Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Just Another Pretty Face

A few weekends ago in November, from the 17th to the 20th, The Egyptian Agricultural Organization, the national Egyptian Arabian stud farm in Zahraa, held the National Egyptian and International horse shows, four days of some of the loveliest horses you could imagine.I went on the first and third days of the show, the days when the mares and fillies were showing because I'm very partial to the girls. The fact that I know many of the breeders who have spent their lives breeding and training some of these horses is a definite plus. It's always good to cheer for the horses of friends.

The history of the Arabian horse in Egypt is a long one. When the Arabs moved out of the Arabian peninsula early in their history of conquest that reached all of North Africa and parts of Europe, they moved with their armies on camels leading the horses that were used in the lightning raids on cities and towns along the way. The Arabian horse is one of the primary breeds in existence. They are small, fine boned, thin-skinned, and the originals were tough as nails. They had to survive on whatever fodder was available and, like their owners, on camel milk and dried dates when nothing else was available. One of the interesting characteristics of the Arabian horse is that it has fewer vertebrae than other horses, indication of how long the breed was isolated from the others. The Mameluke cavalry was famous for its horsemanship and the area where I am living now was once the horse farms for the Mamelukes. Like other famous cavalry regiments such as the Cadre Noir of France, or the riders of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the riders developed stylised versions of the war moves of the horses into a form of equine ballet. Known as the dancing horses of Egypt, these horses move in time to oriental music with movements similar to those of the high school of dressage. One of the favourite accompaniments of the horse shows in Egypt is a performance of the dancing horses, which often culminates with the horse sitting like a dog and offering a leg in salute. In battle, a horse that could sit or lie down on command could help an injured rider to escape the from the danger of the fight.

These days most of the Arabian horses in the world are not called on to perform in battle. A very versatile breed, they are used by ranchers to handle cattle, by endurance riders who travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles in competitions, and by people who just want a hardy, intelligent riding horse. Breeders of pedigree horses compete with them in horse shows that rate their beauty, as categorised by head and neck, topline, legs, and movement among other things. Arabs are known for their smooth, almost floating, trot. My own horses are not pedigree Arabs, but baladi, or countrybred, Arab mixes. They share the Arab intelligence and versatility as well as the small size...all the easier to to get back on should one fall off, not that I do that much anymore.

Halter shows such as that at the EAO the other weekend involve some major financial considerations. The mares and stallions that produce prize winning foals in the international shows often have price tags equivalent to the value of an expensive home in a good neighbourhood. I've personally met foals valued at half a million dollars each. Pretty impressive and way, way, way out of my budget. They are works of living art, these extraordinary creatures. They float over the ground and seem never to touch the grass, looking out at the world with wide dark eyes that seem to say to everyone watching them, "Well yes, I am utterly beautiful. Of course you are enthralled."

Some people are silly enough to think of horsebreeding as a business. For the very rare breeder, it is a business, but for most people it is an extremely expensive hobby. The investment in the buildings, land, and livestock to start breeding is enormous if you want to compete at the upper levels right away. Many of the successful breeders have been at it for over forty or fifty years now. Meanwhile, if you happen to lose a good broodmare, something that is all too easy, the profits of a year or two can go down the drain in a matter of minutes. Nevertheless I do enjoy watching these people competing with their lovely creatures, though not quite as much as I enjoy riding my own mongrels.