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Strains of the Arabian horse

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

(From the book BEDOUIN HERITAGE and revised by the author in 2023.)

Reem El Bediya (Mashour Halim/Rua El Bediya), photo Martin Kubat.

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.” But if we use the information of the Abbas Pasha Manuscript and other Arabic sources, we will see that the origin of the oldest strain, the Dahman Shahwan strain, goes back to the late13th century.


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”.

Dhahmaan Hoobeishi (Kuheilaan Umm Zorayr Al Dheleem/Dhahma Umm Wajnah) at the Royal Stud of Bahrain and Rua El Bediya (Safeen/Marqueesa), a Straight Egyptian mare of the author, both belong to the oldest recorded strain of Dahman Shahwan.

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…”.


Most important (as also in human genealogies and oral tradition) “in judging the authenticity of the narratives … is transmission” (Rasheed, see also the chapter on Bedouin society). Therefore the Abbas Pasha Manuscript always gives the name of the narrator and the audience and witnesses of his account before relating the story of the origin of a horse or a strain. And - this we should carefully note - there is often more than one source of information cited, without shyness to give different accounts that contradict each other. Therefore, the common usage to make sure the authenticity of a horse was exactly the same way it was for any other account in the badu world. The truth was bound inside the Bedouin culture of oral tradition, relying on the authority of the narrator and public opinion. Al Dahdah has described this as a socio-cultural unit between badu and their horses. 

In Bahrain: Kuhailaan Aladiyat Dami (Hamdaany Wadhah/Kuheila´t Afeefa and Jellabieh Ghabra (Shawaf Al Betaar/Jellabieh Soroog)

The number of different strains was large and they were subject to constant forming and reforming. The substrain (Brown calls it family suffix) denoted the owner of a branch (marbat) of the strain (rasan). New families came into being with a celebrated mare or a group of mares from one breeder, distinguished by some aspects from other members of their strain. The names were often given after the breeder/owner (marbat is the place there the rope is tied) or after a certain aspect of the mare´s story. If after some time a new line had been established the rasan might be dropped and a totally new strain would have been created. Thus a large number of strains came into existence. In dependence on the interviewed sources the different authors give different lists. The longest is by Raswan and Brown and names 189 strains, of the Kuhaylan they give 100 different families, of the Ubayan 20, of the Saqlawi 14, of the Hamdani 4, of the Muniqi 10, of the Hadban 5, of Abu Urqub 2, of Dahman 5, of Jilfan 3, of Kubayshan 1, of Milwah 2, of Mukhallad 2, of Mu´wajj 1, of Rabdan 4, of Rishan 3, of Sa´dan 2, of Samhan 2, of Shuwayman 3, of Tuwaysan 2, of Wadnan Khursan 1.


Most information on the origin of the different strains can be found in the Abbas Pasha Manuscript, a collection of information regarding the history of horses and strains from the Bedouins themselves that Aly Gamal Shamashirgi, also called Al Lallah, a Mameluke and horse buying emissary of Abbas Pasha, compiled for his master with the tribes (more on Abbas Pasha will follow later). What was the purpose of the Bedouin habit to catalogue their horses within this system of rasan and marbat? Did the belonging to a certain strain have a meaning in the times of the Bedouins? And if so, does it have a meaning today? How do strains influence our own practical breeding questions? Before we will try to answer those questions, let us look closer on the most important strains that are still existing today. 

Rania El Bediya (Khuwey El Bediya/Rua El Bediya)

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