The War Horses of Somalia

WikiCommons: Horses, colloquially referred to as Sunaari, possibly with some Arabian ancestry, seen here in the arid plains of Dhahar, Maakhir, Somalia, photographed by Abdirisak

I just finished reading a 1996 essay by the Somali scholar Said Sheikh Samatar called “Somalia’s Horse That Feeds Its Master”. It has much to say about Somali history and character, but I thought I’d glean the stories of the horses for you, because after all, why else are we on this blog? Until the British colonial authorities cracked down in the 1920s, many pastoralist Somalis owned war horses that were used exclusively for raids on other clans’ camel herds, or for defending their own. Even a small clan might have a hundred or more. Samatar writes that there were two types of pony: the western Galbeed and the Bari from the east. The Bari was smaller at only 13hh or 14hh but considered better because its living conditions were harsher. If you think your cob is a “good doer” you should think of a Bari: even when one of these ponies was in work and getting a scant diet of dry grass, it only needed watering at one of the scattered oases every other day. When water was low, they were given camel milk. Samatar writes:

“The Somalis show great kindness to their horses, rearing and caring for them with marked meticulousness. A man talks to his mount, sings to it in familiar language and will crawl on stones under a thorn bush to extract for it a bite of something to eat. … The pastoral Somalis seldom ride their horses for sport, reserving the energies and services of their beloved beasts for the gravest of moments when dear life hangs on a sudden flight or pursuit. Before delivering a raid, the pastoralists will lead their horses for miles, only mounting when the object of their enterprise is in sight.”

In mid-1990’s Somalia, he adds, warriors prefer “an open-top Toyota truck mounted with a Browning machine gun”. More cheerily, I’ll leave you with some of Samatar’s translations of the nineteenth-century poetry that he heard chanted when he was growing up in one of these clans, singing the praises of the horse:


O Victory Bearer, my horse,

When I ponder upon his glorious triumphs,

And his sublime qualities:

I compare them to the waters of a fresh spring

And the depths of the spring we will never be able to reach,

O Men of God, tell me if, in making this claim, I have committed an error!

“Guulside, or the Victory Bearer” by Ali Bu’ul, translated by Said Sheikh Samatar.


A spear that chops limbs,

half-blackened frm its formidable iron shaft,

that, when it is shot at you, flails frightfully through the air –

My horse saves me from these dangers.

I wonder: is this horse of the kind of nobility as possessed by a holyman,

Who is versed in the Holy Rites,

And when you have sacrificed a lamb in his honour,

He reads you a sublime revelation from the Qur’an,

And showers you with holy scriptures.

“A Horse Beyond Compare” by Raage Ugaas, translated by Said Sheikh Samatar.


This horse is infinitely dearer to me than any other stock,

And I cherish him as dearly as the parents that created me,

And as a beloved brother,

Is he an inheritance from blessed heaven!?

And if I don’t see him for a brief season,

I am smitten with an anxiety of longing,

And come close to dying from a nagging fear,

Is he not my very heart!

“A Fine War Horse” by Sayyid Mahammad, translated by Said Sheikh Samatar.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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