Story and photographs by Betty Finke
Great breeders differ from the majority in that they are not afraid to take risks. This is the story of breeders who made an unusual choice, something that was even frowned upon in some circles. And of a horse you might hope to get once in a lifetime — if at all.
Among straight Egyptian breeders, one thing you simply don’t do is breed a straight Egyptian mare to a stallion of other bloodlines. This was especially frowned upon in the last century, when straight Egyptians were much rarer than they are now. Today it isn’t all that unusual; but in the 1970s and 1980s, things were very different.
Straight Egyptians were especially few and far between in Britain at that time. When Pat and Joanna Maxwell of Lodge Farm imported a colt and two fillies in the early 1970s, these were the first straight Egyptian horses in Britain since the time of the Blunts. One of them was AK Attallah (*Ansata Ibn Halima x Al Nahr Mon Ami), the first (and for many years only) *Ansata Ibn Halima daughter in Europe.
Yes, the Maxwells did breed straight Egyptian horses, as well as straight Spanish horses and some Crabbets. But they were mostly concerned with breeding the best horses possible. To that end, they were not afraid to combine any or all of these lines with each other. In 1976, they bred AK Attallah to Indian Silver (Indian Magic x Dalika), a 100 percent Crabbet stallion.
In phenotype, the big and powerful Crabbet stallion and the pretty and refined Egyptian mare could hardly have been more different, but as far as bloodlines go, the combination is not as outlandish as it appears at first glance. Egyptian and Crabbet horses have many ancestors in common and the combination usually works. But it was normally done the other way around: Crabbet mares to Egyptian stallions. Hardly anyone at the time would have considered breeding a straight Egyptian mare to a Crabbet stallion.
But the Maxwells were not afraid of breaking established patterns, and the result was one of the greatest Arabian mares ever to grace this planet.
I first saw Aliha when she was four years old, just about to embark on her show career. The weather was dismal, a grey and wet English summer’s day, but even with her white mane and tail plastered to her dark dapple coat by the rain, it was obvious she was special. She had all her sire’s charisma and presence, coupled with her dam’s refinement and pretty head.
She had it all,
in fact: type, conformation, and all the rest. She was just about as close to the perfect Arabian as you might hope to get.
Not surprisingly, she started at the top. She won, and she kept winning, and eventually she became not only British National Champion, but World Champion Mare in 1988 with the highest score of the show.
Aliha was a constant and pervasive presence at the shows all during the 1980s and 1990s, even when she herself was absent. In addition to being a superb individual, a show champion, and equally capable of performing under saddle, she was also that rarest of treasures: a champion that excelled equally as a broodmare. She was one of only three mares in history to win the Princess Muna Saddle of Honor, awarded at the British Nationals for the best produce of dam group, three times (one of the other two, incidentally, was also bred by Lodge Farm).
She did not produce a huge number of foals: nine altogether, most of them colts, but just two of her three daughters were sufficient to build a legacy. Her daughter Atlantica by El Shaklan (himself the product of an innovative breeding strategy, Egyptian x Spanish) rivaled her dam both as a show horse, being three times British National Champion, twice World Champion (junior and senior), and European Champion, and in producing another generation of champions. She also did a bit of racing on the side. Aliha’s last daughter Ashiqa was the dam of two superb stallions, Adawy and Azteq, both shown successfully at halter and under saddle, and excellent sires in their own right.
When her active show career was over, Aliha remained in the spotlight, making appearances ridden bareback by Emma Maxwell. On one memorable occasion at the 1992 European Championships, Emma sat in the middle of the arena at Aliha’s feet, nothing restraining the mare, while a parade of horses, people, and dogs milled around them. Aliha, her eyes alert and taking in everything that went on, never budged an inch; the perfect Bedouin war mare.
You don’t go and sell a horse like this. When the Maxwells closed Lodge Farm and relocated to France, Aliha was one of the few horses that went with them, now retiring for good.
The last time I saw her was in 2004, on a stud tour in France with a busload of Arabian breeders from Germany. She was 27 years old then, but she had lost none of her beauty or charisma. A radiant white, almost transcendent vision of an Arabian mare, she regally and gracefully accepted the adoration of the strangers surrounding her. It was no less than what was due to the diva, the international star, the matriarch. It was one of those magic moments, an unforgettable encounter for everyone who was there on that day.
Aliha has long since departed for greener pastures, but she is far from gone. In 2018, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were still winning championships at the British Nationals (and no doubt elsewhere in the world), continuing the legacy of a breeding program that dared to do things differently, and achieved greatness.