Category Archives: Desert horse

Book Review: Noble Brutes

Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, Landry, Donna. The John Hopkins University Press, 2008.

In light of a paper I am working on for WOCMES this year I finally read Noble Brutes. It was long overdue as Donna Landry is an authority in our rather small group of equine historians. She has published on horses as cultural agents throughout history, women writing, travel writing, imperialism and Orientalism. Combining all these elements resulted in the interdisciplinary work Noble brutes, in which she also touches upon Ottoman history, art history and military history.

The book starts with the introduction of “His lordship’s Arabian”, a phrase that characterizes a large part of equestrian discourse in 18th century England (and Ireland).  Landry explains how the Eastern/Oriental horse rose to tremendous popularity following the first wave of imports between 1650 and 1750, and shows that it did not matter at that point where the horse actually came from or what breed it may have been, there was a general tendency to call them Arabians.  She shows how various identities developed in the British Isles, such as English, Irish, Scots, Welsh etc., and argues that a similar movement happened in the horse culture at the same time. Eastern horses represented a legendary equine ideal that had already been formulated in the 16th century, however had perhaps more to do with the way of riding them than the horses themselves.

A  brief sketch is made of “Horsemanship in the British Isles before the Eastern invasion” when horses were still seen as property yet embodied a powerful symbolic. Owning a good horse and riding it well  showed that one possessed all the necessary qualities for social authority and political rule.  The idea of the horse as a ideal version of the human self was on the rise and Eastern imports would “revolutionize” this concept, as argued by Landry.  She starts by showing that the equestrian culture of England has always been based on immigrants.  The phenomena of racing was brought to the Isles by the Romans and during the 16th century, Italian and Spanish equestrian masters of ‘haute d’école, set the trend of riding in the arena.  It is generally thought that European horsemanship went through a “renaissance” following the rediscovery of Xenophon’s work, however Landry points out that we might look a bit further east for support of this rebirth of equestrian values.  She finds a foundation for her argument that the East was the place to look for the origin of the equestrian renaissance, in the existence of a vast discourse on horsemanship from the Islamic world, called furusiyya.  Although furusiyya has not received the scholarly attention it deserves and Orientalism has long been (and still is) so common that Eastern influences on European culture seem absent, the equestrian culture of the east has not gone unnoticed. At first through Italian and Spanish horse masters, English equestrian authorities discovered a more friendly way of approaching the horse, and found confirmation in their observation of the Ottoman’s seemingly very successful handling of ‘noble brutes’.

Landry eases the reader into the idea that there was more to the English admiration of Eastern equitation by explaining of what she calls “The making of the English hunting seat” and the “Stealing of a Turk”.  The idea of “riding like a Turk” is very appealing but Landry does not provide much evidence that the development was so directly based on Ottoman example. However, competitive as the English were in the wake of Imperialism, the shortening of the stirrup and posting the trot became viewed as a final departure from European example and the birth of a superior English way of riding.  Hand in hand with colonizing various parts of the east, many products from that exotic part of the world were naturalized and now viewed as rightfully English. The equestrian culture was no exception to this rule.

But Landry takes it a step further, arguing that through what Gerald McLean called “imperial envy” and the ideology shaping Edward Said’s Orientalism, the imported horses and their naturalized descendents became valued as the epitome identity of British imperialism; Eastern exotic and English appropriated asset of ultimate Englishness.  She uses the story of the Bloody Shouldered Arabian to guide the reader to the various roles this horse has played and perhaps still plays in English equestrian culture. Topics like the trouble of importing horses, marvel over their exotic features, their status as living art and especially the birth of the new genre of “equine portraits” that elevated George Stubbs, John Wootton and others to world famous painters, are discussed extensively. More and more the blood-horse featured in art and literature, while the equestrian society became obsessed with hot blood. Imperial envy was so strong that even horses born on English soil were often called Arabian or Barb, solely as proof of their hot pedigree and not as a reflection of modern ideas of breed identity. The idea that the Eastern horse was superior to any other breed prevailed during the 18th and lasted well into the 19th century.

But what happened when the English Thoroughbred, viewed as the mirror image of the perfect English self was a well established breed of its own towards the second half of the 19th century? I was happily surprised that Landry does touch upon that question a bit. As she opened the book with “His lordship’s Arabian” she closes it with “Her Ladyship’s Arabian”. The Eastern horse had now fallen behind its product, the ever faster and taller Thoroughbred and Landry shows that men now preferred their own ‘hunters’ to the imported stock, a shift that left the once so sought after Oriental horses in the hands of women. The “graceful and short-coupled” horses were perfect for carrying a side saddle and their willingness to cooperate with their rider gave women something of their own  as men didn’t show much interest anymore. A second wave of imports did happen at the end of the 19th century as European travelers went to the Orient in search of fresh Eastern blood to replenish the Thoroughbred stock.  As women were not yet ready to let go of their beautiful and exotic mounts, a new preservation theory was born and the idea to breed purebred Oriental horses ‘back home’ was on the rise, with the efforts of the Blunts mentioned as an example of these expeditions. Landry concludes that with this newly found purpose for the imported stock, namely to not only use it as a source for the English thoroughbred but to breed them as a breed of their own, the Turkish roots were buried in favor of the Arabian. She supports this argument with examples of anti-Turkish prejudice prevailing in Britain at the time, but I personally believe that this issue requires a closer look, not only in terms of the historical or political context but also into the motives of the individual promoters of the ‘newly’ created breed that we now know as Arabian horse.

A true Desert Bred horse

When we speak of a desert horse most people will immediately assume the conversation is about Oriental horses, or just  Arabian horses.  But the Desert Bred horse is generally also seen as a concept that no longer exists. But it does, in the Namib desert. 

The past century feral horses have been living in this vast land surrounding the Garub water hole, which has allowed them to survive.  Although the Namib is called a desert, the areas in which the feral horses are found vary in topology, geology and climate. Plains of sand and dry rivers aren’t the only features of the roughly 2000 km long Namib. There are also low mountains and desert gravel, which provide the horses but also their grazing competitors the gemsboks and springboks, their main diet.  When we think of desert climate we imagine a searing heat but the average temperature  in the Namib throughout the year is  18°C, making it a ‘cool desert’.

Due to the scarcity of water, grazing competition and predators such as the spotted hyena and the jackal, the feral horse population of the Namib has always remained small. The total number never exceeding 280 horses.  Studies have shown their ability to adapt to harsh environments to stem from their behavior rather than genetic extraordinary resilience.  Patterns were discovered in their ratio of feeding, travel and resting as well as temperature.

The genetic makeup of the Namib desert horses is however very interesting as there are many theories about their origin.  Since horses are not native to the south of Africa it still somewhat a mystery where these horses have come from. Among the theories about the origin of the feral horses is the idea that the Dutch and English colonists from the Cape moved upwards to what is now Namibia and took their (war)horses with them. Another possibility was that the indigenous peoples such  as the Khoikhoi, who are known to have stolen some of the immigrant horses and started keeping them, were responsible for the arrival of horses to the Namib.

Because the Namib desert horse resembles the TB and other European breeds, a theory about how a ship carrying English TB’s stranded on her way to the Cape surfaced. Although a romantic idea , it is unlikely that horses would first swim to shore in large numbers and then traveled approx 318 km to reach the Garub water hole. Another, more detailed, theory is that of the horses escaping from Duwisib Castle, about 200 km from Garub. German Baron Hans-Heinrich von Wolf bred horses there from 1908 until WWI broke out in 1914.  Although this story gives us a bit of an idea towards the time we think the first (feral?) horses may have appeared in the Namib, the distance to the water hole still remains an issue.

The first more serious reports of larger number of horses in the area do stem from the same time period. Union of South Africa troops were stationed near Garub during the war with reportedly up to 6000 horses. A German military report from 1915 describes the bombing of the encampment and 1700 grazing military horses.  It is thought that in the heat of the moment the Union forces did not manage to retrieve all of the horses as they quickly marched on the Germans, and the horses left behind considered the foundation stock of the feral Namib desert horse. Although this theory is very attractive because there is no large distance for ‘lost’ or ‘escaped’ horses to travel, it seems that it is unknown whether or not the ‘forgotten’ horses were retrieved by anyone or remained lost.

Kreplin among his stud animals on the farm Kubub near Aus. (photo: private collection Mannfred Goldbeck)

Kreplin among his stud animals on the farm Kubub near Aus. (photo: private collection Mannfred Goldbeck)

The most plausible theory towards the origin of these feral horses is the stud farm of Mr. Emil Kreplin (gestüt Kubub) in Lüderitz.  Kreplin was the mayor of Lüderitz and responsible of building the new train tracks up-country following the diamond rush in 1908. He bred horses for both the work in the mines and the railways as well as for the luxurious races as his town grew larger between 1909-1914. The Kubub studfarm was located close to the Sperrgebiet, a marked out area which the colonial government tried to protect by giving mining rights to just one company (Deutsche Diamantengesellschaft) and thereby rendering the Sperrgebiet forbidden terrain for all others. When the German forces fell and South African forces took over the Sperrgebiet remained intact under new ownership (De Beers).

Being one of the founders of the Deutsche Diamantengesellschaft, Kreplin used his diamond wealth to import horses for his stud. During the war he fell in Union hands but returned to his post as mayor of Lüderitz after the war, however he eventually left Namibia in 1920. His horses now left ownerless and fenceless are assumed to have wandered into the Sperrgebiet where they would be safe from hunters and other human dangers.

A study of the genetical makeup of the Namib desert horse showed extraordinary results. Only Blue Star Arabians have a lower genetic variation than the desert horses, meaning they descend from a very small number of foundation horses.  Surprisingly, the Namib horses fit within the ‘Oriental’ cluster, having a lot in common with the Arabian, Turkoman, Akhal Teke, Kurd, Khuzestan Arabian, and most interestingly, the Shagya (Hungarian) Arabian.   A bit further away they have a connection to Iberian breeds, TB and North American gaited breeds.  Most of the breeds listed here can be explained by the fact that there would have been Union horses among the foundation of the Namib desert horses. South African forces would have had both TB and local horses, that were the result of earlier colonial efforts of creating the perfect warhorse.  Indonesian horses, carrying both Spanish and Arab/Persian blood were brought to South Africa by the Dutch settlers. British immigrants later added the TB and Indian blood.  The only odd name on the list seems to be the Shagya Arabian. Who brought that influence to Africa? It may have been Kreplin as the Hungarian horses were popular warhorses at the time, but I have not been able to find records yet.

A couple of photos raise a few more questions. For example the fact that there are clearly some grey horses in the German herds and the various studies and sources about the Namib Desert horse state that there are no greys among the current population. It almost seems as if grey is not a ‘natural’ color, which leaves question marks  at the idea of the grey DesertBred Arabian for example.

Horses of the German colonial forces near the city Aus. Source: National Archive of Namibia
Horses of the German colonial forces near the city Aus. Source: National Archive of Namibia

The size of the horses of the German forces in some of the photos also seems a bit odd. Most sources state that they rode imported horses and also bred their own, suggesting they were not interested in using locally available horses, if there were any. However in the photo below it is clear that these horses are smaller than the suggested Trakheners of the German cavalry… Another photo shows an officer on a rather large horse, probably imported as it looks similar to the ones featured in images from Europe during WWI.


For now the ‘origin’ of the Namib desert horses will remain an unanswered question, however there is a very important lesson to be learned from their existence. They may perhaps represent the only ‘breed’ not created by man. The extremely low genetic variation suggests that they are now ‘purebreds’ in their own right.  As such, the SA Boerperd registry has accepted the crossbreeding of Namibs in their studbook following an experiment that isolated some of the Namibs in order to see if they could add beneficial qualities to domestic stock.  Because it is still assumed that any Desert horse has to possess certain qualities to be able to survive in the extremely hostile environment. Much of the talk surrounding the Oriental horses has claimed their appearance, and especially that of the Arabian, is a direct result of the breed being ‘shaped’ by the desert. Yet the Namibs have survived without the help of humans and do not resemble the Oriental horses they are so genetically close to, leaving a serious question mark in relation to a ‘unified shape’ of the concept of the Desert horse.

Some photographs of the Namib Desert horses today

Remembering a Desert Horse

I’m sure that the first thing that comes to your mind when you read Desert horse is the Arabian horse. Most horse lovers, no matter what kind of horse or breed they prefer, will admit that the Arabian horse is somewhat more a phenomenon than merely a breed. Without any questions asked, I too used to believe the idea that it had to be an “ancient” breed.  The answers seemed everywhere I looked. Numerous books, websites, YouTube video’s and even organizations connected to the breed confirmed the “thousands of years” of Arabian horse history.  Theories such as the Ancient Egyptian Prototype Arabian, the birth of the Barb and TB and many other current breeds are ascribed to the portrayal of the Arabian horse as the oldest breed.

But, as a naturally curious person I started reading more material and started asking myself why most of those books, websites and other sources do not seem to agree with one another on what exactly is an Arabian horse. Sometimes it was suddenly an Oriental horse. Sometimes a Warhorse. Sometimes a Desert horse. The only consensus seems to be the idea that the breed in question is a product of Bedouin tradition. So I started looking for answers there and it wasn’t until I discovered that many Arabic terms that are said to be related to the Bedouin horse breeding tradition are in fact not so easily interpreted that I realized that I was perhaps asking the wrong questions, because all of a sudden the answers weren’t everywhere anymore.

Is the Arabian part of Oriental horses or not? What is the definition of an Oriental horse? Do we call it the Arabian horse or the Arab? Why do we consider it to be a product of Bedouin tradition? Where is the evidence of such a tradition? When does that horse breeding Bedouin first appear?

Bedouin horse or Arab horse?

Most literature we have is “western” or more specifically European. During the renaissance of Orientalism the hype of obtaining Oriental horses suddenly reaches its heyday. Examining that literature the Oriental horse seems to be new phenomenon. It is presented as being a precious commodity, in need of saving, instated in the west as part of their renewed cultural heritage.  All the different presentations of the horses in question are merely memories of a past, as they all center on some aspect in history, whether it is ancestors, purity, imports, looks or performance. Thus the question here is not so much as where the Oriental/Arabian/Desert horse came from, but rather that of identity.

This website will be a platform for the collection and discussion of the infinite memories of the horses in question, through history. I have chosen not to use the wording Arab or Arabian horse as the identity of “Oriental” horses is not yet defined properly. However I will respect general consensus that the horses in question all have the ability to perform/survive/etc. in the desert climate and am therefore looking to remember a desert horse, and hopefully learn more about its identity or even various identities.