Prized Arabian steeds reduced to living inside house, 'all I care about is keeping them safe'

Hamza al-Idlibi trains his horses to be ready to ride at a moment’s notice.

One year ago, he fled his village in the southern Idlib countryside after his house was demolished in an airstrike.

“If it weren’t for my love for these horses, I would have left them,” al-Idlibi told Syria Direct’s Dima al-Dimashqi, speaking on the condition of a pseudonym.

Instead, he took his five remaining horses—some have been stolen, some killed by airstrikes—and settled in a nearby town in the rebel-held northwest province.

Idlibi is part a long line of Arabian horse breeders from rural Idlib and Aleppo. Breeding and raising Arabian horses, known for a strong frame and affable nature, goes back generations in his tribe.

Despite the financial difficulties of displacement and regime shelling in the Idlib countryside, the 26-year-old says he is attempting to preserve his family’s lineage of Arabian horse breeding.

 A race at the 2006 World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO) conference in Syria. Photo courtesy of WAHO.

With no stables, al-Idlibi keeps his horses cramped in the rooms of his home, training them in a small courtyard.

“They’re prisoners in these rooms,” he said. “I don’t know whether I can stay patient and hold onto them, or if this ferocious war will force me to sell them to make a living.”

Q: Could you speak to some of the difficulties you and your horses have faced during the war?

Unfortunately, I’ve lost several horses to this war. Some were killed by warplanes and others stolen from me, [likely] to be sold in Turkey. An Arabian horse can sell for $2,000 to $20,000 depending on its specifications. The Arabian horse is priceless, though, with a lineage going back generations. 

Bombardment is a threat to our lives and the lives of the horses on the one hand. Robbers threaten us with theft on the other.

There’s no support from regime or opposition ministries. All I care about is feeding my horses and finding a place to keep them safe from the shelling.

If it weren’t for my love for these horses, I would have left them when I fled my village. I don’t know whether I can stay patient and hold onto them or if this ferocious war will force me to sell them to make a living.

Q: With the war in Syria now entering its seventh year, how has horse training and breeding been affected?

In rural Aleppo and Idlib, Arabian horse owners are struggling with high prices. We lack the resources to pay for horse feed, vitamins and medicines.

Horses often become infected with parasites from grazing. We desperately need medication to kill the parasites and worms, but it’s nowhere to be found.

For horse owners, it’s also difficult to get identification documents to certify ownership of a pure Arabian horse. The state used to provide registration services so owners could present all of the necessary documentation (date of birth, mother’s name) and obtain a studbook immediately after the birth of a colt.

[Ed.: In animal husbandry, a studbook is a form of registration which certifies an animal’s breed, often including a chart which tracks the animal’s lineage.]

 2006 World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO) conference in Syria. Photo courtesy of WAHO.

Q: The World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO) is an international body whose objective it is “to preserve, improve and maintain the purity” of Arabian horses and ensure the development of acceptable standards for registration. Did you contact them after opposition forces took your village in the Idlib countryside from regime control?

WAHO is responsible for registering and branding horses under the supervision of the regime’s Ministry of Agriculture.

WAHO’s committees used to come and perform blood tests [to identify the horse’s breed] and keep track of the lineage, but now our region is no longer under regime control. We’ve lost communication with the organization.

We wonder why the organization no longer registers horses in opposition territories. No one is stopping them from entering our region. Isn’t this their responsibility?

Q: What are your options for protecting the lineage of your horses?

I own five horses, two of them registered. I still own the horses’ mother so the lineage is intact, but if I transferred ownership to anyone else, the lineage would be lost.

Q: Breeding horses demands time and effort on the part of the owners. How are you able to stay devoted to your horses despite the difficult circumstances around you?

I’m an Arab from a tribe in which horse breeding and training have been passed down from the time of our ancestors. A pure Arabian horse is a symbol of the Arab civilization, distinguishing itself with a face as radiant as the break of day. For us, it’s a form of honor. If someone insults your horse, it’s like they’ve insulted your wife. I love my horses. I’m always by their side and I can’t be easily separated from them.

Q: Are you still breeding and raising horses? Could you speak to how the wartime conditions have affected that process?

Before I fled my village, my horses would freely graze through a large field. Now, I train them in a small courtyard, 20 meters by 20 meters. As I raise my horses, I train them to be ready to ride if we need to escape the shelling and flee.

Q: With the threat of constant shelling and artillery fire, are your stables able to keep the horses safe and secure?

I don’t have proper stables for my horses. I’m forced to keep my horses in regular rooms. With my experience raising horses, I can make do with what I have.

The bombardments terrify me, though. I could put up [sandbag] walls to protect my horses from the shelling, but that’s very tough financially. Plus, I’m a displaced resident, a veritable guest on this land, and there’s the continual threat of displacement.  

I can’t keep them locked up in the rooms all the time. They desperately need sunlight. They’re prisoners in these rooms.

Q: You helped organize a series of horse races in the Idlib countryside. How did you find support for the race? How does it benefit the horses and the owners?

Races are the most important aspect of owning a horse. They test speed and stamina, showing who has the genes for speed. We mate the winning mare and winning stallion in order to ensure there’s a new generation of fast and strong horses.

Horse owners organize a race each week, but unfortunately, we don’t have any support. The participants pay for the cost of transport, vitamins and horse feed.

It’s a way to ease the pressure of the war.

Dima al-Dimashqi

Dima grew up in Old Damascus before moving to Egypt to finish her degree in Islamic Law. She joined the Syria Direct training program because she believes quality journalism can contribute to the rebuilding of her country.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.