The Thoroughbred’s Arabian Ancestors (2024)

by Ben Hur (Western Horseman Mar 49)

The Thoroughbred is the oldest of the improved breeds of horses known to the world today and was first to be registered in a stud book of its own. There seems to be absolutely no recorded history of any particular line of descent of horses that antedates the Thoroughbred which has been maintained through the past two centuries. The most aristocratic of the Arabians have been kept pure, but individual lineage as exemplified by the modern pedigree system has not been preserved, nor is it deemed necessary by the Arab tribes. Nor could we place the Arabian in a class with others as an “improved breed.” Bedouin tribes maintained strains and families among their horses, and the strains trains and families followed the names of the female side rather than the male. The tribes did not change, alter or improve the ancient, classic type, and it was this blood which has been used as a foundation for all other light horses, including the Thoroughbred.

Thoroughbred is the name applied to the breed of running horses used for racing on the turf or track. In England races are run over straight courses, usually on turf, while in America tracks are nearly all elliptical in shape, the surfaces being cleared of all turf and stones and made as smooth as possible, to enable horses to put forth their best efforts. Thoroughbred relates only to the breed of running horses which have descended in direct line from a particular group admitted to registration as Thoroughbreds when it became assured that a fixed type had been created. Thoroughbred means bred thoroughly to the parent, or original stock.

In 1791 Mr. Weatherby in England published the first edition of his stud book, which has since become the official register of the pedigrees of all Thoroughbred horses in the British Empire. In the preface to the fourth edition, he gave a list of the Arabians, Barbs and Turks which had contributed to and helped found the British race horse.

The Thoroughbred’s Arabian Ancestors (1)

Wooten’s famous painting of the Darley Arabian.

He commenced by stating that King James I bought, on December 20, 1616, an Arabian of Mr. Markham, a merchant, for five hundred guineas, and added that he was probably the first of his breed to be seen in England. That this Arabian was the first seen is in the highest degree improbable, considering how many Oriental horses were brought to Europe by the Crusaders.

King Charles II sent abroad an official to procure a number of foreign horses and mares for breeding. The mares brought over by him, as also many of their produce, have since been called the “royal mares.” To this foundation of royal mares were bred three imported horses of Oriental descent: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Barb or Arabian. The Byerly Turk was Captain Byerly’s charger in Ireland in 1689, in King William’s wars. That he was called a “Turk” arises from the fact he was obtained in Turkey. For several centuries Turkey held mandate over Arabians, exacted taxes from the Bedouin tribes and often, in lieu of money, obtained Arabian horses. The outside world, in commercial intercourse with Turkey, learned to highly prize and obtained many of these Turkish Arabians which they called “Turks.”

The Byerly Turk did not cover many of the so-called royal mares but his descendants were noted for their superior form and speed, and the English Thoroughbred, through Weatherby’s stud book, traces back to him in an unbroken male line of descent.

The Darley Arabian, imported in 1706, was brought over by a brother of Mr. Darley, who was an agent in merchandise abroad. The Darley Arabian proved a noteworthy sire, the most important, in fact, of the three Oriental sires who founded the Thoroughbred.

Weatherby gives in the second part of his first stud book pedigrees of more than two hundred horses and mares of note between 1711 and 1759. These are all closely allied to Oriental blood, the first English stallion appearing to be Basto by the Byerly Turk, who died in 1723.

About 1730, in the reign of George II, the following imported stallions were in England: the Alco*ck Arabian, the Bloody-shouldered Arabian, the Belgrade Turk, Bethell’s Arabian, Burlington’s Barb, Croft’s Egyptian horse, the Black Barb, Cyprus Arabian, Devonshire Arabian, Johnson’s Turk, Godolphin Arabian, Litton’s Chestnut Arabian, Matthew’s Persian, Pigott’s Turk, Londale Bay Arabian, and half a dozen others.

The Thoroughbred’s Arabian Ancestors (2)

Godolphin Arabian, or Scham with ex-slave Agba in the saddle.

After about 1750 no Oriental blood, Arab, Barb or Turk, seems to have been used with success, although stakes for imported Arabians were run at Newmarket. All the most famous race horses trace their pedigrees between 1730 and 1750, through English sires, to the Darley and Godolphin Arabians. Said Mr. Weatherby in his first stud book: “Our best horses for nearly a century past have been either deeply imbued with their blood or entirely derived from it.”

According to Lawrence, an early writer,

“the Godolphin Arabian was a brown bay, somewhat mottled on the buttocks and crest, but with no white excepting the off heel behind, about 15 hands high, with good bone and substance. Artists say the crest of the horse is quite out of nature. however, from all accounts and the various representations I have seen of the horse, his crest was exceeding large and elevated, his neck elegantly curved, and his muzzle very fine. He had considerable length, his capacious shoulders and head the true sloping position, and every part materially contribute to action.”

William Osmer, in writing about the Godolphin Arabian three years after his death in 1753, said:

“Whoever has seen him must remember that his shoulders were deeper and lay further into his back than any horse yet seen; behind his shoulders there was but small space, before the muscles of his loin rose excessively high, broad and expanded, which were inserted into his quarters with greater strength and power than any horse ever yet seen of his dimensions. It is not to be wondered at that the excellence of this horse’s shape was not in early times manifest to some men, considering the plainness of his head and ears, the position of his fore legs, and his stunted growth, occasioned by want of food in the country where he was bred.”

The Godolphin was not used as a sire until 1731, when his first produce was Lath, out of Roxana, who was considered the best horse since Flying Childers. After Lath, until his death at 29 years of age, he was the sire of a series of prodigies.

The hand that fate had in making the modern Thoroughbred horse is illustrated by the Godolphin Arabian, so named after Earl Godolphin, who used and discovered his value quite by accident and was the last of his numerous owners.

The Bey of Tunis gave the King of France five horses from his stable. One of the five was said to be better than the others, one of the best of his best. With each horse went a negro slave who had attended to that particular stallion. The King of France was so unimpressed with these light, rather stunted Oriental horses that he quite promptly ordered their sale. The best of the best, the brown bay, fell into evil hands, becoming an abused cart horse about the streets of Paris. The slaves were given their freedom. Agba, the slave who had taken care of the brown bay, found his charge and was so moved by abuse and neglect of the horse that he offered to work three years without pay if the owner would permit him to care for the horse in the meantime. His offer was spurned, and the slave was deeply hurt. A wealthy English Quaker, in Paris one day, saw the owner beating the cart horse with a heavy club in an attempt to get him to pull a much too heavy load. Stopping the man, the Quaker inquired the name of the horse and found it to be Scham. Impressed with his appearance, he thought possibly the horse had been stolen. However, upon finding that the man was the rightful owner, he offered to buy Scham, and did. Agba, not far away, appeared and told his story, offered his services as groom and was accepted. Scham and the negro groom were sent to England.

In England, with good feed and the care of Agba, Scham soon recovered his original form and beauty. But he was “too much horse” for the Quaker’s family. Thy were accustomed to colder-blooded horses. They could not understand the vitality, the nervous energy which always was a part of Scham.

Scham was sold to a livery keeper and Agba dismissed. Scham was too lively for the ordinary livery hire, so he stood idle. Lord Godolphin, a neighbor of the Quaker, had learned of Scham’s history and was much impressed with the devotion of the ex-slave, Agba, to Scham. He purchased Scham and employed Agba again as groom. In the stable of Lord Godolphin, Hobgoblin was the chief stallion and Roxana the finest mare.

The Thoroughbred’s Arabian Ancestors (3)

Roxana, dam of Lath and grand-dam of Eclipse.

Agba used every persuasion to get Lord Godolphin to mate Roxana with Scham, but without success. She was scheduled to be mated with the famous Hobgoblin. To appease Agba, Godolphin offered him an untried filly as a mate for Scham. But Roxana only, in the eyes of Agba, was worthy of Scham. She was the daughter of Flying Childers, “swiftest, beyond doubt, of all quadrupeds” at that time. Flying Childers, as well as the famous Eclipse, were both sired by the Darley Arabian. Roxana, predominately Arabian in blood and appearance, Agba knew, would not even be acceptable as a proper mate for Scham, among the fanatical Bedouins who knew of only one law of breeding, that of “the purest of the pure to the pure in blood.” but she was the best in the land.

Agba became almost insane in his thwarted determination. Like a stalking animal, he became quiet, talked little, like a man who bides his time. He had made up his mind. One day when the great stallion, Hobgoblin, was in the small exercise paddock leading off from the stable, Agba suddenly released Scham. Other grooms were horror struck and powerless to act. But they were sure Hobgoblin would soon finish Scham. To the contrary, the smaller, lithe, quicker Scham was too much for the larger stallion, and kept wearing him down. The fight was fierce, as only two stallions can make it, but after awhile Hobgoblin turned and fled; he had had enough. Scham neighed and snorted and was proudly led back to his stall as conqueror by Agba. Other grooms thought Agba would be summarily punished and discharged at once, when Lord Godolphin heard what had happened. But after hearing the story, he deferred action and pondered. As a breeder of horses, the realization suddenly came to him that the will power, the unyielding determination to “get there” was even a greater requisite than speed in a race horse. Scham had something priceless which the bigger, mightier Hobgoblin did not have. Scham was elevated to head stallion of the stable and bred to Roxana.

Three years later a beautiful colt named Lathe, son of Scham and Roxana, was entered and raced against the best youngsters in all of England, including several sons and daughters of the great Hobgoblin. He easily outdistanced them all, coming in several lengths ahead. English horsem*n now eagerly sought the services of Scham and bred to him again and again with their mares of Darley and Byerly ancestry, until in a few generations his was the dominant blood in English race horses. Thus through a stallion fight, premeditately planned by the ex-slave, Agba (driven almost to madness in his attempt to have the worth of Scham as a sire recognized), was the course of history of the English Thoroughbred changed. Today, the pedigree in the male line of practically every well authenticated Thoroughbred throughout the world traces directly to Lath, the Godolphin Arabian or the Darley Arabian, and often to all three.

The Thoroughbred’s Arabian Ancestors (2024)


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