Pure Breed, Pure Blood, Pure Syrian

The image of the thoroughbred Arabian horse galloping across the desert, whipping up dust as the heat haze shimmers in the distance, has an almost iconic appeal. It conjures freedom and strength, passion and nobility. So prized have these animals been throughout history that their traditional breeders, the Bedouin, consider them blessed by God: “I create thee, Oh Arabian. I establish thee as one of the glories of the earth…I give thee flight without wings,” goes an ancient Bedouin saying.

Syria’s horses – prized for their purity and stamina – have long been an integral part of Bedouin life in the country. Hot on the heels of Damascus playing host to the World Arab Horse Organisation, there are many who are now saying that these majestic animals could play a major role in the global horse breeding industry. 

The desert expanse stretching across Syria, Jordan and Iraq is claimed to have given birth to the main strains of Arabian horses; the harsh desert environment producing horses of fabled strength, endurance and courage. Syria’s historic role in breeding Arabian steeds was recently highlighted when the World Arabian Horse Organisation (WAHO) – the international body responsible for registering the pedigree of Arabian horses – held its biennial conference in Damascus during April. “The majority of Arabian steeds originate from Syria,” Hans Nagel, president of the WAHO, said. As well as emphasising Syria’s historic importance in breeding Arabian steeds, the conference highlighted the much greater role Syria could play in breeding these animals for what is now a lucrative global market. 

A look back through history shows that it’s not by accident that Syria has traditionally bred the purest thoroughbred steeds. The country’s unforgiving desert environment contributed to its horses’ ability to adapt to unremitting conditions, giving birth to their legendary spirit and stamina. Their traditional breeders, the Bedouin, were furthermore compelled to raise only the best horses as a tribe’s rise or fall was intricately linked to the strength of their cherished animals. Thus, the Arabian horse became one aspect of an immutable trinity – the Bedouin, the horse and religion. Arabian horses were the only animals permitted inside Bedouin tents and were even accorded the right to sleep beside their owners.  

Hisham Grayyeb, the owner of the largest Arabian stud-farm in Syria, echoes such traditions: “If my son and my horse were in need of something, but I lacked money for both, I would buy what my horse needs first.” It’s a statement one would hope smacks of hyperbole, but which nevertheless emphasises the importance still accorded to these animals. 

There are five primary strains of Asil (pure-blooded) Arabian horses: Keheilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban. Such was the importance of a horse’s purity that crossbreeding between strains was discouraged, although it was never strictly forbidden. Certain Bedouin tribes believed that if a mare was bred with a stallion of “impure” blood, the mare herself and all future offspring would be contaminated by the stallion and therefore no longer Asil. The pedigree and history of a tribe’s best steed (mares in particular not steeds) would be preserved in oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Islam also accords a particular reverence to these animals and sayings of Prophet Mohammed commending Arabian horses abound. 

Syria’s present horse breeding potential is rooted in the industry’s isolation – a factor that has preserved the purity of the country’s horse stock. Arabian horses in Syria are closest to those reared centuries ago as they have remained in their original environment without exposure to outside breeds. “The characteristics of Arabian horses raised in fertile plains changes over time,” Nagel said. “Due to the different feeding regimes, the quality and size of their bones differ.”  

Furthermore, a blanket ban only recently lifted on the import and export of Arabian horses has maintained the purity of bloodlines in Syrian stock. The government ban was lifted in 2004 as part of Syrian endeavours to open its markets, however Syrian breeders have been reluctant to introduce foreign bloodlines into the country. Mohammed Al Wadi, head of the Arabian horse office in the Ministry of Agriculture, said 400 registered Arabian horses have been exported since 2004, while only a quarter of that number have been imported. The ministry monitors the birth and death of the Arabians, marks registered horses with a WAHO approved insignia and provides DNA tests of newborn horses to certify their purity. “Syria remains isolated from other countries in horse breeding,” Nagel said. “Anyone here can call their horses Syrian Arabians. I urge Syria to preserve this and not mix its thoroughbreds with other strains.” 

Yet if Syria is to move beyond simply being patted on the back for the purity of its Arabian thoroughbreds to actually making money from its undoubted resource, serious change is required. According to Sami Grayyeb, a young horse breeder and the son of Hisham Grayyeb, the majority of Syrian breeders are still largely concerned with the status that keeping an Arabian horse accords them, rather than looking upon breeding as a professional business. (He didn’t say it like this! They are taking it as a professional business, this is how they earn their living. He said this in relation to a saying by prophet Mohammad that Arabs used to keep horses for sport, prestige or as part of their religion, so he said now the majority keep them for prestige. So the Quote has nothing to do with business.) 

As the value of horses has increased, however, that mindset is changing. When Syria initially joined the WAHO in 1989, membership necessitated that all its horses be registered. This initial valuation caused prices to rise as breeders were made aware of the price their horses could fetch on the open market. Some breeders held back, however, wary that the government might confiscate their animals. When such fears proved unjustified – and they saw how much could potentially be made from their horses – there was a clamour for a second chance to register. Uniquely among the 69 members of WAHO, Syria was granted this second registration window in 1994. Now, 4,000 steeds have been registered and eight Syrian pedigree books have been published  

“Before Syria joined WAHO I used to buy the best mare for 3,000 Syrian pounds,” Hisham Grayyeb explains. “Since registration, now even the least valuable mare will set me back half a million Syrian pounds.” The very best mares presently fetch in excess of SYP 3 million (mares are far more prized than stallions as they are regarded to possess more endurance and loyalty than their male counterparts. As such, they were used by the Bedouin in the all important task of raiding). 

While the attitude towards owning Arabian horses is changing from that of pleasure to business, Syria still lacks the necessary infrastructure to exploit the international acclaim WAHO registration has brought it. There are only a handful of clubs and associations which promote horse breeding in Syria, and even less organized events from which breeders may earn a professional living. 

The first horse club in Syria was the “Sehnaya Horse Club”, established in 1970 with the support of the government-backed Sport Union Club. It included an arena where tournaments and championships were held. Basil Al-Assad, the late brother of the current president, subsequently established a club with Olympic pretensions. The club only takes horses of Syrian Bedouin pedigree and is considered an important source of pure-breed Arabians.  

In 2002, the Syrian Arab Horse Association was founded in Damascus to boost the country’s Arabian horse business. Basel Jadaan, the head of the association, cites its aims as preserving the Syrian-Arabian bloodline by organising events for breeders. It also plans to develop a library cataloguing the history of Syrian Arabians. “Horse breeding should be profitable, both economically and spiritually,” Jadaan said. “Otherwise breeders will become extinct.” The Ministry of Agriculture is also arranging activities to promote breeding. There are track races on a monthly basis and two annual horse shows. Mohammed Al Shayeb, the head of the horse office and an international jury member in endurance races, said four endurance races per year are also being planned. 

It’s a start. But by themselves these activities seem insufficient to give horse breeding in Syria the boost it needs to compete on a global level. Four annual contests remains a far cry from the number of events which take place every week in Dubai – a country (Dubai is not a country) which has a much smaller population and whose horses boast nothing of Syria’s pedigree. Furthermore, Syria’s paltry three Arabian equestrian associations compare unfavourably with the many that abound in the small Gulf state. Until the industry attracts serious private investment, as well as ongoing government support, Syrian breeders will continue to have to look to outside markets to earn a living. It’s a situation which ensures Syria’s unique potential as an international Arabian horse breeder remains unfulfilled. “Horse breeding is not profitable in Syria,” Sami Grayyeb said. “Without a lot of races, championships and some government assistance, it simply doesn’t pay.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.