Deserts of Arabia give life to beautiful Sussex horses

The Arabian horse is considered to be the most beautiful equine breed in the world.

Saturday, 4th August 2018, 12:17 pm
Updated Friday, 31st August 2018, 5:10 pm
Two images of Lady Anne Blunt. In the second she is in Middle East garb alongside an Arab horse at the Crabbet Park Stud Farm in Sussex she founded in 1878

They boast an elegant gait and move with ears pricked and tails high exuding a knowing aristocratic air. Most of today’s Thoroughbred racehorses are the progeny of Arabians. Yet was it not for a British couple and their Sussex stud farm, pure Arab horses might well have been lost in a confusion of cross-breeding a century and half ago.

Born in 1837, Lady Anne Blunt was the granddaughter of the poet Lord Byron. An attractive and well-educated woman, she displayed great talent as an artist and was also an accomplished violinist.

In 1869 she married Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, himself a poet and something of an adventurer. He had been a diplomat in the Middle East where he had made great efforts to understand Islam. Later in life he turned against the British establishment and gave his support to nationalists in Arab countries. He would also become the first British-born man to go to jail for advocating independence for Ireland. A grand nephew of Wilfrid would grow up to be the notorious Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt.

Its Glorious Goodwood this week at the West Sussex racecourse. All the Thoroughbred horses competing are descended from Arab bloodstock with a number likely being the progeny of Crabbet Park animals

Wilfrid suffered from TB and on medical advice he and his new wife, Lady Anne, began travelling to countries with hot, dry climates. There they would journey on horseback and breathe in fresh warm air. Anne became the first European woman to reach the heart of Arabia where her hardiness and sangfroid greatly impressed tribal leaders. She quickly mastered fluent Arabic. The Blunts also fell under the spell of the Arab horses of whom Wilfrid wrote: “It seemed nothing less than a miracle to find in those barren wastes a thing of such perfect beauty.”

The Bedouin revered their animals. They considered them to be as eternal as the land on which they lived and had a saying: “We cannot sell the earth.” Even so, the Blunts saw that the uniqueness of the horse was in peril. Some town-dwelling Arabs would mistreat their horses and lucrative cross-breeding was rampant.

Wilfrid had earlier inherited Crabbet Park near Crawley in Sussex and it occurred to the couple that they could set up an equestrian centre there. In Syria in 1877, Lady Anne noted in her diary: “We have made a plan to import some of the best Arabian blood to England and breed it pure there. It would be an interesting and useful thing to do.”

They then set about visiting Middle East tribes possessing pure Arab horses and purchased the best stallions and mares they could find. The Crabbet Arabian Stud was soon up and galloping. By 1879 it stabled 25 animals.

In the following years the horse line was honed through selective breeding supervised by the Blunts. The couple had a daughter, Judith, who early in life displayed a similar love of horses to that of her parents. In time Judith would become even more expert than them at horse husbandry. The animals were bred to become larger to make them better for riding. She also discovered that the pure Arab had one less vertebra than other breeds and concluded that this trait endowed them great strength and endurance.

Unfortunately, all was not well in the relationship between Anne and Wilfrid. The latter had a penchant for other women. It was almost as if subliminally he thought of himself as a stud on a par with his beloved horses. Judith became aware of her father’s infidelities when she found out he had made her married friend pregnant. When she learnt he was dallying with another friend it brought matters to a head. Judith fell out with Wilfrid and the two were set to be at lifelong loggerheads.

In 1906 Wilfrid moved a mistress, Dorothy Carleton, into the family home. Unable to accept what she termed an “oriental” lifestyle, Anne demanded a separation under the terms of which the estate was split between the pair.

Anne would subsequently spend her summers at Crabbet and her winters in Egypt. In 1916 she found she could not return home because the German U-Boat campaign in the Mediterranean made it too dangerous for passenger ships. She died in Egypt in 1917 not long after succeeding to the barony of Wentworth.

Judith inherited the title of Lady Wentworth. Her mother’s share of the stud should have gone to Judith’s two daughters but Wilfrid challenged Anne’s will. A three-year legal battle ensued before he finally lost the case. He died two years later.

Judith had her eccentricities. An accomplished sportswoman, she claimed to be “the world’s lady tennis champion” despite the fact that so far as is known she never played a single match against another woman! In 1946 she joined in with strong local opposition against the proposed development of the village of Crawley into a large new town.

After her death in 1957, aged 84, Lady Wentworth’s will left Crabbet to her stud manager Fred Covey. However, he had himself died a few days before Judith and so the Stud passed to his son, Cecil. When the M23 motorway was cut right through the property in 1971, Covey sold what remained of Crabbet along with the horses.Today, a large percentage of the world’s Arabian horses contain lines to Crabbet breeding. Crabbet-bred Arabian horses enjoy a reputation for stamina, good temperament, performance ability and general soundness. Before the stud closed a number of Crabbet horses had even been exported to the Middle East to ensure the breed’s survival there.