Crabbet Arabians Past, Present & Future:
or, Why Are Crabbet Horses Still Relevant Today?
We are grateful to Betty Finke, author and collaborator on many books on the history of the Crabbet Arabian and a very well known professional photographer of Arabian Horses. This article is illustrated with photos selected by Betty
Over 140 years ago Lady Anne Blunt and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt established a stud for pure Arabian horses in England. Known to posterity as the Crabbet Arabian Stud, or simply Crabbet Park, it was to have far reaching consequences for Arabian breeding across the globe. Apart from a small number of remaining straight desert horses, you are unlikely to find any purebred Arabian anywhere in the world today that does not trace back to horses bred and owned by the Blunts.
And yet, if you mention the word “Crabbet” to present day Arabian breeders and owners, especially those who became involved with the breed in the 21stcentury, you are likely to get blank looks. At worst, they will have no idea what you are talking about. At best, they might have heard the name, but consider it something of the past, with no relevance for today.
SEFFER 1983 (Prince Saraph x Salilah)
100% Crabbet stallion exported to USA
As far as relevance for the modern show ring goes, they are right. A Crabbet Arabian is highly unlikely to win any ribbons at ECAHO shows. But, when it comes to relevance – is winning at the shows really all there is?
How and why can Crabbet Park, can Crabbet Arabians, still be relevant, 140 years on?
Let us go back in time for a moment, to the late 19th century, when it all began.
The first thing we should be clear about is this: the Blunts did not breed “Crabbet Arabians”. They bred purebred Arabian horses; authentic, asil desert Arabians. In order to be able to do this, they travelled to Arabia to secure the best and purest horses they were able to find. A few years later, they added horses from Egypt, from the stud of Ali Pasha Sherif, which were also descended from the best and purest strains of Bedouin breeding. It is perhaps not generally known that the Blunts initially imported Arabian horses in order to use them for Thoroughbred breeding. But they soon became convinced of the superior qualities of the pure Arabian and changed their plans.
In this respect, they were pioneers. There are older breeding programmes, certainly. The Weil Stud of King Wilhelm I of Württemberg in Germany and the Polish Slawuta Stud, whose horses formed the basis of the Polish state studs, date back to the early 19thcentury. But Crabbet Park was the first Arabian stud that was not established by kings or princes, and its influence is arguably greater.
Crabbet Park is the only foundation stud whose influence you will find literally everywhere in the world, and that includes Poland and Marbach, which still continues King Wilhelm’s breeding programme.
It also includes Egypt.
Lady Anne Blunt is the only non-Egyptian breeder whose horses were among the foundation stock of the Egyptian Agricultural Organization.
The average “straight Egyptian” Arabian carries between 20 and 30 % Crabbet blood.
Nazeer, the most influential Egyptian sire of them all, whose sire line has nearly supplanted all others today on a worldwide scale, was the grandson of a stallion bred at Crabbet Park. This, too, is something many people are either unaware of, or prefer to ignore. Even back in the 1980s – a bare decade after the closure of the Crabbet Arabian Stud – any mention of this was likely to make breeders and fans of the Straight Egyptian Arabian bristle. They did not want their horses associated with Crabbet in any way; never mind the fact that without Crabbet Park, their horses would not exist in the first place.
How could the name of a stud that used to be the chief source of Arabian horses in the Western world, a stud that influenced breeding programmes the world over, become a dirty word?
I think the answer is fairly simple. Where other breeding programmes changed with time, evolving into something different as requirements changed and fashions were born, Crabbet horses remained essentially the same. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, depends on your perspective. You can regard it as either a failure to adapt to the demands of the market, or you can see it as a refusal to follow the dictates of fashion. You can either condemn it as backwardness, or praise it as consistency.
Actually, both aspects are true to some extent, and I’ll get back to that a little later. Let’s go with consistency first, which I would certainly call a good thing – especially in this day and age. Because we have to take into account just what this consistency means.
The Blunts were concerned with preserving the original desert Arabian horse, and back in the 19th century, this did not just mean pretty faces. Yes, those horses did have beautiful heads, and Lady Anne had a lot to say about that; and she certainly wasn’t opposed to a dished profile. But that is just one aspect of the Arabian, and if you had asked a Bedouin, he would have told you that it was far from the most important. The Blunts were equally as concerned with conformation, limbs, movement, temperament – everything, in fact, that makes a good riding horse. Their Arabians, like those of the Bedouins, were meant to be ridden. They were nothing like today’s over-refined and delicate-limbed show horses. If you examine the measurements of the original Crabbet imports (all of which have been meticulously recorded), you will notice that while the horses were much smaller than most modern Arabians, they had a lot more bone. They also had knees and hocks you could actually see. They were by no means faultless – no horse is – and they were not as “pretty” as modern Arabians, but they could be ridden, which is more than you can say of many of today’s pretty faces. In the 19th century, nobody questioned the fact that Arabians were proper riding horses, and they were often used to improve other breeds. And yes, some of them won championships, too, because there were breed shows even then. Proper breed shows, where horses were stood up and trotted out properly and evaluated according to their merits, not according to the way they were conditioned and who was showing them. And apparently, everyone wanted those horses, because they were sold all over the world.
Surely, the Blunts must have been doing something right?
When Lady Wentworth took over Crabbet Park, there were a few changes, the most fundamental being the introduction of the Polish stallion Skowronek. We can safely assume that Lady Anne would not have bought this horse, because he certainly did not meet her strict requirements for authentic desert descent. He was, however, an exceptionally beautiful horse with, not only by the standards of his time, extreme type; in fact, Skowronek is one of the rare historic horses that might still be able to win championships today. He really should, because besides his exceptional type and refinement, he also had the conformation and legs to make a proper horse. This is why Skowronek, despite adding his own distinctive type to the Crabbet herd, did not change Crabbet Park in a fundamental way. There is little doubt that his descendants were prettier than the original desert horses, but they were still proper horses suitable for riding. The same is true of the other outside stallion Lady Wentworth introduced, Dargee, who was of predominantly Crabbet breeding in any case, with the addition of other desert bloodlines. In retrospect, it is a pity that Lady Wentworth never made use of her one authentic desertbred stallion, Mirage, selling him to the USA instead. His influence there has been huge, and he appears to have been every bit as pretty as Skowronek.
But the point here is that over the years and through three different managements – the last being Cecil Covey – Crabbet Arabians remained essentially the same. Which is to say that they did not look very different from their ancestors that were imported by the Blunts in the 19th century, except perhaps a little prettier. And those ancestors, remember, were authentic desert Arabians.
Which begs the question: just what are people breeding today?
By the time the Crabbet Stud was forced to shut down in 1972, Arabian breeding in Britain was changing. The first modern imports from Poland had already left their mark, and the first modern Egyptians were soon to follow. Only five years later, a stallion named El Shaklan arrived on the scene, who may be termed the spearhead of the movement away from the versatile as well as beautiful Arabian towards a specialized Arabian show horse. This is in no way meant as derogatory against El Shaklan himself; he was by all accounts a superb individual and a great sire, but he was also a game-changer. He was prettier and more refined than anything else at the time, the first European sire to create a fashion, and the first stallion that could be called a global sire. Other fashions followed, but the direction remained the same: towards ever more beauty and refinement. Globalization did the rest. With the availability of frozen semen and artificial insemination, fashionable sires became accessible anywhere in the world. The results are undeniable today. No matter where you go in the world or which shows you visit, you will see the same bloodlines, the offspring of the same handful of sires that happen to be the order of the day. The prevailing factor that defines fashion is “type”, which has somehow come to mean tiny, extremely dished heads. The deeper the dish, the smaller the muzzle, the bigger the eyes, the louder the shrieks of the adoring crowds. With all this focus on heads, which are now becoming exaggerated to the point of caricature, everything else has been neglected. Those ultra-refined heads often sit on bodies that only dazzle because they are frozen into artificially trained, tensed-up poses and rest on matchstick legs whose joints are barely discernibly anymore. Yet these horses win top prizes, and so the fashion continues.
Have I been exaggerating? Maybe a very little; but not much. No, not all show horses and not all show champions are like this; but too many of them are, and this appears to be the accepted standard in the show ring today.
This development is the very reason why Crabbet Arabians, like other preservation groups, are still relevant; arguably more so than ever before. They may lack the exaggerated refinement you need to win at the shows, but they have everything that was lost along the way. They are, in fact, just what they have always been: authentic. And that is a rare thing today.
Those old and unfashionable bloodlines guarded by so-called preservation breeders – whether they are Crabbet or old Polish, CMK, or Asil – are the backbone of the Arabian breed: you may not see them, but if they weren’t there, it would all collapse. This may be taken to refer equally to the pedigrees and to the actual horses that are being bred today.
Now, more than ever, we need breeders who preserve old-fashioned “proper” Arabians, with all the original Arabian virtues, not just pretty heads.
Arabians that can be ridden, that can compete in sports, that are unmistakably Arabian without being caricatures. Horses you could picture carrying Bedouin warriors into battle, and surviving. It is hardly a coincidence that the Arabians you see competing successfully in endurance, or in working Western disciplines, are most often Crabbet horses, or at least horses with predominantly Crabbet breeding. In Britain this has become a problem from the perspective of breeding, because many Crabbet horses are so popular as ridden horses that they never produce any foals. The Crabbet Arabian, in its own homeland, has become an endangered species.
In recent years, some steps have been taken to improve things. There are still a few dedicated breeders who stubbornly breed Crabbet horses, even 100% Crabbet horses, which has to be admired within the current market situation. There again, they are more likely to sell their horses to riders rather than to other breeders, which may ultimately remove them from the gene pool. On the subject of gene pools, the pure Crabbet gene pool in Britain has become very small over the years, giving too much dominance to Indian Magic and Bright Shadow. In this respect, globalization and the availability of frozen semen may prove useful for Crabbet breeders as well. Australia, for example, has preserved quite a different blend of Crabbet bloodlines, and several British breeders have already imported horses and/or frozen semen from Australia in recent years, which is should certainly prove an asset. South Africa may be another source worth considering.
Perhaps it is also time to think outside the box. Preserving 100% Crabbet horses is all very well (and should definitely be done to some extent), but it should really be more relevant to continue preserving the Crabbet type rather than 100% Crabbet pedigrees above all else. Breeding programs are not static. Crabbet breeding already changed when Skowronek was introduced in the early 20thcentury; if the stud had continued beyond 1972, we may be sure that additional changes would have occurred. At the very least, at some point a new sire would have been added, whose offspring would still have been known as “pure Crabbet”. The Polish state studs have shown that it can be done; the addition of new stallions like Monogramm and Gazal Al Shaqab, even Sanadik El Shaklan, created changes that were subtle, without fundamentally changing the original qualities of the Polish Arabian. This worked because the original Polish gene pool is a very strong one; and it is still working to some extent, although the use of “modern” sires in Poland has got out of hand in recent years. But my point is that the Crabbet gene pool is also a very strong one, equally capable of “absorbing” other bloodlines to some extent. This is shown admirably by stallions such as Rusleem or Aazari, who are basically Crabbet horses with the addition of El Shaklan. The “foreign” blood gives them extra refinement, making them more compatible in today’s environment, without taking away any of the qualities that are essentially Crabbet. I am by no means suggesting that Crabbet breeders should experiment with fashionable show horse sires – who are over-represented already – but rather look towards horses that conform to essential Crabbet standards, even if they may not be 100% Crabbet. The above-mentioned stallions are such horses; so was Ben Rabba. They have all three become firm fixtures in the pedigree of horses that proudly bear the label “Crabbet” today. There must be others out there. It might be useful to bring in another CMK horse. Why, for that matter, has no one ever considered a Davenport? They are pure desert horses and have the identical qualities Crabbet breeders look for. There are endless possibilities, really. It only takes dedicated breeders who are willing to take a risk. And if there is one thing Crabbet breeders have today, it is dedication. If they didn’t, they would not be breeding Crabbet Arabians in the first place.
Aazari 1992 (Arazi x Mareesah)
British National Champion 2002,
high percentage Crabbet
PALMA BENAY 2005 (Pevensey Safari x Petra Benay)
100% Crabbet mare imported from Australia by Gadebrook Stud.
With colt Palermo, owned by Moonlight Arabians.
Part of the ongoing effort to increase the gene pool internationally
And yes, it is relevant, now more than ever. Because if the current developments in global Arabian breeding should continue, the time might come when modern show horses have finally been rarified to the point of ornamental uselessness. If that ever happens, we should all be grateful that there are still proper, old-fashioned, useful Arabians left.
Betty Finke is an
Internationally renowned Arabian Expert, and respected photographer
find her extended profile here