Happiness shall be on its forehead
To create the Arab horse, God spoke to the south wind: ‘I will create from you a being which will be happiness to the good and misfortune to the bad.
Happiness shall be on its forehead, bounty on its back and joy in the possessor.’
(Early Arab saying)
Oman has through the centuries, been renowned for the excellence of its horses. Pure Arabian horses have long been valued in the Sultanate for their speed, stamina, beauty, intelligence and gentleness.
The breed’s history has been obscured by legend, but according to experts it had developed in Arabia by the Seventh Century. A compact, relatively small horse, it has contributed its qualities to most of the modern breeds of light horses.
Frequent references have been made to Portugal’s empire builder Alfonso de Albuquerque, who remarked on the export of horses from Oman to India in 1507, and to the 18th Century Imam, Saif bin Sultan, who was said to have had cavalry regiments with 90,000 horses in the country.
But the trade began much earlier. In 1993, Dr. Juris Zarins, the American archaeologist, who was excavating the fabled frankincense city of Ubar at Shisr in southern Oman, revealed his that his team was ‘particularly fortunate’ to discover evidence of a battle, probably connected with a power struggle over horse trading at about 1000 AD.
The breeding of horses – large numbers were exported to India and Mauritius – reached its Zenith during the reign of Said bin Sultan in the 19th Century. The beauty of the grey mare and the black stallion he presented respectively to William IV of England and to Queen Victoria on the occasions of their coronations is legendary.
But breeding decreased in Oman at the beginning of the 20th Century, mainly due to severe drought. It was not until the 1970’s that any serious attempt to restock the country with pure-bred Arabian horses began.
The Arabians are, above all nations, attached to their horses and the most scrupulous both with regard to their pedigrees and their care and precaution in breeding. The names, marks, colours, age and qualifications of all the superior stallions and mares are generally known among the breeders of that country.
(J. Lawrence, The history and Delineation of the Horse)
The Royal Stables in the Sultanate regularly stages ‘flat’ horse-race meetings throughout the winter season at its magnificent track at Madinat Al-Adiyat at Seeb, close to Muscat.
The season’s highlight, at the beginning of each year is the Royal Race Meeting when Sultan Qaboos presides at Al-Adiyat. His Majesty’s Cup is at stake on this occasion.
Horses belonging to private owners, the Royal Oman Police and the Royal stables compete at the season’s meetings which include races for pure Arabian and thoroughbred horses as well as harness races.
The meetings sometimes include exhibitions of traditional Omani horsemanship, displays by camel riders and carriage driving.
Horse racing is also now firmly established throughout the north of the country with a string of major meetings in the Wilayats (districts) on a winter racing calendar. It is not unusual for these meetings, generally held on an oval, 1500 metres dirt track to attract several thousand spectators. Races often get underway with a shot from the starters rifle.
A typical entry of 70 horses might be split into six races – two for pure Arab and four for a mix of entries including Arab, desert bred and thoroughbred.
These early morning meetings are accompanied by displays of traditional horsemanship as well as singing and dancing and public recitals of poetry. Omanis are very fond and proud of their horses and praise them in famous poems. They often spend extravagantly on the welfare of their animals.
And if that which was withheld of the reins is restored to her, she lets herself go at full speed like the darting flight of a sand-grouse which hawks pursue
(Yazid, Arab poet and warrior, Companion of the Prophet Mohammad)
Sultan Qaboos, who has a great love of horses, has done everything possible to ensure that Oman once more takes its rightful place in the world as a breeder of fine Arabian horses. He has encouraged people to acquire horses, to breed them and diversify blood lines.
Because there were so few indigenous pure-bred horses in the country, the Sultan began the import of Arabian stallions and mares in 1978, mainly from Britain.
Also in 1978, the Royal Oman Police, who operate a mounted division, imported a number f pure-bred and Anglo-Arabian mares and stallions to breed remounts.
The Royal Stud was established it Salalah, in southern Oman, in the 1970s. The temperate climate which prevails in that region is very suitable for breeding and raising horses. Salalah lies on the shores of the Indian Ocean, 1,000 km to the south of Oman’s capital Musqat.
To be classified as pure Arabian horses in Oman, the horse’s pedigree must be supported by papers certified by the World Arabian Horse Organisation of which the Sultanate is a member.
A description of the horse, its sire and dam, owner and breeder, are included in a stud book which is updated by the Royal stables. The Royal Stables now has all of the Sultanate’s horses – numbering around 2000 – on computer file. Of these, some 350 are pure Arabian and included in the stud book.
The Oman Equestrian Federation, formed in 1983, also helps to promote the popularity of equestrianism, particularly show-jumping and dressage in the Sultanate. Polo and the fine art of ‘tent pegging’, in which a rider at full gallop spikes on the point of a lance a tent peg, driven into the ground, are also encouraged as well as long distance fun rides through the countryside.
The federation organises a national show-jumping championship during the winter season. The championship attracts entries from the Royal Stables, the Royal Police, the Royal Guard of Oman and private stables.
Enam Equestrian Ground at Seeb, where many of the main show-jumping events take place, has been described as one of the top riding arenas in the world.
Apart from competing in domestic events, Omani riders also take part in international competitions at home and abroad.
Chivalry has always been a source of inspiration in Arab poetry. The horse has many exquisite names: ‘Swallower of the Ground’ or ‘Drinker of the Wind’.
We read one of the most vivid descriptions in the poems of the Arab romantic character Abu Zeyd al Hilali:
The grey mare is renowned, in the world there is none like her....
Spare is her head and lean, her ears pricked close together;
Her forelock is a net, her forehead a lamp lighted
Illuming the tribe; her neck curved like a palm branch
Her wither clean and sharp…Her forelegs are twin lances,
Her hooves fly forward faster ever than flies the whirlwind,
Her tail-bone held aloft, yet the hairs sweep the gravel.
Caring for the horses and promoting their purity has always been of great interest and devotion to Sultan Qaboos. His keenness in maintaining this noble tradition becomes evident when he says: “I have always been fond of horse-riding, ever since I was placed on the back of a horse when I was 4 years old.”