Bred by Bedouins as a war mount, the Egyptian Arabian is intelligent and strong, with a lineage that dates back thousands of years. There aren’t many of these horses around, but 23 live on a historic Orange County estate.
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Helen Marie Taylor
Helen Marie Taylor with HMT Virginius.
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A pair of white Egyptian Arabian geldings, HMT Deena Kamar and HMT Antabla Akid, on the Bloomsbury estate in Orange County.
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HMT Amreeka Ahlam 2
HMT Amreeka Ahlam
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The riding ring inside the barn.
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Sylvania, the circa 1930s Sears barn at Bloomsbury.
Photography by Jeff Greenough
Outside a magnificent circa 1930s Sears horse barn on the Bloomsbury estate in Orange County, a half-dozen people stand at a white-fenced show ring. The farm’s owner, Helen Marie Taylor, in a pink and white outfit with matching hat, passes out ginger snaps and cups of sparkling cider as attendant Bernard Verling leads a jet-black stallion into the ring. HMT Virginius, as he is called, is neither a big horse (14.2 hands) nor a young horse (age 18), but from his jaunty air and lofty gait it’s clear that he’s a proud horse—elegant, with a muscled neck and hindquarters and expressive eyes.
HMT Virginius (the initials are Taylor’s) is an Egyptian Arabian, one of the most valuable horse breeds in the world. And when Verling shakes a plastic bottle full of rocks, the stallion is alerted. It’s show time. He prances and snorts. With head high and tail up, he makes short charges around the ring—and toward the onlookers—wheeling about and rearing up on his hind legs before settling into the smooth gait for which Arabians are famed. He charges up to the fence regularly for an admiring pat. “Virginius is a show-off,” says Taylor. “He loves to be admired.” He was once a National Top Ten at a Pyramid Egyptian Arabian event in Kentucky, and number one in his class at the Virginia State Fair in his first year in the ring. Black Arabians are rare and prized today, but this was not always so, apparently. As the story goes, the Bedouins killed them off. “They were warring horses,” explains Taylor, “and the black against white desert sand would attract attention from invading tribes, and so they were put down.”
According to the Arabian Horse Association, no horse breed in the world has a heritage as deep as the Straight Egyptian Arabian. Its bloodline supposedly traces back to biblical times. First documented in Egypt, the Arabian is the oldest known breed of riding horse and has lived for thousands of years among the desert tribes of the Arabian peninsula, “establishing itself as an animal of great importance ….” Saladin’s Arabians helped to prevent Richard the Lionhearted from conquering Egypt, claims the Arabian Horse Association, and historical figures like Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Napoleon are said to have ridden the animal. More recently, Zachary Taylor was painted with his Arabian, and President Ronald Reagan owned a pure gray.
Royal and titled Egyptian families owned the breed for centuries—and as the Arabian’s reputation spread, wealthy Westerners began to buy the horse. Lady Ann Blunt of England was among the first, followed by a few businessmen in America. In 1932, entrepreneur Henry Babson (who got wealthy selling the Victor Phonograph) traveled to Egypt and bought seven Egyptian Arabians. He later became a major breeder of the bloodline.
Today, some 23,000 straight Egyptian Arabians are registered in America, and the Jaquelin E. Taylor Marital Trust, owned and managed by Mrs. Taylor, owns 23 of them. A native of Waco, Texas, Mrs. Taylor has had a home in Richmond for more than 40 years. She attended Baylor University before graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She was a stage actress in New York, once playing Ophelia in Hamlet, then later taught Shakespeare at the American Academy. In subsequent years she turned to preservation and politics. President Reagan named her U.S. delegate to UNESCO in Paris in 1983, and she was the U.S. representative to the United Nations in 1986.
Taylor has owned Arabians since 1987, but she has decided to sell her Bloomsbury collection. She wants to find a breeder of straight Egyptian Arabians who will buy her horses and keep them in the United States. “I’m 86 and have had the joy of having them for 22 years, and I think it’s time for me to say goodbye,” says Taylor. “Most of my horses have been sold abroad, to Egypt and other Arab nations, but now I would like them all to stay in this country, and I’m prepared to take a lower price to make that happen.” Arabians were once considered a very good investment, but the market recently has been weak. The decision to sell was not an easy one for Taylor, given her affection for this breed. In a 1990s article in the Orange County Review, she described the Egyptian Arabian as “the perfect horse,” with its “big eyes … sharp ears, standing upright.”
Though some are trained in dressage and used for endurance riding, Egyptian Arabians breeders mainly enter their horses in halter showings at the National Pyramid event, says Taylor. “You are breeding and viewing the horse for its beauty, conformation and movement. They are capable of doing anything you train them to do. They have an awesome carriage and tremendous stamina, even though they’re not large horses.”
Taylor is bright and talkative, and a history buff. Meadowfarm, her country home, has been in her and her late husband Jaquelin E. Taylor’s family for nine generations. She and Jaquelin Taylor are both descended from James Taylor “the first,” who emigrated from England to Virginia in 1635. James Taylor was married twice. Jaquelin Taylor was descended from the eldest son of the first wife, Frances Walker, while Helen Marie Taylor is descended from the youngest son of the second wife, Mary Gregory. According to Mrs. Taylor, Col. James Taylor II was a member of Alexander Spotswood’s band of men who began the westward expansion of the colonies in 1716. They became known as the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. Col. Taylor received a crown grant from King George for 13,500 acres, and he and his wife built a Queen Anne cottage on the cutting edge of the frontier. They named the property Bloomsbury. It is the oldest house in what became Orange County. Col. Taylor and his wife would become the great-grandparents of James Madison Jr. and Zachary Taylor. Jaquelin Taylor’s father founded a company that later became Universal Leaf Tobacco Co.
Mrs. Taylor’s Egyptian Arabians—six stallions, six geldings and 11 mares—are housed in a barn that’s been called the “crown jewel” of the Sears barns. It sits on the Mount Sharon land adjoining the Taylor crown grant property. Named Sylvania, the 210-by-54-foot barn has 20 stalls and a 14-foot-wide riding ring inside the building. Made of yellow pine with a silver tin roof, the barn has 2,273 panes of glass in the windows encircling the building. Ellsworth H. Augustus, a businessman originally from Cleveland, built the barn. “He and Mr. William duPont appeared to have something of a barn rivalry,” says Mrs. Taylor. “If so, Mr. Augustus clearly won.”
Taylor bought her first Egyptian Arabians from the former Bentwood Farm, in Texas. At that time, Bentwood, owned by Jarrell and Judith McCracken, was the largest breeder of Egyptian Arabians in the world, owning 1,200. Before Bentwood encountered financial difficulties, Mrs. Taylor and her son, Taylor Munroe, bought one each from the McCrackens. When the Bentwood Arabians were dispersed, the Taylors bought at least 15 more.
In 1993, Taylor acquired Moniet El Sharaf, a Egyptian Arabian once syndicated for $10 million, and he became the crown stallion of Taylor’s collection. By the time Moniet El Sharaf died, Taylor had HMT Amreeka, a two-time world reserve champion mare. “I bred her and my other horses only to national and international champions,” says Taylor. “Our horses have always remained pure Egyptian Arabians—I’ve never mixed blood.”
Other than HMT Virginius, who is her favorite horse, Taylor says she’s always been partial to grays, which become pure white as they age. She’s got a gray 2-year-old named HMT Ibn Iemhotep. “He may be the finest horse I’ve ever bred, and I’ve got another great young filly.” She is the offspring of Moniet El Sharaf (via his frozen sperm) and HMT Amreeka.
Taylor doesn’t visit the horses as often as she used to. “I used to come every day but now only rarely. I need to prepare myself to be without these lovely animals. They seem happy to be alive, and that makes me happy to be around them.”