What Price Preservation?

By Betty Finke ©2001

Originally published in the July 2001 issue of the Arabian Horse World. Permission by Betty Finke to put on our website, Crabbet.com.  Arabian Horse World website is at www.arabianhorseworld.com

Some thoughts on the purpose and the problems of preservation breeding in general and Crabbet in particular. When we speak about “preservation breeding” today, we should remember that once upon a time, Arabian breeding by definition was preservation breeding.

Not all that long ago, the Arabian horse was primarily an ingredient that helped to shape other breeds, to the extent that there isn’t one light horse breed today which doesn’t to some degree owe its existence to the Arabian. The Thoroughbred, with its nearly all-Arabian background but, through selection, totally different appearance, is the most prominent case. It should also remind us that any horse breed is shaped first and foremost by its breeders, according to the purpose it is bred for. That is why the Thoroughbred looks the way it does: selected purely for speed, it is the world’s most efficient equine running machine. If you look far enough back in its pedigree, you will find that it is almost totally Arabian — what little there is in the way of non-Arabian blood hardly signifies. Yet it does not look like an Arabian — with a few exceptions, because the blood is there and will from time to time assert itself. Mostly, it looks like a horse made to run fast. And, incidentally, those who complain that French racing Arabians tend to look like Thoroughbreds should keep that in mind. If you select horses by speed only, that’s what you get — even when their pedigrees are pure Arabian. I am certain that it would be perfectly possible, by selection only, to breed a pure Arabian draft horse. Only who would want to? And eventually, if selected purely for strength of bone and the ability to pull heavy loads, it would no longer look like an Arabian.

If you’re still skeptical, take a moment to remember that all dog breeds, no matter what shape or size, ultimately trace in all lines of their descent to wolves. That should tell you something about the power of selection for a purpose.

The very first breeders of Arabian horses outside the desert didn’t just breed Arabians for their own sake. Their chief aim was to create a nucleus of pure Arabian blood for upgrading local stock. Wilfrid and Lady Anne Blunt, for example, whose Crabbet Stud influenced Arabian breeding around the world more than any other private Arabian stud in history, didn’t at first set out to breed Arabians. Their original intention was to bring in fresh Arabian blood to cross into the Thoroughbred breed. After getting to know the Arabian horse, they became so convinced of its superiority that they changed their minds — and history. You might say the Blunts were the first preservation breeders.

In many other countries, there were people like this, though few of them had a similar impact. But this is where the power of selection comes once more into the picture. Different breeders have different ideas, and as a result, different types of Arabian developed in different countries.

Now a newcomer may well say “Huh?” to that, but yes, there was a time when you could tell a Polish, a Spanish, an Egyptian, and an English Arabian apart just by looking at them. Something that, with the rapidly increasing interchange of breeding stock between countries and even continents, is becoming more and more difficult. The Arabian is fast developing into an international show horse with a melting-pot pedigree and standardized looks that mostly include a dished face, a long neck, a flat topline, and thin legs. Why? Because the same group of international judges who judge all over the world, tends to put this type first. So, naturally, this is what everybody who wants to win, tries to breed.

This is where preservation breeding comes into the picture. All preservation breeders, whatever they call themselves and whatever their preference, have two things in common: they don’t run with the crowd, and they see the need to preserve something that is rapidly getting lost. This “something,” however, can vary. Some groups, like Germany’s IGMAL, may simply be concerned with preserving the essential qualities of the Arabian horse rather than specific bloodlines, but most “preservationists” focus on particular bloodlines.

This is where the problems start.

The very first preservation group was defined by the Blue List, today’s Al Khamsa, and its European-based cousin, the Asil Club. The aim here was pretty straightforward: purity of blood. Pedigree research had come up with the fact that if you go back far enough, many Arabian pedigrees — most particularly those of Poland — ended rather abruptly somewhere in Poland with horses whose origin was not known. So, said some people, how do we know these horses were actually Arabians? They could have been anything. Some researchers even went so far as to claim that these were local Polish horses, from which it followed logically that Polish Arabians are not purebred. I don’t want to repeat the whole debate here, which is largely a matter of faith anyway; I would merely like to point out that the obvious answer to the above question “How do we know these horses were Arabians?” is quite simply: “Because their breeders and the owners of their descendants at the time said they were.” But the fact is, due to the scarcity of surviving records of that time, it is impossible to prove they were purebred (or, for that matter, that they were not). As a result, those people who needed to be absolutely certain that their horses traced to the desert in all lines of their pedigrees started to register those where this was possible, and to breed them “pure.”

Again, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. For one thing, the various “asil” groups never managed to agree on which desertbred horses to accept and which not. You may well ask what makes one desertbred horse more acceptable than another, but I shall leave that problem to those who deal with that sort of thing on a regular basis. The Blue List, for example, excluded several quite well-documented horses purely because of their looks, including the English foundation stallion El Emir DB (who was spectacularly ugly but whose credentials were better than those of some accepted horses) and the Crabbet-bred Nureddin II, who should be above reproach since he was bred by the Blunts, who were absolute sticklers for purity. Another British foundation stallion, Dwarka DB, was accepted by some groups, but not by others. Oddly enough, the Egyptian foundation horse El Deree DB, whose background was equally muddy, was never even questioned. Or not so odd, because excluding El Deree would mean excluding most of the really good straight Egyptian horses, who make up the biggest part of the asil gene pool ….

Some people tried to go even further, creating several “purer than pure” groups who focus on preserving only certain bloodlines — Abbas Pasha, Blunt, Babson, and so on — from the asil group.

All perfectly legitimate, of course, but the problem should be glaringly obvious. The asil group is limited right from the start, and, with the Bedouins of Arabia no longer available as a source of new blood, it’s going to stay that way. Sooner or later, you end up inbreeding; even sooner if you limit the bloodline pool even more. Purists usually argue that asil Arabians are resistant to inbreeding, meaning that they can’t breed on undesirable characteristics because they have none. But even if this is true, it still doesn’t eliminate the basic problem, and the smaller the group gets, the greater the problem becomes. Some exclusive groups, like the Davenports, appear to function surprisingly well, possibly because the original group of foundation stock wasn’t too closely related in the first place, and the horses certainly look more like the original desert Arabians than our modern show horses.

On the other hand, I have seen representatives of another preservation group, probably the smallest in existence, which was built up on the basis of just two horses who were already closely related. Their descendants sure look very much like their foundation ancestors — the question is, however: is this desirable? It isn’t as if every foundation horse, purely by virtue of having lived a hundred years ago, is the epitome of Arabian type and quality. This kind of preservation strategy leaves no room for improvement.

Another problem that arises is that all these preservation groups tend to exist in a kind of splendid isolation. We should ask ourselves, what is the sense in preservation? For its own sake, it doesn’t do any good on the larger scale. Even the above-mentioned, extremely inbred individuals of that small preservation group might actually be interesting as outcrosses, but is anyone doing that?

In all the cases mentioned above, the uniting factor is “purity of blood” — seen that way, at least the asil groups make sense; as long as you believe that the Bedouins or the Egyptians are more trustworthy than, say, the Poles. But the smaller splinter groups usually center on one particular breeding program as their target for preservation, and this has also been carried over into the non-asil population. We all remember the days when “pure Polish” or “straight Russian” was the order of the day, though this was more in the line of fads than of preservation, since these groups hardly need such efforts — though there are pure Polish fanciers who try to stay clear of later Russian imports to Poland, like Palas.

The case in point here is, specifically, Crabbet. For one thing, it needs preservation — more than any other bloodline group. The other aspect is that preservation is getting increasingly more difficult. In fact, it is a group that best exemplifies both the basics and the problems of preservation breeding.

Crabbet Park was, without doubt, the most influential privately owned Arabian stud farm in history, on a worldwide scale. None of today’s major breeding groups would be what they are now without Crabbet. Not Egypt, not Russia, not Spain, not Poland, certainly not the United States. Without Crabbet Park, there’d have been no Khemosabi, no Bey Shah, no Padrons Psyche. Of all the great horses of the last century, there are only a few Polish-bred horses that had no Crabbet blood at all. Nazeer, the most influential Egyptian sire of the twentieth century, was 25 percent Crabbet — a fact conveniently forgotten by many straight Egyptian breeders who are often the most violently anti-Crabbet.

Because the strange fact is that these bloodlines, which helped to shape Arabian breeding around the world, went totally out of fashion within a bare decade after Crabbet Park itself closed down for good.

The reason for this is the gradual shift in the direction of Arabian breeding, on a global scale. Crabbet Park closed its gates in 1972; it took another 10 years for the initially small world of Arabian horses to expand into a worldwide “industry.” Before that, each of the major breeding countries had its own distinctive breeding group and there were fairly few imports, resulting in the distinctive “national” types mentioned earlier. In Britain, the breed was at this point totally dominated by Crabbet bloodlines; the few imported horses were either absorbed into that pool with barely a ripple, or kept rigidly among themselves. These imports, most of them from Poland at the time, were already indicative of a reaction by breeders who simply didn’t like the prevalent type.

Like many other countries, Britain had remained almost unaware of the fact that there were purebred Arabians in other countries as well (other than the Crabbet “colonies” in Australia, America, or South Africa), and once they noticed that there were, indeed, other and different types of Arabians around, they divided into two groups: the Crabbet aficionados who didn’t think anything of the others, and those who experienced some sort of epiphany at seeing a different type of horse, and turned away from Crabbet for good.

Now everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and both attitudes are perfectly valid; the problem is that the second group slowly gained the majority. As the world of Arabian horses began to be dominated by halter shows, which called for a certain type of horse, more and more owners wanted that particular type of horse in order to be able to compete; and whatever the Crabbet horse is, it usually isn’t that type of horse. Which, in turn, makes it more valuable today than ever.

Confused? We’ll get back to that in short order.

As I have already mentioned in passing, the Blunts, who founded Crabbet Park back in the nineteenth century, originally intended to import Arabians for use in Thoroughbred breeding. They became confirmed pure Arabian breeders because they came to appreciate the qualities of the Arabian horse — emphasize “horse.” Back then, horses, and that includes Arabians, were meant to be used, and the Crabbet horses were. They were ridden, even driven, and some of them even raced (against Thoroughbreds, too). They also won at shows, but those were real breed shows, where the horses were judged on their merits as riding horses and breeding stock, not on the way they were conditioned and posed. It wasn’t enough to be pretty; it was more important to be a good horse. And no, some of those old Blunt horses weren’t at all what we call pretty — though I suspect that modern conditioning and photography would have made them look considerably more attractive.

Britain, perhaps more than some other countries, kept the emphasis on riding, and it still has the largest, and best, ridden classes at the shows within Europe. And more often than not, it’s Crabbet or Crabbet-type horses that win those classes. And in many cases, those same horses get left in the second row in halter competition. Because, as opposed to the current fashion, their heads are too straight, their bone too strong, their hindquarters not level enough. It is also easy to get them too fat, and when they are, they look like overweight cobs. And some judges dislike a lot of white, which most of them have. So, if a judge has to decide between a basically correct horse that shows nice, ridable movements, is a little too fat, and has four white socks, and on the other hand, a slim, well-conditioned, pretty-headed, straight-backed individual with matchstick legs and a spectacular, but totally unridable, trot — well, you get the picture. And because those pretty horses that have little outside the showring have all but taken over the scene — that’s why we need those others even more. If we don’t watch out, we’ll end up with a gorgeous Arabian show horse that may have the beauty, but none of the other essential qualities of the original Arabian horse, which was, after all, an extremely tough and athletic war horse. Which gets us right back to the subject of preservation; why it is necessary and why it is not easy.

Preserving the Crabbet horse is an especially difficult business, and a prime example of what sort of muddy waters you can get into when trying to define your gene pool.

For one thing: where does one draw the line between what constitutes “straight Crabbet” and what doesn’t? Or, more pertinently: does it really matter?

The original foundation stock of the Crabbet stock consisted of a group of desertbred horses imported directly from Arabia or via India, and a second group of horses bred in Egypt from Abbas Pasha stock. So, if you wanted to be very precise, you would have to limit “pure Crabbet” to horses tracing entirely to the original imports of the Blunts.

Unfortunately, the last horse to fit this description, at least in England, was the stallion Oran, who died sometime in the 1960s. Yes, there is a tiny group of straight Blunt horses in the U.S., and one British breeder actually imported two mares, but they are being bred to Egyptian stallions; another imported a stallion, but his stock is never seen. In any case, these horses are simply too few, and their pedigrees represent only a very small part of the foundation stock.

The reason for this situation is that the Blunts’ daughter, Lady Wentworth, added the Polish stallion Skowronek to the Crabbet Stud, with the result that, with the few exceptions mentioned above, there are no straight Blunt horses. In other words, “pure Crabbet” usually equals “Blunt plus Skowronek.” But that’s not the last of it. Lady Wentworth also added the stallion Dargee, who was mostly of Blunt descent, but also carried lines to a few other desertbred imports that had nothing to do with Crabbet Park, like Dwarka DB, Mootrub DB, and El Emir DB. Dargee’s Crabbet-bred descendants are usually regarded as pure Crabbet. But what about horses that carry those lines in addition to Blunt/Skowronek, but not through Crabbet-bred horses? A case in point is the stallion Mikeno, who was pure Crabbet (in fact, pure Blunt, no Skowronek) with the addition of the same non-Crabbet DB lines that Dargee carried.

That’s still not all. During the last years of Crabbet Park, an outside stallion was used, Darjeel, who was by Dargee out of a mare descended from the mare Nuhra DB, who had nothing to do with Crabbet. So, since Nuhra’s blood got into Crabbet, does that qualify other Nuhra descendants as Crabbet?

This serves to show how tricky this kind of “straight” thinking can get.

Someone came up with the handy term of “Crabbet/Old English” to define all these horses, which was actually a very good idea and sums all these horses up neatly.

This also gets us to another problem that I regard as the basic fallacy of all strict bloodline preservation programs. If you insist on breeding “straight” according to some no longer existing breeding program, you suppose that the original program would never have added any outside blood. This is neither true nor practical, and Crabbet demonstrates this perfectly. Lady Wentworth added both Skowronek and Dargee, adding (in Skowronek’s case) totally new genes to the program, and taking it forward a step. One can hardly argue the point that the Crabbet horses after Skowronek were more beautiful than those before him; whatever one may think of him, he added much in the way of type. If Crabbet Park still existed, I have no doubt that in time, other bloodlines would have been introduced. This is true of most other programs targeted for straight breeding. Poland’s state studs have always brought in new blood, beginning with Negatiw and *Naborr, continuing through Palas and Parma right down to Monogramm and, most recently, Sanadik El Shaklan. Are the descendants of these horses pure Polish? It’s up to the individual breeder to decide. Does it matter? No, not as long as they’re good horses and embody what the Polish Arabian has become famous for. And they do, no doubt about that.

Which gets me to the final, and central point: what is the goal of preservation?

More precisely: what do we want to preserve? In too many cases, it has become simply a matter of the right pedigree; never mind the horse. But breeding pedigrees seems, to me at least, to be beside the point. Yes, it is the easiest way to go about it: collect horses with the right pedigrees and breed them, and you automatically get more horses with the right pedigree. Which is all very well; but what use is a good pedigree if it belongs to a substandard horse? Preservation shouldn’t be about preserving straight pedigrees, but about preserving those qualities the bloodlines were famous for. These qualities often appear in horses that may not be straight, but strongly influenced by those bloodlines. Many Russian horses, for example, are wonderful examples of Crabbet type; which isn’t all that surprising, since they carry a strong percentage of Crabbet blood. I personally suspect that Lady Wentworth, were she alive today, might want to use a horse like Padrons Psyche. The older Crabbet type, favored by the Blunts, still tends to turn up in Egyptian horses, thanks to the Blunt-bred horses that were imported to Egypt.

The Babson imports had a lot of this blood; and it isn’t surprising to find that the Babson stallion The Shah, who was imported to Britain back in the 1970s, in combination with Crabbet mares got some very Blunt-like stock. That is to say, there are qualities of Crabbet Park which are more easily found today in horses that are not necessarily pure Crabbet or even Crabbet/OE. It’s a sad fact that the remaining actual pure Crabbet stock, at least in Britain, is very much reduced in numbers as well as in bloodlines. There has been a strong shift in British breeding; many of the old Crabbet breeders have either died or stopped breeding. During the last few years, many of the mainstays of British breeding simply vanished from the scene, while new breeding farms shot up all over the place, all based on imported stock. Some of the remaining older breeders started to breed their English mares to imported stallions.

In recent years, a few dedicated Crabbet breeders have got together to register and promote the remaining horses, but these horses are too few, and mostly of similar breeding, with an overemphasis on the two lines of Indian Magic and Bright Shadow. Actually registering these horses and getting the breeders organized is a start, but it has to go on from there. Other countries have other Crabbet stock — Australia, for example, probably has the largest number of Crabbet horses in the world, including some lines that are lost in Britain. If the Crabbet horse is to be preserved, two courses could and should be followed. In breeding pure Crabbet horses, there should be some international cooperation and an exchange of bloodlines; in these days of frozen semen, this could be done even without expensive importations. Such an exchange could also involve horses of predominantly, but not all, Crabbet breeding that have the right characteristics, as exemplified by the CMK group (Ben Rabba, who was leased to England for exactly such a project, is a good example, but it takes more than just one horse to get there). The other course would be the use of carefully selected stallions with the right characteristics on Crabbet mares, the next step being to breed the resulting stock back into the Crabbet gene pool. In short, a horse suitable for this kind of preservation project should never be excluded simply because his pedigree might contain some “wrong” blood. What we need here is not “pride and prejudice,” but “sense and sensibility.” It would be a long-term project, it would take a lot of people to work together on a worldwide basis, it would need some sort of coordination — a kind of International Crabbet Studbook, perhaps — and it would also need the promotion to accompany it and get the Crabbet horse back into the spotlight.

Sound impossible? I don’t think it is; but it would be very difficult. But then, preservation isn’t easy; just as breeding good horses isn’t easy in the first place. Having a specific goal in mind, and being limited in your gene pool, doesn’t make things easier.

Breeding “paper horses” is easy — preservation breeding, if it is supposed to mean something, is not. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work and more than just one lifetime, because you’re working for something that hopefully will last longer than you do. Remember, what the Blunts started back in the nineteenth century has survived until the present day.

And it’s up to us to ensure that it continues to do so — not just as a collection of names on paper, but as a true, in-the-flesh representative of its great heritage.

**All of the articles included in the re-launched Crabbet.com site from the original website, Georgia Cheer, Silver Monarch Publishing and The Crabbet Influence magazine are shared here with permission of Georgia Cheer given May 16, 2012.**

Last Updated: January 21st, 2019

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