The Long Riders' Guild

The Polish Quest for Arabian Horses
By Peter Harrigan

A little more than halfway from Kiev to Odessa, the town of Sawrań lies a few kilometers west of an ancient route of trade, culture and conquest.  Baltic amber passed this way for millennia.  In the other direction passed bloodstock of immense strategic value in its time:  Arabian horses.  Until the coming of mechanized warfare, horses – cavalry armed with lance, pistol and sabre – represented military strength in continental Europe, nowhere more so than in northeastern Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Then, Poland passed from a century-old Polish-Lithuanian union that encompassed Ukraine and stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, through Russian, Prussian and Austrian dismemberments and disappearance from the map for 123 years, and, finally, to national rebirth in 1918.

It was to his family estate near Sawrań that one remarkable Polish nobleman, Count Waclaw Rzewuski, returned 180 years ago from his own journey of discovery to the heartland of the Arabian Peninsular.  A year after the count, the treasures he had acquired on his travels arrived at Sawrań – on the hoof – and he spent the next decade living in an obsessive, self-created milieu that combined Ottoman and Bedouin life-styles.  When he disappeared in battle at age 54, with him went also Europe’s finest Arabian brood mares.

I had come to Poland to seek out the story of Count Rzewuski and other Polish adventurers who had traveled from the Ukrainian farmlands and Russian steppes south to the Levant and the Arabian Peninsular in their quest for the pure-bred Arabian horses that gave any cavalry an enormous military advantage – an advantage so great that it justified such arduous journeys.  Most of their stories have been obliterated by two centuries of wars, uprisings, revolutions and the long fog of communism.

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Polish-Lithuanian dominion once extended east into Ukraine and Byelorussia (modern Belarus).  Looking eastward, Poland stood as an occidental bulwark against the incursions of Mongols, Tartars and Turks;  at the same time it acted as a porous European interface with the eastern and Islamic lands.


Left:  The maximum extent of the Polish and Ottoman territories.

Click on picture to enlarge

To that dominion, the horse was essential.  “The life of a Pole was lived in the saddle, and for him indeed ‘a horse was half his well-being,’” wrote Erika Schiele in her 1970 book, The Arab Horse in Europe.  “He was so much one with his horse that it was like part of him, hence the Polish saying, ‘A man without a horse is like a body without a soul.’”

Extensive European trade brought to Poland horses of all extractions:  Hungarian, German, Dutch, Danish, Friesian, English, Spanish, Moravian and Italian.  Over time, as its advantages became better known, “oriental” bloodstock became highly, even obsessively, prized over all other strains.  Pure-bred horses from the Arabian Peninsular, known then as today as kuhailans, were renowned as light and swift, with even temperament and enormous endurance under the harshest conditions.  Moreover, because they developed as a singular breed, they were famed for the uniquely consistent, predictable way in which they passed on their qualities to successive generations.

In 1582, King Stefan Batory sent his equerry Podlodowski to the Levant to acquire horses for Knyszyna – the first such visit under Polish patronage.  Little is known of Podlodowski’s journey except the end of it.  He unwisely paraded his purchases in Istanbul at a time when the Ottoman empire was beginning to increase pressure on the Polish frontier.  Whether he was a victim of politics or banditry, Podlodowski was murdered, and his horses stolen.

From 1587 until 1668, Poland was ruled by Swedish kings, and suffered almost uninterrupted civil strife and wars with Russia, Ottoman Turkey and Ukrainian Cossack-Tatar armies.  Despite resupplies captured in battle, stocks of cavalry mounts dwindled.  During the devastating Swedish invasion of 1655, they were decimated. 

By 1700, it was not just for its military qualities that the Arabian horse was in demand.  The Ottoman incursions had brought the cultural contact from which Europe’s craze for Turkish and Arab styles, which became known as “orientalism,” had grown.  Throughout Poland and Lithuania, on vast and magnificent estates, it became aristocratic fashion to parade and ride on Arabian horses.

But the horse trade gradually reduced the quality of Polish Arabians.  Poles, assumed, usually correctly, that horses captured in battle were pure Arabians, for the Poles knew that Turkish and Tatar cavalrymen did not entrust their lives to common horses.  Yet because only the nomadic Bedouin tribes – not the townfolk – bred pure-in-the-strain horses, buying Arabians from dealers in Odessa, Paris or Istanbul was risky.  Even purchasers buying nearer the source, at markets in Beirut, Damascus or Aleppo, had little assurance of authenticity, despite florid “pedigrees” that often stated nothing more substantial than “this horse has drunk the sweet milk of camels and breathed the pure desert air.”

By the beginning of the 19th century, after successive Russian partitions in the east, Polish noblemen and landowners in the Ukraine began to take the matter of cavalry-building into their own hands.  They began to dispatch their own horse-buying expeditions.  Prince Heironymous Sanguszko (1743-1812), from a family estate at Slawuta on the Dnieper River, was the first to do so.  Led by his equerry Kajeta Burski, his expeditions returned in 1805 after a journey of two years, having obtained five stallions and one mare.  This was a success:  A handful of the finest, purest horses were worth more than a large number of those of dubious lineage, and mares were more difficult to obtain than stallions because sellers were more reluctant to part with them.  Thus ownership of even one fine Arabian stallion or one perfect brood mare meant ownership of what was, in effect, a priceless biological template.

Prince Hieronymous died in 1812.  His son, Eustachy-Erazm (1768-1845), took over the Sanguszko estates.  Political turmoil led to his exile, but in 1816 be underwrote an expedition to Aleppo that shored up the beleaguered stud with nine stallions and a mare from supposed Bedouin sources.  Prince Eustachy-Erazm was so impressed with his new horses that he penned ecstatic letters to friends.  One he addressed to the owner of the estate in nearby Sawrań, Count Waclaw Rzewuski.  “My dear Count,” he wrote, “I tell you the simple truth, that no eye has yet seen in our country such Arabian horses, nor has the ear heard of such as I now possess.”

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