Investigations Team – Enab Baladi
For more than 15 years, the horse breeder and jockey Jamal al-Masry al-Fattahi has worked on writing some pages about thoroughbred Arabian horses. He is waiting for an opportunity to print the book, which may be a guide for hundreds of trainers in Syria, and a way to bring horses back to the area of interest, after years of war, which put its identity and origins in danger of loss and extinction.
Al-Fattahi inherited the Al-Arbikh farm for horses, east of Taftanaz in Idlib, from his grandfathers. He then established the Andalucia Equestrian Club and ended his 100-page book last year, relying on dozens of references and experience he has acquired over the years.
Al-Andalucia Equestrian Club was closed due to the bombing in 2012 after its owner participated in local competitions, notably the “Forgotten Cities” Festival in Idlib in 1998 and the Damascus International Fair in 2011. He also won the first place trophy in the UAE championship.
Al-Fattahi, a former member of Syrian Equestrian Federation, has been passionate about horses since his youth and has participated in Jumping, ability, and endurance championships, but today he is struggling to get horses out of a “bitter reality.”
The most famous horse breeders in Syria try to preserve this national fortune, amid the constraints and loss of hundreds of original breeds, and the problems of documenting what remained in the World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO).
The most prominent thoroughbred horses and their origins
The origin of the Arabian horse dates back to thousands of years, and the beginning was in the Arabian Peninsula, and then spread in the rest of the world, through wars, trade, and other ways.
The thoroughbred horses are inherently different on the corporal construction level, being described as warm-blooded, unlike the foreign cold-blooded.
According to some horse breeders in Syria, the Tatars and Mongols brought horses to be used in agriculture known as “Kadesh”, or katich as half-bred and non-Arab. Most of these breeds are spread today in mountainous areas.
The Arabs and the genealogists, most notably Ibn Alkalbi, categorized horses into basic origins. Enab Baladi summarized these origins from intersecting sources into five categories: al-khilat, assaqlawiyat, alabiyat, alhamdaniyat, al-shwaimat.
The most common species of al-khilat in Syria are dozens of species: nuakiah, khathliyah, krush, maznah alkbichat, alhdab, almaankiat, umm arkoub and others, characterized by strength, strong muscles, short legs, and large head and thick neck.
Saqlawiyat also is divided into different races, the most prominent of which are: Jadraniya, Al Abed, and Biri, Ndiri, which are polished with light bones, and a deep chest and a long neck and are characterized by the height and length of their head from the rest of the Knights.
As to alabiyat horses, they are tight, very fast and constitute the most common breed including : Sharakiah, Shiliyah, Afari, Ben Zidan, Ben sghirl, Ben Alwan, and others, while “Shwaimat sabah” is spread as the most important breed of the Shwaimat horses.
Al-Hamdaniyat breed is characterized by a well balanced body reproduced as a mixture of saqlawiyat and al-khila. Al-Hamdaniyat have a medium length neck and a large head. This breed can be subcategorized into mainly : Ibn Gharab, al- Samari, al- Afari, and al-Dahmma.
The horses of the Syrian North … a burden on their owners
Horse breeding in the north of Syria is an extension of the eastern region. It is the largest geographical area with thoroughbred horses at the present time, followed by the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra, and the central region in Hama and Homs governorates, in addition to the capital Damascus and its countryside.
While breeding has not been significantly affected in the Regime-controlled areas, the shelling and changes in authority maps have led to a number of obstacles that the breeders have confronted in the areas beyond the Regime’s control.
The owner of the Al-Arbikh farm Jamal Al-Masri Al-Fattahi said that breeders in the region still keep hundreds of heads of horses, stressing the damage caused to the field of breeding. “The horses are currently a material loss, not as they were years ago, participating in races and winning prizes, in addition to the vitality of the thriving market,” he said.
Al-Fattahi highlights the material losses this sector is facing: “We used to get bran and barley from the feed foundation every month after a committee determined the quantity according to the numbers of the horses, but the price today is very high … medicines are not available, except for the Turkish medicine that is spreading a lot, but having no healing effects.” al-Fattahi explained.
Some horses have been looted and sold without contracts, increasing the chances of loss of their breeds from the point of view of the breeder. Al-Fattahi stresses that those who obtain the horses in an illegal way “do not know their values, and a few even slaughter them, dry their meat and eat it.”
Munib al-Satuf, a horse breeder in Maarat al-Nu’man, in Idlib countryside, has 25 thoroughbred Arab horses registered in WAHO. He has some newly born ponies that need seals that confirm their breed.
Al-Satuf stall is one of the nearly 20 stalls in Ma’arat al-Nu’man and its countryside. It holds horses as much as their owners can. The daily cost of a head is up to $ 3 in the minimum.
The breeder Mamdouh al-Issa is pride of two thoroughbred horses that he owns. They remainedout of seven that he had to sell five of after he was displaced from his village of Tal al-Hattabat in the southern countryside of Aleppo, to the village of al-buidar in the same area.
Mamdouh talks about the most famous horse farms in the region, which used to include big farms like the most prominent: al-Jabri, Aliken, al-Anbarji and Shbark, which are all in Aleppo and Idlib.
However, the reality today is not “rosy,” especially with regard to the scarcity of medicines, such as “sorbet”, especially Normaktine. Small ponies’ vaccines and vaccinations against tetanus diseases are also rare, in addition to the absence of certain medicines for infections and colic, the most serious disease which might affect horses and may lead to death in a short time.
There are many types of colic which affect horses including Tympanic, twisted gut and sand colic, which is caused by eating sand. The thrombosis is also considered as the most dangerous colic resulting from the accumulation of worms inside the intestines of horses.
Fajr Arabian Horse Association
In the midst of the neglect of the horse sector, breeders sought to shed light on the reality of horses and revive the horse stock by establishing the “Fajr” Association a year and a half ago.
The Association sponsored two horse race festivals in a “unique” phenomenon of its kind in the north of Syria. The first was the “Badia Festival” in the southern countryside of Aleppo in May 2017. More than 35 thoroughbred and half-bred horses participated in the race under the slogan “Equestrian Brings Us Together”.
The Idlib Green Festival was held in the town of Maasran in early August 2017, and a club was launched for horseback riding training in the village of Beshqatin in the western Aleppo countryside in July of the same year.
The club’s administration considers that its achievements during the past period has brought a message to the world and the sector’s officials, but has not received a response so far.
According to the head of the association, Mohammed Sobhi al-Afandi, the administration has communicated with the Syrian interim government to take advantage of the remnants of grinding bran at the Syrian Public Establishment for Grain (SPEG), but it refused to provide breeders. The association’s director of external relations, Yahya Nanaa, explains non-response, saying that the SPEG is committed to contracts and cannot give any amount to the association.
When a horses owner is accused of unbelief as a pretext to confiscate his wealth
The eastern region of Deir ez-Zor has the largest percentage of stalls of horses. Al-Ahmad mentioned the most famous farms of horses in the region: Al-Dandal (about 40 horses), Hafl, Nuaqiyat Al Naqshbandi or Sheikh Wais, manaqiyat tarbouch and al-khdhir close to Abu Kamal and manaqiyat al-Narjas in al-Asharah in addition to the farm of Abdullah al-Sadah, who was accused of unbelief by the ISIS, and was robbed about 50 head of horses and ponies, according to the breeder.
Daham Alaw al-Ahmed, nicknamed “Abu Ali”, a resident of Deir ez-Zor, did not take his horses to the city of al-Bab in the eastern Aleppo countryside, where he arrived in August 2017 running away from the battles in the region.
Daham said to Enab Baladi that he left two of his six horses in the city of al-Asharah, east of Deir ez-Zor, with his friend, but he was forced to sell four to cover the expenses of his departure to the countryside of Aleppo.
Daham al-Ahmed has been dealing with horses for more than 20 years, and confirms that the region is still rich in this stock, although its reality was much better before the entry of the Islamic State. He said “Many horse breeders decided to leave at that time, some of them sold their horses, while others lost their horses because of transportation difficulties.”
Dozens of horses still exist in the area, although ISIS took over some of them under different pretexts. Many refuse to leave and take care of their horses more than they do with their children.
Before the revolution, the breeders stored fodder and medicines throughout the season, not on a daily basis, but the current situation requires securing fodder from the vast agricultural areas.
Raqqa province includes less horse stables than Deir ez-Zor, while al-Hasakah still has hundreds of thoroughbred horses, all of which belong to Shammar tribe.
The tribe owns the largest number of indigenous horses in the area. Al-Sanadid forces which are operating with the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and are responsible for all the activities related to it. The most recent of which was on September 9, 2017, at a festival in al-Yaarubiyah city celebrating the foundation of the Conservatives Democratic party, led by Maneh Hamidi (Abu Daham) al-Jarba.
The Ministry of Agriculture continues to provide the horses’ owners with essential supplies in regime-held areas, according to what the horse breeders in the region assured to Enab Baladi. However, horse breeders still suffer from the problem of horses’ CT scan, because it is only available at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in the city of Hama.
The South is Poor and Ghouta is Damascus Center of Gravity
The Syrian south includes a small number of horses, while eastern Ghouta is the horse breeders’ destination in the countryside of Dimashq, compared to a few stables spread within the capital.
Iyad al-Namari, 52, from Daraa, inherited the horses from his father. He told Enab Baladi that he bought four horses that were registered in the regime’s Ministry of Agriculture, but he had to sell them during the revolution.
The breeder estimated that the number of horses in Daraa before the revolution was around 150 thoroughbred horses. However, the number is likely to decrease to less than 75 in the present time, either because of sale or abandonment due to the absence of safe stables and the increasing cost as well as the lack of specialist vets.
Iyad asserted that he will buy horses when the conditions in the area will be improved. He noted that he sold his horses to his friend in eastern Ghouta. There are around 300 registered horses in WAHO, along with 150 unregistered ones, according to what the breeder Mahmoud al-Tutt of Duma has reported.
Before the revolution, all the thoroughbred horses were registered. However, breeding prevented some of them from being registered during the siege, which closed the area’s outlets and adversely affected fodder provision.
Hama is the least affected in Central Syria
Al-Nassif family, one of the most famous horse owners in Homs, has 14 thoroughbred horses in Damascus, 10 in Lebanon, four in Dubai and six in Kuwait, according to Abdul Aziz, who stated that the estimated number of horses in Homs countryside is 70.
Horses have been damaged in Homs, especially in the northern countryside of the province, while Hama is still providing a home for dozens of special stables, along with thoroughbred horses that were bought by owners belonging to the equestrian club inside the city.
Although Bukur Saleh al-Bukur, the owner of “al-Saleh” stables in Gharb al-Mashtal area in Hama, has been moving his stables gradually to Bara in Idlib countryside since 2012, his family is still participating in races in the region, according to him.
The different families in Hama are anciently known for their possession and breeding of thoroughbred horses,. The most prominent families in the field are al-Bukur, al-Kurdi, al-Khani, Teyfoor, al-Aqra, Sheikh al Ghunamah and others.
Al-Bukur owns 30 thoroughbred Arabian horses registered in WAHO, ranging from al-Hamdaniyat, al-Saqlawiyat, al-Nawaqiyat and al-Shuaimat. He explained that most of the people in the city have moved most of the horses from their stables to the equestrian Club, which is run by the horses’ Office in the Directorate of Agriculture. He also pointed out that Syrian breeders pay eight thousand Syrian pounds per month for each stall in the club. The estimated number of horses in the club is around 100.
South from Hama, the owner of “al-Bawady” horses breeding farm in Homs northern countryside, Abdul Aziz al-Nassif, still owns 30 horses, out of 170. He lost most of them when the regime bombarded the region years ago.
Abdul Aziz inherited horses breeding from his ancestors. Today he is running the farm in al-Farahaniya area in northern Homs. He told Enab Baladi that he sold horses to Damascus after paying bribes to the regime’s barriers in Teir Maalah and al-Dar al-Kabirah so the trucks carrying the horses would be able to pass.
According to the breeder, the horses were affected by the lack of medicines and fodder, and the difficulty of treating some diseases. He also pointed out that the lack of space caused by the shelling made horse training difficult for them, after having participated in championships in Damascus, Hama, Palmyra, the Gulf, and France.
Mustafa al-Ashqar, a resident of Homs northern countryside, stated that horses “have become a burden on their owners for years because of the high prices of fodder and medicine, which obliged the breeders to sell them at low prices.
“I lost my two horses in the bombing. I have one thoroughbred mare left now,” he said.
Al-Ashqar called specialized and concerned associations and organizations to take care of horses. He also called for preserving the horse stocks inherited by hundreds of Syrian countrymen from their ancestors, and for keeping them from being lost.
Syrian Horse Losses
Enab Baladi identified the most notable losses that have affected horse stocks, in different parts of Syria. Horses are either looted by ISIS or killed by bomb shelling.
In 2011, the tenth book of Arabian Horses Lineage in Syria was issued in Damascus. The director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Office of Horses, Mohamed al-Wadi, stated that this book includes 442 horses. Thus, the number of thoroughbred horses recorded in Lineage books in Syria reached 5033 including 2932 mare and 2101 colt.
He added that the number of births is up to 600 per year for the five main breeds of Arabian horses.
However, the head of al-Fajr Association, Mohammad al-Afandi, estimated the percentage of losses in northern Syria to be around 40%.
Al-Afandi stated that dozens of horses died because of shrapnel wounds or lack of shelter since dozens of stables were demolished. Horses were also dead because of hunger.
Other breeders in Ghouta estimated losses by 20% and attributed it to the bomb shelling of farms or hunger.
The most serious losses occurred at al-Jabri farms in Aleppo. Ihsan al-Jabri, who lives in Gaziantep, Turkey, stated that ISIS took over the farm, which included more than 100 old and newly born thoroughbred horses.
The farm is located in Raqqa road near the thermal station, inside Tayibe village in Aleppo eastern countryside, and covers an area of 30 hectares which is equal to 300 thousand square meters.
Homs and its villages had witnessed “serious” losses as al-Assad forces killed 17 horses in al-Najeeb stable during the raid on Deir Baalba in early April 2012. This stable was established 400 years ago and since then family members have been rotating its management.
Abd al-Salam al-Najeeb, a member of Syria’s tomorrow movement and the son of the owner Abbas al-Najeeb, said that al-Assad’s forces targeted the horses with an RPG. He pointed out that most of horses al-Najeeb owned belonged to al-Kahila al-Kharsa breed.
Only one mare managed to flee southward, according to what people from Bani Khaled in Homs have reported to al-Najeeb, who pointed out that 50 years ago the family sent a mare to the Lebanese village of Akkar. He asserted that “in case this mare does no longer exist in Lebanon and we did not find the other fleeing mare then this breed will be extinct.”
Al- Nassif family lost more than 50 horses in Homs, following the bombardment of al-Bawady farm in northern Homs at the beginning of the revolution, according to owner Abdul Aziz al-Nassif.
In addition to these incidents, breeders lost horses because they were displaced and headed towards areas where military access is prohibited.
Syrian Horse Stocks’ Sale and Smuggling
The sale of horses is carried out internally in the “liberated” areas. Sales continue through the regime’s committee. The horse Office in Damascus Directorate of Agriculture deprives the horse from its owner’s name to replace it by his new owner’s after paying 25 thousand Syrian pounds to complete the sale.
The Director of the Office of Arabian Horses at the Ministry of Agriculture in the Syrian regime, Engineer Mohamed Ghyath al-Shayeb, estimated the value of exports to the Gulf States in 2006, 2007, and 2008 to be around 40 to 50 million Syrian pounds.
However, the official told “al-Watan” local newspaper that exports and exchange declined after 2011 because of the sanctions imposed on Syria.
The price before the revolution was in Syrian pounds, and the price of horses was up to four million pounds and even more depending on the authenticity while the prices range today between ten thousand and fifteen thousand dollars (the dollar was 50 Syrian pounds), especially for the birthing mare.
The owner of Al-Jabri farm in Aleppo’s eastern countryside, which ISIS took over, says that, in 2002, he sold more than one thoroughbred mare to the Gulf at a price of 100 thousand dollars (five million Syrian liras when one dollar was worth 50 liras).”
The quality of horses or mares are assessed depending on the head and origin at first, and then they are assessed depending on their body’s roughness and their faces’ beauty and consistency, in addition to their wide and rough chest and their long and wide neck.
Breeders say that rare horses in the liberated areas could cost up to 60 thousand dollars and the price would increase if there were any identification papers of the horses.
Before the revolution, selling horses was carried out through the Ministry of Agriculture through regulated identification papers. Abdel Aziz Al-Nasseef, the owner of the most famous farms in the countryside of Homs, confirms that nowadays, the horses’ selling in his area is carried out by traders outside the besieged countryside.
Experts estimate the prices of national horses as half or less the price of those who are recorded in WAHO, as confirmed by breeder Daham Al-Ahmad from the eastern area.
Nowadays, prices of horses in Ghouta fell by half in light of the siege and most horses are sold in order to avoid their annual expenses and breeders rely on their prices in light of the deteriorating economic conditions.
In addition to selling them, horses have been smuggled out of Syria, but this is familiar. For a long time, many mafias have been controlling the horses’ smuggling operations from anywhere in Syria to Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Although smuggling operations have started since the early years in the liberated areas, they have declined and become rare since more than a year and a half. They have been active from the countryside of Aleppo to the Turkish province of Urfa, along with smuggling through Salqin and other border villages between Idlib and Turkey.
Breeder Jamal Al-Masri Al-Fatahi, from the countryside of Idlib, says smuggling horses was previously prohibited. The Syrian regime has been responsible for bringing them in and out to the Gulf, Lebanon, and other regions.
He talked about an incident he faced, saying: “the military security invited me for investigation because of missing two horses. They informed me that when there are missing horses, the breeder has immediately to declare the loss to the Arabian Horses Office to register them in its records. They are part of the country’s economy and this is a great responsibility.”
Even today, internal smuggling operations are being carried out in the regime-controlled areas. Concerning the horses smuggling movement between Syria and Jordan, breeders from Daraa say that they are very rare, as their prices in Syria are close to their prices there, and they are basically scarce in the region.
Registering horses in WAHO is only carried out through the regime’s institutions
“The committee used to draw blood from the pony to be registered, but at the present time its owner would send a hair through the committee to the WAHO, which analyzes it. If the hair matches with the father and mother that are originally registered in the organization, the pony is automatically registered as a thoroughbred horse and stamped by the committee. Its owner would then get its registration papers”.
The registration of thoroughbred horses in WAHO is the biggest obstacle that their breeders in the liberated areas face, since these areas actually have the largest part of this horses’ stock, while committees in the offices of the regime’s agriculture directorates control the registration in the areas under its control.
Al-Fajr Association estimates that around 40 per cent of thoroughbred horses are registered in WAHO, while 60 per cent of them are not, and they hold a national permission under the name of the Syrian National Horse.
A lot of national horses lost their genealogies because they were not registered, and the rest might lose their genealogies. Although Al-Fajr estimates that nearly 200 horses were born over the past seven years without being registered, it is still contacting the WAHO to find a legal way to register them.
According to Yahya Naanaa, WAHO’s public relations manager, “The organization has the idea that Arabian horses in areas that are not controlled by the regime are all spread in ISIS-controlled areas.” He pointed out that the association “has sent pictures and videos of its field visits. At this level, the organization was surprised by the documentation of thoroughbred horses in our region, but they have not responded till now.”
The office of WAHO in Damascus still deals with the registration of horses, and Naanaa considers that the breeder cannot guarantee the transmission of his horses to register and stamp them. He attributed the latter to the fact that “The regime’s institutions are not neutral even in these matters.”
Apart from the association’s attempts, breeders say that they individually contacted the committee in Damascus and provided guarantees to protect them when they are brought in to the liberated areas to register the thoroughbred horses. Breeder Jamal Al-Masri Al-Fatahi has also signed an agreement with the committee in Damascus. However, the factions prevented their entry, as he confirmed to Enab Baladi.
The registration of horses in northern Syria has not totally stopped, but it has been limited to few people who have close ties with others in Hama. Breeder Bukur Saleh Bukur, who is originally from the city, says he is still sending his horses to Hama to be registered.
Bukur said that he pays about 325 thousand Syrian liras, including accompanying the horses to the borders between Idlib and Hama, and the rent of the vehicle that takes the horses to Hama.
The breeder pointed out that the committee registers the horse for 20 thousand Syrian pounds now, but it was seven thousand before the revolution. He confirmed that his horses are registered under his father name in Hama and not his name.
The horse office affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture of the regime’s government announced that the 15th book of lineage was printed and sent to “WAHO” in March 2017. The pages of this book included 500 horses. The 16th book which will include other 500 horses is expected to be printed, too. This periodic process is meant to conserve the genealogical and expeditious transmission to the concerned authorities.
The office estimates the number of thoroughbred Syrian horses currently registered in the organization at about 7 thousand horses. It also states that it’s trying to update its database continuously by monitoring the newly born horses.
As the first integrated conference in Spain in 1972, representatives from 22 countries, including Egypt and Jordan attended, and then approved the recognition of the registration of thoroughbred horses in the London-based organization that carried its name since then, during a conference held in Bahrain in 1998.
Syria joined the organization in 1989 and established an office for Arab horses at the end of 1994. Engineer Mohamed Ghyath al-Shayeb was nominated as president and he is still holding the position today.
Syria hosted WAHO Conference in April 2007, in accordance with a periodic system covering all the countries cooperating with the organization.
The last year in which Syrian horses won the organization’s Cup was in 2010. One of the horses of al-Jameel stables owned by Hilal al-Assad won.
After being absent for years from conferences, the Horses Office participated in the last conference held in Bahrain in February 2017.
Horses in ancestral heritage: roots and symbolism
The Arab man, who used to hold a Bedouin life, was forced to move permanently, so he found that the horse is more than a tool and means of transport that enabled him to cross through the desert. During these long and dangerous distances, the horse became a friend of the lonely and homeless Arab.
The word “friend” is not a metaphor. Through their literature or even their religious texts after Islam, Arabs stressed the importance of communicating with the horse, confessing to it, and understanding its feelings.
Arabs, who excelled in shortening the distances they travelled through making poetry, devoted a tremendous amount of poems to address the horse throughout the long centuries. This creature shared with him travel, friendship, and the book of verse that he is best known for among nations.
Ahmed Yahiya Ali, doctor of Literature and Criticism at Ain Shams University, noted that the linguistic root of the horse comes from the mixing of the two Arabic words “imagination” with “horseman”, to take the horse by that name as a spiritual and magical dimension as well.
Amid the submergence of Arabian Peninsula in tribal conflicts, the horse was a very important common cultural denominator between conflicting and rival tribes, hence its importance to the “nation” collectively.
The thoroughbred Arabian breeds were attributed to their Arab tribes, and were given the names that distinguished them, until they became an integral part of this tribal formation like any other sane person.
This sense continued to travel from generation to generation until we arrived here. With extending roots dating back to centuries of fraternity and friendship with our ancestors, the horse became a symbol of originality, friendship, and loyalty.