About Arab Horses - Interview with WIlfrid Blunt
Pall Mall Gazzette 16th July 1889
Prior to the 'Special' 5th Sale at Crabbet Park, a Pall Mall Gazette reporter spent time with the Blunts at Crabbet Park.
This fascinating article provides a splendid picture of Crabbet Park in it's heyday.
To the diligent reader of his Pall Mall Mr. Wilfrid Blunt in his character of politician and ardent Home Ruler is well known, and it is enough to remind our readers of his attempt to bold a proclaimed meeting at Woodford, his subsequent imprisonment, and his gallant if unsuccessful attempt to wrest the representation of Deptford from the Tories; all of which made great excitement at the time. Mr. Blunt and Lady Anne are also known as travelers in the East, particularly among the Bedouins of North Arabia. But it is perhaps in his capacity of importer and breeder of pure Arab horses that Mr. Blunt is best known. At any rate, it was to see his horses and have a talk with him about them that I paid him a visit to Crabbet Park the other day. There is to be a sale of about a dozen of Mr. Blunt’s surplus stock, together with about as many more belonging to other owners, on Wednesday, “when,” as an obliging official at Three Bridges told me as I whiled away the twenty minutes or so difference between the official and the real starting time of my train, “there will be a lot of people stopping at this station, and fast trains which do not otherwise stop will put down passengers for Crabbet Park.”A large company will have luncheon, listen to much speechifying in praise of Arab steeds, see Messrs. Tattersall sell the horses, and attend the garden party which is to be held afterwards.
The mansion of Crabbet Park was originally an Elizabethan house, of which portion but little remains. It has been added to by successive owners, the later portions by Mr. Blunt. The principal portion stands four square, bold in character but not lacking in refinement. To one side the servants buildings are attached, while two sides are fronted by clean-cut lawns, and the fourth side by a little piece of ground about half an acre in extent, which has been allowed to grow wild. Here is pitched Mr. Blunt’s travelling tent, with an Arab spear at the entrance and generally a mare tethered close by. “This,” said Mr. Blunt,“ is what we call the ‘Desert.’ Some people laugh at me for keeping it so, but it would astonish you what a reputation it has got. I have had the Bedouins in Asia ask me about it. They think I live in England in the midst of a Desert.” The rooms are large and lofty, particularly the dining-room, which is hung with tapestry. There are many pictures on the walls, not very striking; one of the best perhaps being a portrait of her husband as an Arab chief on horseback, by Lady Anne, a work which shows very considerable skill. Lady Anne spends much of her time in painting when at Crabbet Park, while Miss Blunt is a skillful operator with the more accurate photographic lens.
Some Notable Carrier Pigeons.
There is much animal life at Crabbet Park. In the fields there were many cattle and mares with their foals, standing under the shade of the trees when I drove through. The stables were full. A couple of cats were chevying round the courtyard an old greyhound named “Fly,” a much travelled animal. There were Sussex spaniels in kennels, turtle doves in cages, fowls everywhere, and what struck me most, a large flock of pigeons. “These,” said Mr. Blunt,“ are all descended from two pairs of carrier pigeons, which were used to carry messages during the Franco-German war. They were given to me by the Postmaster-General of Paris after the war. Their descendants have been allowed to revert back more or less to the wood pigeon form, through want of breeding.”
We visited the stables, and I noted the wonderful docility of the animals, and their evident affection for Lady Anne and Miss Blunt, not to mention the lumps of sugar which they carried. Then we crossed to the fields where a dozen mares came at Mr. Blunt’s call, and followed us single file in a long procession. I afterwards led Mr. Blunt to expatiate on the qualities of Arabs, which he did with great enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject, and I give below what is as nearly as may be a verbatim report of his words.
The Breeding of the Arab.
“Is it a ‘fad’ this breeding of Arab horses?” I had the temerity to ask “Certainly not,” was the reply. “It is true our initial cost was considerable, out we now pay all expenses, and I have no doubt that soon we will more than recover our original outlay. I am glad to say that the qualities of Arabs are every year becoming better appreciated in England. When we began selling, nearly all the horses went abroad to Italy, Russia, and the colonies, but we now find a constant demand for them at home.”
“How long have you bred Arabs at Crabbet Park ?” We began in ‘78’ with fifteen mares and three horses, which I imported from North Arabia. Since then we have at different times brought over four new horses and one new mare; we have sold about seventy-five horses of different ages at our five sales at an average price of one hundred guineas.
I have now about fifty animals in Crabbet Park, and I shall in future have my sales annually instead of every other year.’*
“What was your original intention in introducing them into England.” — “I had the idea originally of breeding for speed, but have abandoned it; not that it would be impossible to develop racing excellence, but that it would take too long.”
“Was there not an Arab race got up some years ago?” – “Yes, there was. In 1884, at Newmarket, there was a two mile race; but as there were no other horses than Arabs, and as the race was not timed, it proved absolutely valueless.”
“Do you now breed for increased height?”—“I do not think there is any advantage in going above 15 hands. That height is quite exceptional in the desert, where 14 bands 2 in. is the average. Most of our mares are 15 hands, an increase which we get of course by superior and more regular feeding than the Arabs can give their horses. I now restrict myself to keeping the breed pure and developing the peculiar qualities of the Arab, which are (1) perfect soundness, especially in the legs and feet, where English horses are most defective; (2) good temper (they have not got such a thing as a kick in them); (3) beauty ; and (4) staying power.”
The Arab Pedigree and characteristics.
“My opinion is that the Arab belongs to the original wild races of Africa rather than of Asia, and was introduced to southern Arabia by way of Abyssinia, whence it is historical that he spread northwards. He was not known in Europe before the Mahommedan conquest, but since then his blood has spread through all lands visited by communication with Mecca, through the pilgrimage. The Barb of North Africa, the Andalusian horse of Spain, the Turk, the Persian, and the Turcoman have been all largely infused for centuries with Arab blood. The first Arab blood in England was probably brought through Spain and France, and later from Palestine by the Crusaders.
“The special characteristics of the Arab may be traced to the circumstances and necessities of Bedouin life. The great intellectual development, if I may use the word, and the great docility of temper, clearly come from selection by breeders who live in daily companionship with their horses. The Bedouin children are all day running about and playing among the heels of the mares. The breeders would therefore discard an awkward or ill-tempered beast, and by a long process of selection get rid of ill temper. Again, great hardness of constitution is necessary in a country which is subject to droughts, dearths, and violent changes of climate.”
“Did you experience any difficulty,” I interrupted, “in acclimatizing them in England?”—“Not the slightest,” replied Mr. Blunt, “we leave them out of doors all the year round except when there is snow upon the ground. The climate of North Arabia is as severe as that of England. The Bedouin system of warfare, which is the purpose to which they are put, accounts for their enormous staying power. It consists of long forced marches often of as much as five hundred miles, where they would be obliged to do as much as fifty to eighty miles a day, on no better food than chances to come in their way, and often without water. Then at the end they must have sufficient courage and spirit left to be able to manoeuvre in Arab lance fighting and to carry their masters back with the booty they have secured.”
“Why does one see so many grey Arabs?”—“The reason is that they have been purposely bred to that colour, to satisfy the Mahommedan prejudice founded on the tradition that the Prophet’s mares were grey. It is certain, however, that bay is the natural colour, because nearly all foals are foaled of that colour, and because there is a natural tendency to reversion. The Bedouins, as contrasted with the townsmen, prefer bay to grey.”
Bargaining with the Bedouins.
“There is no fixed price for mares in the desert, everything depends on the moods and necessities of the seller and on the particular strain of blood. However, you would probably pay twice as much as you would in England. I myself have paid as much as £240 in the desert for a mare.”
“But what would a Bedouin do with £240?”—“Invest it in camels for breeding stock. He would be able to buy about fifty camels for that sum. It is every year becoming more difficult to get good horses in the desert. To get the two last stallions we imported we were obliged to send an Arab secretly from Cairo, a distance of 500 miles, through the desert”— Mr. Blunt measured the distance on one of many maps pasted on a screen which is one of the features of the morning room. “He spent two months bargaining with the Bedouins. He had to travel a longer distance back, having to run the risk of encountering war parties by day, thieves by night, and all the accidents of a rough country. His whole absence extended over six months, and he had to pay in camp at least as much as I should have had to do in England. However, during the last twenty-five years great numbers of Arab brood mares have left Arabia, the Bedouins having been seduced from their ancient practice of never selling a mare by the high prices offered by Abbas Pasha when Viceroy of Egypt.”
“The introduction of fire-arms into Bedouin warfare, too, has tended diminish the stock; whereas formerly a well mounted Arab could ride into the enemy’s camp, pillage, and retire with impunity, he is now at the mercy of any old woman who can catch up a rifle. The system of warfare is yearly changing, and expeditions on dromedaries are replacing those on horseback. Afleet horse is no longer a fortune to its possessor.”
From which it would appear, concluded I, when I had taken my departure, that the future of the Arab will be laid in other lands and under other conditions. But of this we may be certain—that the wonderful combination of qualities infused into their horses by these fierce marauders, the patience and the strength, the matchless grace and nobleness of bearing will not be lost; that, as it took ages to produce him, so he will go down through the centuries no less beautiful and perfect than we find him to-day.