Syria Pulse

Syrians preserve prized Arabian horses amid war

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Article Summary
In the face of ongoing war, Syrians who breed Arabian horses have banded together to keep their profession alive.

ALEPPO, Syria — Unsurprisingly, the war in Syria has negatively impacted the breeding of purebred Arabian horses, particularly in areas under the control of the armed opposition in the Aleppo and Idlib countryside. As the government of President Bashar al-Assad has bombed horse-breeding facilities, and given the lack of many essential medicines and vaccines to provide standard care, the number of such horses has considerably decreased. Despite the difficulties facing breeders, they continue to exert significant effort to protect their horses and make do with the modest resources at hand.

Al-Monitor met with Sanad Haj Hassan, owner of Stables of Sham al-Araban, in the opposition-controlled town of Kafr Halab, in Aleppo’s western countryside. He stables 16 trained purebred Arabian horses and nine colts that are still being trained. His operation covers some 10 acres and includes a training track and the requisite stalls and storage areas for food.

“We begin taming colts at the age of about a year and a half,” Haj Hassan told Al-Monitor. “At that age, their mental capacity grows, and they can understand orders and follow them. It usually takes one to two years to tame a colt or a filly, after which they are ready to be ridden.” 

He said, “We inherited horse breeding from our ancestors. Arabian horses are a symbol of Arab civilization. They have a special place in the hearts of the Arabs. Stealing an Arab’s horse is as bad as kidnapping their child. I, myself, am passionate about horses and could never let go of them, no matter how hard things get.”

Having followed his father into horse breeding, Haj Hassan upgraded his stables a few years ago to accommodate a larger number of horses. He said, “Despite the difficulties we face as horse breeders, in early 2014, I expanded the [stables] and bought five new horses, defying the surrounding situation, with the sole purpose of preserving this cultural heritage and contributing to the survival of this profession in the countryside of Aleppo.”

The price of a purebred Arabian horse varies greatly. The cost of a male could start at $2,000 and that of a female at $20,000. The price depends on age, color, proportions as well as gender. Not many people are buying and selling horses these days, for obvious reasons, including because they cannot be exported. Despite the high cost of maintaining them under the current circumstance, some owners simply refuse to let go of their horses.

Haj Hassan remarked, “Horse food is too expensive, and we can no longer find medicine, such as vitamins, drugs and vaccines. The horses are often infected with parasites, and every three months, they need a certain medicine to kill this bug, but it is not available.”

In early 2016, a number of horse owners and activists interested in horse breeding financed the Fajr Arabian Horse Association in the city of al-Atrab, in Aleppo’s western countryside. The association provides medical care for horses and advises breeders on how to ensure their safety and guard racetracks. It also provides subsidized horse food to alleviate the burden of ever-increasing prices and tries to secure medicines and vaccines, which are imported from Turkey, in addition to holding periodic events to showcase the beauty of the horses. The association also teaches horseback riding.

Fajr currently has 15 members, who sit on medical, legal, financial, technical and media, training and statistics teams. According to Mohammad Yahya Nanaa, director of the association's foreign relations office, the group's leaders convene every two weeks.

“After the Syrian revolution erupted, Arabian horse breeders in areas controlled by the opposition in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib were unable to register their horses with the London-based World Arabian Horse Organization [WAHO], as they could not contact its office in Damascus. This is why there are dozens of unregistered horses, which makes it harder to keep track of purebred ones. The war resulted in various problems for horse breeders, in addition to the lack of horse food,” Nanaa told Al-Monitor.

WAHO, with members worldwide, shares information about the history and care of Arabian horses, providing advice and organizing activities for members. “Herein lies the importance of our association, because there is a crucial need to keep this profession alive,” Nanaa said. “Fajr Arabian Horse Association teams conduct field patrols and visit horse breeding farms in the opposition-controlled areas in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. There are 500 horses registered with the association, distributed over 25 farms and private establishments. Fajr provides services to breeders, such as medicine and food, and it also carefully works on maintaining statistics and registering horses with the WAHO.”

Fajr organizes races and festivals on a monthly basis, with the latest event having been held in early September, Nanaa said. Association events, part socializing and part entertainment, are also occasions for assessing horses' ability and speed as well as the chance of natural mating between pure breeds. In early August, Fajr established a club in the village of Beshqatin, in the Aleppo countryside, to train youths to ride.

“The association has organized visits to schools to introduce [the kids] to the Arabian horse,” said Nanaa. “We also have a work plan for an equestrian class for high school and junior high school students. The Fajr association launched a project to reconstruct the Hreitan International Equestrian Club, which was destroyed by the regime’s shelling of Aleppo’s countryside.”

Khaled al-Khateb is a Syrian journalist and former lecturer in the Geography Department of the University of Aleppo.

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