When Cynthia Culbertson phoned from her Lexington hotel room after a nonstop week of transition preparations as incoming Executive Director of The Pyramid Society, when Anna Bishop retires from her longtime role come September, I had a question beyond a search for statistics. With limitless possibilities from which to choose, why would an internationally-known historian and speaker of her stature, take on this role? Culbertson’s responses revealed a passion for the Egyptian horse that’s filled her life with countries and cultures, plus first-hand accounts of the celebrated Ansata Arabian Stud at a formative phase in her life.
“I love all Arabian horses,” begins Culbertson, whose attraction to Egyptians seems foreordained. “It fit my idea of desert horses. I was very interested in the history,” adds Culbertson, whose degree from Indiana University (Bloomington) is in Arabic and Islamic studies. “When they came over, they created quite a stir. For a lot of people, they actually were the embodiment of those classic lithographs and traditional desert horses.” For Culbertson, the “stir” was a gap year from college for an apprenticeship at Ansata Arabian Stud. “That’s something to explain to your parents,” says Culbertson, who memorized the name and pedigree of every horse before arriving at the Straight Egyptian breeding farm.
Her first day didn’t disappoint. “The first stall I went to was *Ansata Ibn Halima++ (Nazeer x Halima),” recalls Culbertson, describing his huge, black eyes and fine silky mane. “I literally had hands-on experience with a legend … and got to know many of the Nazeer (Mansour x Bint Samiha) children that were still alive. Any time you have hands on experience with the horses [and] the children of the horses, you never lose that. Generations later, you can see a horse and say, ‘That has the exact chin structure of *Ansata Ibn Halima.’ You know where it came from.”
The apprenticeship brought diverse experiences. “At the time, the Ansata horses were trained under saddle. Riding was a big part of the program. We trained some of the older mares under saddle to get them fit,” recalls Culbertson, who’d not only owned horses beforehand, but shown and trained Arabians for others. She also gained exposure to famous outside [non-Egyptian] lines like a group of Russian mares brought to Ansata for breedings to its classic Egyptian stock.
Picture-perfect memories of one farm foundation stallion remain strong— Ansata Ibn Sudan (Ansata Ibn Halima++ x Ansata Bint Mabrouka). “I really enjoyed him on a personal basis. He always wanted attention. It was as magnificent at it gets, to be riding on Ansata Ibn Sudan in a piney woods in East Texas. It was heaven on earth,” shares Culbertson. [Then located in Texas, Ansata later moved to Arkansas.]
“It was an incredible place to learn from somebody so experienced,” says Culbertson of Judith Forbis, who founded Ansata with her late husband Donald in 1958 (and remains the last living founder of The Pyramid Society). “This is a woman who went to Turkey to work on a U.S. Government program, got a mare and won the civilian jumping championship for all of Turkey. But, not just that. She was a jockey . . . a complete pioneer in the 1950s in a Middle Eastern country riding race horses! She did that successfully. That’s pretty profound.”
Of many accomplishments, Forbis’ prolific writing and research stands out. “This is before the Internet,” reminds Culbertson. “People forget the time it took to do research, meet the people, travel and write down all the horses and develop a breeding program. She read every book. She went to every library. She was on the road in the Middle East looking at every tribe’s Arabian horses. Interestingly, Carl Raswan had recommended to her, ‘You’ll find the horse of your dreams in Egypt.’” And, Egypt was where Forbis found her ideal horse.
The long-lasting impact of Culbertson’s Ansata apprenticeship became a thread wound through life. “I had an understanding that I was around horses that were going to be influential. The amazing aspect is now—when I go to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, when I’m at the Paris World Championships, or come to The Egyptian Event—I will see the bloodlines of the horse I worked with every day.”
She makes a point, “I was very fortunate to be interested in Egyptian Arabians at a time when all these imports were coming in and to visit many of these legendary farms. If you were to come to two names, I think it would be Ansata, Donald and Judith Forbis, and the Marshalls of Gleannloch Farms that were extremely influential.”
Culbertson turns the conversation to thinking beyond the closest Internet connection. “Today about everything is at our fingertips. Photographs and videos are great, but nothing compares to experiencing the horse. A pedigree is a piece of paper. It’s road map,” she remarks. “When you know bloodlines—and this is true of all [Arabians]—there are certain character traits you see. I can always tell the *Ansata Ibn Halima horses. They tend to be highly intelligent and have a kind, gentle, sweet demeanor, yet they can show off at the drop of hat,” says Culbertson, who stood a grandson at her El Miladi Arabian Stud in Carrizozo, N.M., when she was breeding.
Others were better known for different traits. “The *Morafic (Nazeer x Mabrouka) son I had came out of his stall and was very bold . . . half-rearing. He was also intelligent and a very fair horse. I remember showing him when I was probably, eight months pregnant. It didn’t bother me that he showed his exuberance. I loved that character of being strong, exuberant and intelligent, yet having respect,” describes Culbertson, whose travels in the U.S. and abroad have produced lifelong friendships.
“We can’t leave people out of the equation,” insists Culbertson. “Even as a young woman, when I traveled, I found that passion for the Egyptian horse gave me experiences I would never have had otherwise—meeting people I would never have met on a social level. When you meet these people you share the horse, but you also share other fascinating things about these people or their country. The love of the horse crosses all cultural boundaries.”
As Culbertson readies for her newest chapter of a career encompassing book, film and museum projects (including the Arabian breed at large), her years as a consultant to corporations, government and non-profits will unquestionably, come into play. “I think there is an Arabian horse for everybody,” she says. “If that iconic, classic Arabian horse interests you, I think the Straight Egyptian is for you. It’s sort of like staying with the primary ingredients.” Continuing, she notes, “They’re a highly sought after bloodline group. They’re globally appreciated. One thing about the Egyptian horse that is nice now is there’s still a growing influence in some areas of the world [particularly, The Gulf countries and Egypt].”
Stepping into an Executive Director role, so long occupied by a single individual, could be daunting for anyone but Cynthia Culbertson. “I’ve always been active with The Pyramid Society,” she comments. And, on everything from editorial projects to committees and active roles on the Board of Directors.
There are many paths she could choose from, so again, why a time-intensive position with an international membership and projects in the US and overseas?
The reason is little different from a life-changing apprenticeship at a Straight Egyptian farm during a gap year from college. Culbertson sees it as wanting “to keep her arms around a unique group of Arabian horses.” No doubt she will do that and more.