A Time to Dance

By Linda White

Finite time, or chronos, is measured in minutes, hours, centuries and millennia. The other kind of time is kairos, or immeasurable time: God’s time. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 categorizes time, reminding us in verse 11 that God has made all things beautiful in their time. We can record our Arabian horses’ age, height, weight and number of offspring, but his timeless beauty and supernatural intelligence are incalculable. So are the joy, richness, and sense of purpose he adds to our lives. Thus, the Arabian horse embodies both the measurable and the immeasurable.

Horses must have fascinated Homo erectus for a very long time, because those drawings of horses on cave walls in Europe and Asia are at least 35,000 years old. Some archaeologists have suggested that the crude renderings may have been ceremonial talismans for a successful hunt. Talismans for good luck snaring rabbits and grouse? Maybe, but a human being’s running after (and actually catching!) a fleeing horse, or even hoping to catch one, seems pretty unlikely. The old and slow probably did land on our ancient forebears’ dinner tables, but the swift, graceful creatures also fired his imagination, as they have done ever since.

There was no such place as “Arabia” until 530 BCE, but an 8,000-year-old drawing of a horse closely resembling the modern animal we call the Arabian was discovered on the plateaus above the Syrian Desert, where the proto-Arabian probably developed. This drawing suggests that this was the horse that long-ago artist was looking at. A worn cylinder from around 4,000 BCE, depicting horses hitched to 4-wheeled chariots, is the earliest known artist’s representation of domesticated equines. Page 17 of Gladys Brown Edwards’ The Arabian: War Horse to Show Horse features a bas-relief discovered in the ruins of Elam, south of Babylon depicts a refined, high-headed, mounted horse with an exotic face, as do two bas-reliefs of mounted Hittite horses strongly resembling modern Arabians, dating from c. 850 BCE.

Written language added credibility to equine images’ impact around the fourth millennium BCE, when a Sumerian took the initiative, carved the blunt end of a reed into a wedge (cuneiform means "wedge-shaped") and developed a visible system for recording people’s thoughts on wet clay tablets, which then were baked. For the next 3,000 years, cuneiform allowed humans to extoll the beauty, courage and mystical connection between them and the fabulous Arabian horses that lived alongside them. A baked clay tablet from Turkish Asia Minor, inscribed into the wet surface by a Babylonian horseman who lived c. 1350 BCE, contains an essay on horse training - the oldest yet discovered.

The first text acknowledging and addressing the horse's mentality, or psyche, as well as his physical potential, was written around 350 BCE. On the Art of Horsemanship was authored by Xenophon, an esteemed Athenian horseman, scholar and mercenary who may have mentored Alexander the Great, who loved horses. Alexander accepted a gift of 200 fine desert-bred horses when he traveled through Libya; he bequeathed a herd of 30,000 mares and 3,000 stallions to his successor, Seleucis Nicator.

The eerily keen, intuitive understanding Xenophon referred to seems to be unique to Arabians, however. They have the thinnest, most sensitive skin of all the horses on earth – and horses are second only to cats in having the thinnest, most sensitive skin in the world. This allows the Arabian to receive tremendous sensory input; no other breed even approaches the Arabian’s sensitivity and intelligence.

An estimated 6,000-year partnership may account for his obvious interest in human beings; every judge familiar with other breeds has experienced that distinctively Arabian characteristic firsthand. When a judge walks the lineup to inspect each competitor, other breeds typically gaze off into the middle distance, exhibiting little or no interest in the two-legged creatures walking around them. Not so, Arabians. They immediately make eye contact with the humans, and watch their movements with great interest. This behavior, so typical of Arabians, often surprises people accustomed to more aloof breeds, and reminds Arabian fanciers of what reeled them in initially.

The Arabian’s nearest kin, the original English Thoroughbred, was the result of crossing imported Arabian stallions on local English mares. The Thoroughbred today is bright, thin-skinned and sensitive, but the Arabian’s intelligence, stamina and bravery remain unmatched. Horse racing was probably introduced into England around 200 AD, when Roman soldiers brought the sport to Yorkshire. While racing statistics are measurable, the Englishman’s passion for racing and race horses soon became incalculable. Tales of early power brokers’ passion for their fine racing bloodstock are not limited to England, however.

Salah al-Din Yusuf, better known in the west as Saladin (1138-1193 AD), was a fine horseman and nephew of a Syrian general. The enterprising young man accompanied his uncle to the Crusades, albeit reluctantly, but quickly proved his mettle. Saladin became the first sultan of Egypt and Syria. When he defeated England’s Richard the Lionheart on the battlefield during the Crusades, he gave the British monarch two Arabian stallions in recognition of Richard’s courage.

“Saladin’s rule is considered by many to have been the most glorious in the history of Moslem domination of Egypt, and one in which the Arabian horse played a historic role during the Crusades,” wrote Arabian horse authority and breeder Judith Forbis in The Classic Arabian Horse. “The rulers of Egypt in the 13th century renewed their interest in breeding Arab horses, and took great care in their selection,” Forbis confirmed, adding that although some Egyptian rulers were brutal and deceitful, their passion for Arabian horses knew no bounds. One Saladin successor spent enormous sums for, and built elaborate stables to house, his Arabian herd of more than 4,800 animals!

Chronos and kairos have always been inextricably woven together, although violence, intrigue and betrayal have often characterized human endeavors in horse breeding. When Henry VIII ordered all of England’s wealthy Catholic monasteries destroyed (and its monks executed) as he established the Anglican Church, he rewarded faithful Protestant partisans with the monasteries’ Arabian bloodstock. A less ruthless descendant, King James I (1566-1625), paid a fortune for the Arabian stallion Markham’s Grey in Syria, and imported him to England, where he, along with the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb, the Byerly Turk, and other Arabians became the genesis of the Thoroughbred breed.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), England’s first Lord Protector, was a passionate horseman, intent on developing a light, agile charger to replace the cumbersome “great horses” bred to carry heavily-armored knights. Cromwell imported expensive Arabian stallions his agents selected at the horse markets of Aleppo, Syria to cross on English mares. Many of Cromwell’s Arabians and their offspring were significant in the Thoroughbred’s early development.

In Early Horse Racing in Yorkshire and the Origins of the Thoroughbred, David Wilkinson wrote, “After Cromwell’s death in 1658, his stud master, Rowland Place, removed one of Cromwell’s Arabian stallions to his own estate at Lower Dinsdale, where it became Place’s White Turk.” England’s GSB, or General Stud Book, Vol. 1 is filled with references to Place’s White Turk and two of his sons, D’Arcy’s White Turk and D’Arcy’s Yellow Turk. “These two horses, when crossed with the mares located at D’Arcy’s Sedbury Stud (only 10 miles from Place’s stud at Lower Dinsdale) produced much of the foundation stock of the English Thoroughbred.”

“Daughters of Place’s White Turk … carried the line on to influential ends, as he appears as the sire of at least five mares in the GSB, including several at the very beginning of foundation families,” wrote Ann Peters in her Thoroughbred Heritage: Historic Sires. “The Sedbury Royal Mare, who appears five times in the pedigree of Eclipse … is probably the same Place’s White Turk mare who produced the dam of Brown Farewell, granddam of Matchem.” [Ed. Note: Matchem, also descended from Cade, a Godolphin Arabian son, joined Herod and Eclipse as the three Arabian-descended stallions from which all Thoroughbreds trace.]

Coffin, a daughter of the Place Mare, was another of the Cromwell horses Rowland Place appropriated after his Lord Protector’s death. An Introduction to a General Stud Book describes how Coffin came by her odd name: “Mr. Place … stole this mare out of Cromwell’s stud, and kept her concealed in a Whitechapel cellar until the search for her was over.”

Coffin’s is only one of the countless stories of passion, heroism, treachery, devotion and abiding love that have been written about Arabian horses since the fourth millennium BCE, when written languages began to appear. Innumerable words, written in hundreds - probably thousands of languages have described the past, present and future of humans and Arabian horses. Chronos, or finite human time, dictates the beginning and ending of each individual’s sentence, paragraph or chapter. Yet with every breeding, every foal born, and every person who becomes smitten by Arabian horses, a new chapter opens in kairos, or God’s time, and the story continues. “For what happens to the children of man, and what happens to the beasts is the same,” offers Ecclesiastes 3:19-20. “They all have one breath … and all go to the same place.”