Layard, the explorer of Ninevah, who is as familiar with Arabian horses as he is with antiquities, gives in his late work on Assyria, some curious details respecting the true horse of the desert.
Contrary to the popular notion, the real Arabian horse is celebrated less for unrivaled swiftness than for extraordinary powers of endurance. Its usual paces are but two - a quick walk, often averaging four or five miles an hour, and a half-running canter; for only when pursued does a Bedouin put his mare at full speed.
It is the distance they will travel in emergency, the weight they will carry, and the comparative trifle of food they require, which render the Arabian horses so valuable.
Layard says that he knew of a celebrated mare which had carried two men in chain armor beyond the reach of some Aneyza pursuers. This mare had rarely more than twelve handfuls of barley in twenty-four hours, excepting during the spring when the pastures were green; and it is only the mares of the wealthy Bedouins that get even this allowance.
The consequence is that, except in the spring, the Arabian horse is lean and unsightly. They are never placed under cover during summer, nor protected from the biting winds of the desert in winter. The saddle is rarely-taken from their backs. Cleaning and grooming are strangers to them. They sometimes reach fifteen hands in height, and never fall below fourteen.
These horses in disposition are docile as lambs, requiring no guide but a halter. Yet in the flight or pursuit their nostrils become blood-red, their eyes glitter with fire, the neck is arched, and the mane and tail are raised and spread out to the wind; the whole horse becomes transformed.
The vast plains of Mesopotamia furnish the best breeds, and those breeds are divided into five racess of which the original stock was the Koheyleb.
The most famous belong either to the Shammer or to the Aneyza tribes. Their pedigrees are kept scrupulously, and their value is so great that a purebred mare is generally owned by ten or even more persons.
It is not often that a real Arabian horse can be purchased. The reason is that on account of its fleetness and powers of endurance it is invaluable to the Bedouin, who once on its back can defy any pursuer but a Shammar or Aneyza with a swifter or stronger mare than his own.
An American racehorse, or even an English hunter, would break down in those pathless deserts, almost before an Arabian horse became warmed up to its work.
Where thoroughbred mares have been sold they have brought as high as six thousand dollars; but these it is understood are not of the best race. The Arabian horseman who sells his mare can do nothing with his gold, and can not even keep it, for the next Bedouin of a hostile tribe who comes across his path, and who has retained his mare, will take it from him and defy pursuit.
Layard thinks that no pure bred Arabian has ever been seen in England. If this is so we can scarcely suppose that any have come to America, but must believe the so-called Arabian horses, given to our government at various times, to be of inferior breeding. Rarely, indeed, are the purely bred horses found beyond the desert. It will be a subject of regret, to those who admire fine horses, to learn that the Arabian horse is considered to be degenerating.