but rather ride on a saddle not firmly held in place” (Sankey, a British officer in 1857, cited from Jabbur). The introduction of firearms seemed to have forced the Bedouins to use stirrups and a saddle-girth, in order to be better able to aim at a target while riding.


“The Bedouin never undertakes a long trip on a mare but always on camel. Only when he pays a visit to a neighboring camp, or rides out to meet a dear guest, or repulses an attack, or assails the enemy´s herds will he use a horse.” More on the role of the horse in raiding has already been said in the chapter on Bedouin Economy and Raiding.


“With a rider on her back the mare will walk with a light long pace, tekudd kadda. When defiling before their prince or commander, ´arza, on a festive occasion or in time of danger, the Bedouins hold their mares up short so that they leap forward, rise on their hind legs, back slightly, and then leap forward again. This performance is called hedeba or tehaddob. In a mock battle, le´eb al-khejl, or during a man-to-man fight, trad, the mares will spring in the same manner. Mares gallop only when racing or in the attack, rara. To stop his animal the rider cries: “Hams haj;” to start it: Djara djhaab” (Musil).


Nabeh (Haleem/Nabukah) at Nedschd Stud of Amir Turki Bin fahd Bin Abdullah Al Saud in Saudi Arabia.

The Value of Horses


“As mares are hardly ever sold, they have no fixed price. If a man wishes to buy a certain mare, he must pay whatever the owner asks, and the latter generally wants more than the buyer offers. It is said in the desert that the price of a thing is fixed by him who wants it, as-sil´a tetba´ar-rareb. The Bedouins pay each other as much as ten camels for a yearling mare; for a three-, four- or five-year old mare they offer from fifteen to thirty thoroughbred riding camels. An adult stud horse is usually cheaper than a yearling mare.”


“There is hardly a mare that is owned by one man only. As a rule she belongs to two men or even more, who share anything she may give. If a mare is bought by two Bedouins on the understanding that her foals also will be their common property, the deal is called bi hedjra /bi hegra. If the agreement is that the mare will belong to one but the first and second foal to the other, it is a bi metani deal. When a man buys a mare for himself alone without any other agreement, a bi mekalfa is spoken of, though only a city man or a European buys in that manner -never a son of the desert. The mare owned by two men is called marbat; the part owner who takes care of her is ra´i-l-marbat. He is responsible for her health and must give compensation should the animal die or miscarry owing to his negligence” (Musil).


“The stallions are sold, only some are held back for breeding. The mare plays a major role. She is better suited for raiding: she is quiet and does not neigh, is regarded faster and more enduring; she means income for the owner, as she gives him foals. The Bedouin sets great store by the purity of the race” (Oppenheim). 

Al Fatih (Al Bashir/Al Sayida) at Nedschd Stud, Saudi Arabia

Terms used for Horses


The Bedouins had many different ways to identify a horse. Most interestingly the horses in most cases did not have names by which they were known among the Arabs. In the Abbas Pasha Manuscript the horses are identified by their strain, their owner or breeder, and their color. Nevertheless we find some exceptions from this rule. For instance we know of stallions called Awaj or Mahubi al-Araj (Raswan). Musil reports that among the Rwala “every mare is given a name expressing her real or imagined qualities or those which her master would like her to possess. A favorite mare of an-Nuri was called Diba, She-Wolf; of his son Nawwaf, Sadha, Lioness; other mares of the prince were named: Farha, Joy; Freija, Little Joy; Sa´da, Good luck; Nowma, Sleepy; Falha, Bringing Good Luck; Rarra, White Fronted; Smejha, The Little Gentlee; Siha, Cautious; ´Awna, Helper; Mriza, Provoking; and `Eida, Snappy. It happens often that a youth names a young mare which he has received from his father after the girl he loves, to remind himself of his sweetheart every time he calls his mare.” It seems very likely that those names were not used to identify a horse among the tribes, but only in a rather personal manner, like we today use nicknames to call our horses.

“The Rwala preferred white mares without any other color or shade. Such a mare was called safra´(yellow). The chiefs appeared on mares of this color at all the local festivities, but never used them on their raids, as pure white objects are visible both by day and by night at a great distance. “ (Musil) Other colors were zerka´ (blue), hamra` (dark brown), dark colored or black mares were called dhama, just to name some of the names for colors, as there were many different names for all shades of colors. Also the Rwala imagined that speed and other characteristics were connected with the color of the horse. Similar information can be found with Abd Al Kader and other authors, but it would lead to far to name them all in detail, as the author rather is inclined to follow the saying: “A good horse has no color”. 

IMG_2713 (2).JPG

Mlolshaan Wesam (Kuhailaan Aafas Rakaan/Mlolesh Samra) and Jellabieh Ghabra (Shawaf Al betaar/Jellabieh Soroog) at the Royal Stables of Bahrain.

Many different terms were used to identify horses, depending on age, use, pregnancy status, time after foaling etc.: If a mare was brought to the stallion after breeding and “she kicks out against or repulses him, it is judged that she has conceived, akzabat; she is then known as lkaha and has to be well nursed and fed as to avoid miscarriage, tarahat or ramat. In the last month before foaling the mare is called muhres. When she has foaled, afradat or waledat, she is known as rarus. If a male colt is born, it is simply buried in sand or thrown into a gully so that the mother my not be weakened needlessly. The birth of a filly is the cause of rejoicing to all the owner´s family and of congratulations from both his kin and acquaintances, just as if a boy had been born. Such a rarus mare is then wrapped up in blankets, taken to the tent on cold nights, and gets better food than the owner himself. For a whole year thereafter no one would think of saddling and riding her, in order that the quantity of her milk may not be reduced and that the filly may be well nourished. The filly also gets camel´s milk both in the evening and morning, and often the owner and his family go to bed without supper so that the mare and her young may have sufficient food and milk. The ears of the newborn filly are tied together with a silk thread to make them grow close together and symmetrically; they also shorten the root of its tail to make the mare when grown-up carry it upright in a gallop; they blow into its nostrils to widen them; shout the name it has received into its ears, and even smear the filly with tar to protect it from the effect of noisome smells” (Musil).


“In its first year the filly is called felw, in its second year howli, in the third year djeda, then tenijje, rbaijje, and in its sixth year zareh or awwal (first) karh , then tani (second) karh and so on. After the fifteenth karh, i.e. beginning with her twenty-first year, a mare is called ´awd; between her first and tenth years she is a mohra (pl. mohar). The word rumaka is applied both to a mare and to a woman who is neither to young nor to old (meaning in her best age). … Hsan (pl. hosn) is a stallion between its fifth and twentieth years; after that time it is called ´awad” (Musil).


Summary: The Bedouin horse was both a war horse as well as a family horse. It was very precious and dear to the owners, with the most closest imaginary contact to men, inhabiting also his house, the tent. The horses were of high temperament. Their use in battle with a performance called hedeba or tehaddob can still be seen today in the pleasure of many Arabian mares to rise on their hind legs and spring into the air with joy, and of stallions to rear, when they are turned out loose.


Khuwey El Bediya (Montasar/Marqueesa), photos: Melanie Groger

The Number of Horses in Arabia


In Arabia the horse has always been rather scarce. During the last three hundred years, especially the inner and southern parts of the peninsula did not provide a good basis for the raising of a large number of horses. Therefore the horse was a precious animal and mostly only wealthy and powerful persons had the means to support them. In consequence many horses were in the possession of more than one owner (Abbas Pasha Manuscript, Musil, and others). Even newborn colts were regarded as too great a burden for the mares so that they were destroyed directly after birth (Musil).


Some more facts supporting the thesis of a rather small number of horses in Arabia can be gathered: Not all Bedouin tribes bred horses. Many horses died through draughts and famine that plagued the arid zones much too often. Also, wars and raids demanded tribute. Yes, Arabia exported horses since remote times, even as far as China, India, North Africa and Europe and later America. But their numbers were always small.


How many horses did exist in Arabia? As there are no statistics we have to rely on the estimates travelers have made. Schiele compares the data given by Seetzen and Burckhardt, both from the second decade of the 19th century, and notices the tremendous difference of 5,500 horses (Seetzen) to 16,000 horses (Burckhardt). For Inner Arabia or Nejd the Swiss Burckhardt gives 10,000 horses and Seetzen estimated only 2,000 animals. Burckhardt records additional 8,000 to 10,000 horses for the Anaza tribes and 8,000 for the Muntafiq. Lady Wentworth has handed to us a list compiled by her mother, Lady Blunt, that tells the number of horsemen in Nejd around 1900: Mutair 900, Qahtan 500, Uteyba 2,000, Harb 100, Dawasir 50, Ibn Rashid with confederate tribes (Shammer, Harb, Dafir and others) 5,000.


This would mean a total number of 8,500 horsemen in Nejd. The total number of horses should have been greater, maybe we can estimate them around 10,000, the same as Burckhardt gave 85 years before. But have all of those horses been asil Arabians? Lady Blunt in 1879 wrote in “Bedouin tribes of the Euphrates” that in all of Northern Arabia only about 200 first class mares were to be found. Raswan claims that the Rwala possessed 2,600 -3,200 war-mares in 1850, but only 700 in the days of his visit, and of those only 70 first-class breeding mares. He estimated the population of authentic Arabian horses in the whole of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine to 400 - 700 horses in 1928. In 1965 however, he maintains that they had regressed to only 300. In 1925, French General Madron visited the tribes of Anaza and Shammar in Syria and estimated their horse to about 6,000. The First World War was a decisive time, not only for the region in the whole, but also for the Bedouin tribes and their animals in particular. It marked the end of the free tribes romping the desert and steppe of Arabia. A steady regression of the Bedouin society was forced by the new governments, until after World War Two, the last tribes had settled down. The world of the Bedouin and his horse had gone. Only rudiments remained and remain until today. 

Safeen (Ibn Safinaz/Abitibi Madeenah)

After the Second World War many horses form a lot of different Bedouin tribes had already left for Saudi Arabia They were gathered by Ibn Saud, resuming his ancestors´ tradition. His stud farm was later given to Dirab, the Saudi state stud near Riyadh.


Jabbur reports on the situation in 1987: “Horses are now raised only in small numbers in the desert, although the Bedouins are keenly interested in their breeds and pedigrees, and some of them buy thoroughbreds. The breeding of horses is shifted to semi-nomadic lands and to certain settled areas near the desert where it is easy to feed them. There are two fundamental reasons behind the camel-raising Bedouins´ current lack of interest in raising horses. The first is the cessation of raiding, once an important motive for acquiring horses. Secondly, during dry years it is a heavy expense to feed horses, this due to the rising cost of grain, especially barley, which must from time to time be fed to a horse to supplement his diet. Camels, on the other hand, receive everything they need from pasturage upon which they graze in the desert.”


The major supporting factor for the breeding of Arabian horses during the 1950s and 1960s in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan has been the thriving horse race industry around the race courses of Beirut and Baghdad, but also of Cairo, Egypt, and other places. With the onset of the numerous bloody conflicts in that region this came to a complete standstill in the areas and times of violence.


A renaissance of horse breeding evolved in the late 20th century all over the Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Qatar played a leading role and has become one of the main centers of Arabian horse breeding. Many Arabian horses were and are still today exported to this regions from the whole world where this breed had found new homes. Never in history that many horses could be found in Arabia like today, thanks to the wealth that came with the oil business.

Ajmal Talal (Sinan Al Rayyan/Ansata Samari) in Kuwait, and RN Farida (Salaa El Din/Noha) at Al Rayyan in Qatar.

Diseases of the Horse and their Cure


Musil gives the following list of the most frequent diseases:


  • Misma: inflammation of the muscles of the back; cured by a mixture of beleht al-kheyl and feliti drugs (sold by the kubejsi, itinerant merchants) and of coffee or melted butter, which mixture is poured into the nostrils, Jesa``etunah. (Through the nasal mucous membrane resorption of the drugs could be possible, annotation by the author).

  • Mwalli: inflammation of the bowels accompanied by diarrhea; this is cured by burning around the navel with a red-hot iron.

  • Zerd: ulcers under the chin; cured by burning the nape of the neck.

  • Kares: a swelling of the belly; cured by smearing the shaved belly with a mixture of grape syrup, alum and pepper.

  • Sakwa: glanders; cured by inhaling the smoke of sih. Bedouin society

  • Suhar, msowhar: festering wounds on the back; cured by burning the root of the tail.

  • Djerab: mange; cured by burning the diseased spot and rubbing in oil.

  • Lweref: ulcers in the vagina; cured by smearing with sulphur and butter.

  • Hamra`: inflammation of the ankle. This arises generally when the exhausted mare has fed heavily and been watered immediately afterwards; it is cured by burning around the breast and by piercing the skin on the shaved ankle.

  • Zufr: cataract of the eye; cured by dropping a mixture of rust, soot, and milk into the eye as well as by burning around the eye.”


The cruel and in most cases detrimental burning was a widely used therapy for many diseases not only in the Orient, but also to a less degree in western “pre-veterinary medicine”. It even survived far into the second half of the last century in certain cases of orthopedic medicine in Europe. The burning causes inflammation by irritation of the tissue , resulting in more blood flow, thus helping the organism to cure itself, but also resulting in scar tissue that can have stabilizing effect. Inflammations are a natural response on many insults. Some of the Bedouin medicines could have been of help, like the use of oil, sulphur, butter, smoke, coffee. The hamra´disease could have been laminitis. “The shoes worn by the horses are flat and thin and have a small hole in the center, hda`. Without a shoe, hafjane, it is impossible for a mare to walk on gravel for any length of time, as its sharpness injures the hoof.” 

Safeen, Khuwey El Bediya and Saleema El Bediya (Safeen/Marah Bint Maareesa), photos: Martin Kubat, Carola Toischel and Friederike Wilm.

Blacksmiths (cited form Musil)


“Every camp or settlement of inner Arabia, had its own blacksmith (sane`, pl. sunna`), who worked for the whole clan or oasis. Often the same blacksmith family has camped with the same clan from time immemorial and yet cannot be adopted by it, for the sunna`remain strangers forever. Among themselves the blacksmiths form kins of their own, and the blacksmiths of the Rwala are relatives, beni al-amm, of all the blacksmiths in Arabia. They live in almost the same way as the Bedouins or settler and are subject to claims of vengeance among themselves; but they never make war or take part in raids, even as allies of the Bedouins. During an attack on the camp where their tents stand they go on with their work unconcernedly, defending neither themselves nor their neighbors, for they have their brother, akh / ach, in every tribe whose duty it is to return to them anything of which a member of that tribe has robbed them. …When the riders bring along, besides other booty, camels bearing the sunna`brand, their brother takes them all into his herd and sends word to the blacksmith of the raided tribe: “Your camels are held by me.” They then come, pick out their animals, and return home with them. But if camels branded with the mark of the brother´s tribe are found among those of the sunna`, he returns them to his tribesmen. For his trouble the brother keeps every fifth animal as well as such as are not claimed by the owner blacksmith. The sane` not only shoes horses but repairs rifles, daggers, etc., and often makes new rifles, fine sabers, and spears, for there are many good artisans in his craft. For shoeing a horse he will make no charge. His reward is a two-year old she-camel, hezze, for every horse captured and all the horse saddles brought home from raids, which he then sells for his own profit. When the Bedouins procure supplies of grain in the tilled territory for their stay in the inner desert, the blacksmith demands one medjidijje on each horse in order to buy his provisions. Whoever slaughters a camel must give the blacksmith all its entrails and the shins over its hind legs. No Bedouin, not even a member of despised tribes like the Sararat, Slejb, Hawazem, etc. would marry a daughter of a blacksmith nor let his daughter marry him. For he, although white, is not independent, is not horr.” 

Safeen, photo Irene Hohe

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