Horsing Around

25th May 2012

A new exhibition at The British Museum explores Britain’s long equestrian connection to the horses of the Middle East, and acknowledges a royal interest in racing.

Jack Watkins went along…

I once applied for a position as a research assistant to an eminent sports writer. It was soon clear that the chemistry between us was all wrong, and I didn’t get the job, but I remember how we fell into easy conversation about a mutual love of horse racing. It was the early 1990s, and the Turf, he said, wasn’t as much fun as it used to be, what with the dominance of the Arab owners.

In a way, he was right. At that time, wealthy aristocrats from the Gulf States – the likes of Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Hamdam Al-Maktoum, Prince Khalid Abdulla and Prince Fahd bin Salman – were carrying all the major prizes of British Flat racing before them. So, yes, it was indeed a vast change from previous decades, when English lords and their homebred thoroughbreds had ruled the roost. However, in another sense he was rather forgetting his history because, when it comes to the Sport of Kings, the Arab and the Englishman have been bonded for centuries.

This exhibition is billed as part of the Jubilee celebrations for the Queen, perhaps the best known of all horse racing’s patrons, but one of its sponsors is Prince Khalid Abdullah himself. His standing in the sport is even higher now than it was twenty years ago, as the owner of the mighty Frankel, probably one of the greatest milers of all time, and bred at his own Juddmonte Farms Stud. The show might just as well have been – and in a practical sense is – a tribute to the Arabs and how much they have brought to British racing through their continuing presence and enthusiasm.

However, it isn’t just an exhibition about racehorses and their owners. It also charts the equine contribution to human culture since prehistory, for, as it says, romantically, ‘the history of the horse is the history of civilisation itself’.

Horses were first kept for domesticated purposes on the Eurasian grasslands around what is now Kazakhstan, before 2,000BC. Up to then, it had been donkeys and asses, as shown in the beautiful Standard of Ur – one of the British Museum’s oldest, most prized treasures – who were used to pull carts and carriages. The horse’s gentler and rather more cooperative nature, as well as its scope and stature, meant that it eventually prevailed. In fact, for the oldest empires of antiquity, among them the Egyptians, Assyrians and Persians, it was their mastery of the horse that was critical to their military dominance, because it conferred upon their armies a commodity prized by generals throughout history – speed.

The Persians, said the Greek historian Herodotus, ‘teach their sons, between the age of five and twenty, only three things: to ride a horse, use a bow and speak the truth.’

The Assyrians had utilised horse power, too, but also put them at the centre of their art. A number of wall reliefs adorn this exhibition; in one of them, from 875 BC, a king draws his bow astride the platform of his chariot, while beneath his two fearlessly galloping steeds lies a prostrate lion. Always, equine beauty was a source of fascination. Years later, Benjamin Haydon would make a drawing of a horse’s head from a frieze on the Parthenon, dating from the 5th century BC. Already, in that cold marble sculpture, you could see the striking characteristics – flared nostrils, blazing eyes, bulging veins and pinned-back ears, the high-strung beauty and delicacy combined with strength and utter wildness – that would be endlessly repeated in horse art down the centuries.

Among Westerners, horsemen from the East had a legendary reputation, not least the Parthian archers who, astride nimble ponies, perfected the tactic of riding directly at the enemy at speed, then suddenly turning anti-clockwise in the saddle and firing off a volley of arrows over the animal’s rump. At Carrhae, in 53 BC, a Roman army of over 40,000 were so relentlessly harried by these horsemen that the term ‘Parthian shot’ entered the language. Similarly, in the Crusades, the cavalrymen of Christendom, with their powerful but less agile mounts, weighed down by heavy armour, would struggle to combat the more versatile riders of the forces of Islam.

Muslims regarded the horse as a gift of God. Furusiyya texts were attractively illustrated manuals of horsemanship with advice on riding techniques, archery, charging with a lance and veterinary care. There were polo grounds and racetracks and it was in the Islamic period that the Arabian horse was first fully recognised, although if you notice an Egyptian wall painting from 1400 BC earlier in the exhibition, you can already clearly identify the distinguishing arched neck, slightly dish-shaped profile and small, elegant head of the breed.

The Arab is a breed of horse about which you could go into rhapsodies – and many frequently have. Arabs are renowned for speed, stamina and temperament. Sound of wind and leg, and capable of great endurance, they are a symphony in motion as they gallop, noses in the air so distinctively that someone once nicknamed them ‘drinkers of the wind’.

And it was the Arab horse which became responsible for the development of horse racing as we know it in Britain, through three Arabian stallions: the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. As a result of their breeding with our native mares from the late 17th century there emerged the Thoroughbred, with most owners of members of the breed today still able to trace the ancestry of their horses back to these three stallions.

That the line remains so pure owes much to two remarkable characters: Wilfred Scawen Blunt and his wife Lady Anne Blunt, daughter of Lord Byron. Off to the Middle East they went in 1877, ready to pay top prices for Arab horses of immaculate pedigree to bring back to England, where they established a stud at Crabbet Park in Sussex. They were an unconventional pair. He took a dim view of imperialism and was relentlessly unfaithful. She thought nothing of going native, posing beside her horses in full Arab dress, some years ahead of TE Lawrence. They travelled openly by horse and caravan, but the importance of their contribution cannot be over-emphasised.

Sadly Crabbet Park Stud was forced to close in 1971, when the M23 was built over the property – symbolic, perhaps, of the horse’s displacement by the car as chief among an Englishman’s affections. Nigel Tallis, curator of the exhibition, sums it up thus: “Horses have been man’s constant ally for five thousand years. They are emblematic of humanity’s reliance upon the natural world. Yet in living memory they have vanished from most people’s everyday life.” Therefore, as he says, this is a show that might cause you to reflect on mutability and change.

More happily, you might even want to consider the undying popularity of horse racing, the first of the great spectator sports – look at the size of the crowd piled into the towering Epsom grandstand in flickering footage of Persimmon’s Derby win of 1896 – and still second only to football in terms of numbers through the turnstiles. Admiring the Stubbs’ paintings, the Queen’s racing colours, and the film of modern heroes of the racetrack, I think that even my old journalist friend would have to admit that racing still tugs on the heartstrings…

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