The Arabian horse is a breed of horse that originated in the Middle East. With a distinctive head shape and high tail carriage, the Arabian is one of the most easily recognizable horse breeds in the world. It is one of the oldest horse breeds, with archaeological evidence of horses that resemble modern Arabians dating back 4,500 years. Throughout history, Arabian horses from the Middle East spread around the world by both war and trade, used to improve other breeds by adding speed, refinement, endurance, and good bone. Today, Arabian bloodlines are found in almost every modern breed of riding horse.
The Arabian developed in a desert climate and was prized by the nomadic Bedouin people, often being brought inside the family tent for shelter and protection. This close relationship with humans has created a horse breed that is good-natured, quick to learn, and willing to please. But the Arabian also developed the high spirit and alertness needed in a horse used for raiding and war. This combination of willingness and sensitivity requires modern Arabian horse owners to handle their horses with competence and respect.
"The Versatile Arabian" is a slogan of the breed. Arabians dominate the discipline of endurance riding, and compete today in many other fields of equestrian activity. They are one of the top ten most popular horse breeds in the world. Arabian horses are now found worldwide, including the United States and Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, continental Europe, South America like Brazil and Argentine .
Arabians are one of the oldest human-developed horse breeds in the world. The original wild progenitors, the Oriental subtype or "Proto-Arabian" was a horse with oriental characteristics similar to the modern Arabian. These horses appeared in rock paintings and inscriptions in the Arabian Peninsula as far back as 2,500 B.C. In ancient history, throughout the Ancient Near East, horses with refined heads and high-carried tails were depicted in artwork, particularly that of Ancient Egypt dating to the expulsion of the Hyksos invaders, in the 16th century, B.C.
The Arabian horse prototype may have been domesticated by the people of the Arabian peninsula known today as the Bedouin, sometime after they learned to use the camel, approximately 4,000-5,000 years ago. However, other scholars, noting that horses were common in the Fertile Crescent but rare in the Arabian peninsula prior to the rise of Islam, theorize that the breed as it is known today only developed in large numbers when the conversion of the Persians to Islam in the 7th century A.D. brought knowledge of horse breeding and horsemanship to the Bedouin.
Regardless of origins, climate and culture ultimately created the Arabian. The desert environment required a domesticated horse to cooperate with humans to survive. Humans were the only providers of food and water in certain areas, and even hardy Arabian horses needed far more water than camels in order to survive (most horses can only live about 72 hours without water). Where there was no pasture or water, the Bedouin fed their horses dates and camel's milk. The desert horse needed to thrive on very little food, and have anatomical traits to compensate for life in a dry climate with wide temperature extremes from day to night. Weak individuals were weeded out of the breeding pool, and the animals that remained were honed by centuries of human warfare.
In return, the Bedouin way of life depended on camels and horses: Arabians were bred to be war horses with speed, endurance, soundness, and intelligence. Because many raids required stealth, mares were preferred over stallions because they were quieter and would not give away the position of the fighters. A good disposition was critical; prized war mares were often brought inside family tents to prevent theft and for protection from weather and predators. Though appearance was not necessarily a survival factor, the Bedouin bred for refinement and beauty in their horses as well as for more practical features.
Strains and pedigrees
For centuries, the Bedouin tracked the ancestry of each horse through an oral tradition. Horses of the purest blood were known as Asil and crossbreeding with non-Asil horses was forbidden. Mares were the most valued, both for riding and breeding, and pedigree families were traced through the female line. The Bedouin did not believe in gelding male horses, and considered stallions too intractable to be good war horses, thus they kept very few male foals (colts), selling most, and culling those of poor quality.
Over time, the Bedouin developed several sub-types or strains of Arabian horse, each with unique characteristics. The strains were traced through the maternal line, not through the paternal. According to the Arabian Horse Association, the five primary strains were known as the Keheilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban. There were also lesser strains, sub-strains, and regional variations in strain names. Thus, many Arabian horses were not only Asil, of pure blood, but also bred to be pure in strain as well, with crossbreeding between strains discouraged, though not forbidden, by some tribes. Purity of bloodline was very important to the Bedouin, and they also believed in telegony, believing if a mare was ever bred to a stallion of "impure" blood, the mare herself and all future offspring would be "contaminated" by the stallion and hence no longer Asil. Carl Raswan, a promoter and writer about Arabian horses from the middle of the 20th century, held the belief that there were only three strains, Kehilan, Seglawi and Muniqi. Raswan felt that these strains represented body "types" of the breed, with the Kehilan being "masculine", the Seglawi being "feminine" and the Muniqi being "speedy".
This complex web of bloodline and strain was an integral part of Bedouin culture. The Bedouin knew the pedigrees and history of their best war mares in detail, via an oral tradition that also tracked the breeding of their camels, Saluki dogs, and their own family or tribal history. Eventually, written records began to be kept; the first written pedigrees in the Middle East that specifically used the term "Arabian" date to 1330 A.D. However, as important as strain was to the Bedouin, studies of mitochondrial DNA suggest that modern Arabian horses recorded to be of a given strain may not necessarily share a common maternal ancestry.
Arabian horses have refined, wedge-shaped heads, a broad forehead, large eyes, large nostrils, and small muzzles. Most display a distinctive concave or "dished" profile. Many Arabians also have a slight forehead bulge between their eyes, called the "jibbah" by the Bedouin, that adds additional sinus capacity, believed to have helped the Arabian horse in its native dry desert climate. Another breed characteristic is an arched neck with a large, well-set windpipe set on a refined, clean throatlatch. This structure of the poll and throatlatch was called the mithbah or mithbeh by the Bedouin, and in the best Arabians is long, allowing flexibility in the bridle and room for the windpipe.
Other distinctive features are a relatively long, level croup and naturally high tail carriage. Well-bred Arabians have a deep, well-angled hip and well laid-back shoulder. Most have a compact body with a short back. Some, though not all, have 5 lumbar vertebrae instead of the usual 6, and 17 rather than 18 pairs of ribs. Thus, even a small Arabian can carry a heavy rider with ease. Arabians usually have dense, strong bone, sound feet, and good hoof walls. They are especially noted for endurance.
Some people confuse the refinement of Arabians with having weak or too-light bone. However, the USEF breed standard requires Arabians have solid bone and correct conformation, and the superiority of the breed in endurance competition clearly demonstrates that well-bred Arabians are strong, sound horses with good bone and superior stamina. At international levels of FEI-sponsored endurance events, Arabians and half-Arabians are the dominant performers in distance competition worldwide.
Another misconception confuses the skeletal structure of the sacrum with the angle of the "hip" (the pelvis or ilium), leading some to assert that the comparatively horizontal croup and high-carried tail of Arabians correlates to a flat pelvis and thus they cannot use their hindquarters properly. However, the croup is formed by the sacral vertebrae. The hip angle is determined by the attachment of the ilium to the spine, the structure and length of the femur, and other aspects of hindquarter anatomy, not necessarily the angle of the sacrum. Thus, the Arabian has conformation typical of other horse breeds built for speed and distance, such as the Thoroughbred, which properly includes the angle of the ilium being more oblique than that of the croup, the hip at approximately 35 degrees to a croup angle of 25 degrees. The proper comparison of sacrum and hip is in length, not angle. All horses bred to gallop need a good length of croup and good length of hip for proper attachment of muscles, and the two do go together as a rule. The hip angle, on the other hand, is not necessarily correlated to the line of the croup. Thus, a good-quality Arabian has both a relatively horizontal croup and a properly angled pelvis with good length of croup and depth of hip (length of pelvis) to allow agility and impulsion. Within the breed, there are variations. Some individuals have wider, more powerfully muscled hindquarters suitable for intense bursts of activity in events such as reining, while others have longer, leaner muscling better suited for long stretches of flat work such as endurance riding or horse racing.
The breed standard for Arabian horses, as stated by the United States Equestrian Federation, describes the Arabians as standing between 14.1 and 15.1 hands (57 to 61 inches (145 to 155 cm)) tall, "with the occasional individual over or under." Thus, all Arabians, regardless of height, are classified as "horses," even though 14.2 hands (58 inches (147 cm)) is the traditional cutoff height between a horse and a pony. A common myth is that Arabians are not strong because of their size. However, the Arabian horse is noted for a greater density of bone than other breeds, short cannons, sound feet, and a broad, short back; all of which give the breed physical strength comparable to many taller animals. Clearly, for tasks where the sheer weight of the horse matters, such as farm work done by a draft horse, or team roping, any lighter-weight horse is at a disadvantage, but for most purposes, the Arabian is a strong and hardy breed of light horse able to carry any type of rider in most equestrian pursuits.
For centuries, Arabian horses lived in the desert in close association with humans. For shelter and protection from theft, prized war mares were sometimes kept in their owner's tent, close to children and everyday family life. Only horses with a naturally good disposition were allowed to reproduce. The result is that Arabians today have a temperament that, among other examples, makes them one of the few breeds for which the United States Equestrian Federation allows children to exhibit stallions in nearly all show ring classes, including those limited to riders under 18.
On the other hand, the Arabian is also classified as a "hot-blooded" breed, a category that includes other refined, spirited horses bred for speed, such as the Thoroughbred and the Barb. Like other hot-bloods, Arabians' sensitivity and intelligence enable quick learning and greater communication with their riders. However, their intelligence also allows them to learn bad habits as quickly as good ones, and do not tolerate inept or abusive training practices.
Some people believe that it is more difficult to train a "hot-blooded" horse such as the Arabian, Thoroughbred, Barb and Akhal-Teke. However, most Arabians have a natural tendency to cooperate with humans, but when treated badly, like any horse, can become excessively nervous or anxious, though seldom become vicious unless seriously spoiled or subjected to extreme abuse. On the other hand, romantic myths are sometimes told about Arabian horses that give them near-divine characteristics.
The Arabian Horse Association recognizes purebred horses with the coat colors bay, gray, chestnut, black, and roan. Bay, gray and chestnut are the most common, black is less common. True roan may not actually exist in Arabians; rather, roaning in the Arab could simply be a manifestation of the sabino or rabicano genes. All Arabians, no matter the coat color, have black skin, except under white markings. Black skin provided protection from the hot desert sun.
Although many Arabians appear "white," they are not. A white hair coat is usually created by the natural action of the gray gene, and virtually all "white" Arabians are actually grays. There is an extremely small number of Arabians registered as "white" and having a white coat, pink skin and dark eyes from birth, possibly as a result of a nonsense mutation in DNA tracing to a single stallion foaled in 1996.
The Bedouin had assorted beliefs about color, including several myths about the so-called "bloody-shouldered" horse, which is actually a particular type of "flea-bitten" gray with localized aggregations of pigment. One tale states that a gray mare carried the Prophet Mohammed in battle when he was wounded. The faithful mare carried her bleeding master back to his tribe's camp. The blood from his wound stained her coat, and her shoulder permanently bore the mark. From then on, goes the myth, Allah marked the finest horses with the "bloody shoulder."
Fiery war horses with dished faces and high-carried tails were popular artistic subjects in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, often depicted pulling chariots in war or for hunting. Horses with oriental characteristics appear in artwork as far north as that of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. While the horse wasn't called an "Arabian" in the Ancient Near East until later, (the word "Arabia" or "Arabaya" only first appeared in writings by the ancient Persians, circa 500 B.C.,) these "proto-Arabian" or "Oriental" horses shared many characteristics with the modern Arabian, including speed, endurance, and refinement. For example, a horse skeleton unearthed in the Sinai peninsula, dated to 1700 B.C., is considered the earliest physical evidence of the horse in Ancient Egypt. It was probably brought by the Hyksos invaders. This horse had a wedge-shaped head, large eye socket and small muzzle, all characteristics of the Arabian horse.
Following the Hijra in A.D. 622 (also sometimes spelled Hegira), the Arabian horse spread across the known world of the time, became recognized as a distinct, named breed, and played a significant role in the History of the Middle East and of Islam. By A.D. 630, Muslim influence expanded across the Middle East and North Africa. By A.D. 711, Muslim warriors had reached Spain, and controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula by 720. Their mounts were of various oriental types, including both Arabians and the Barb horse of North Africa.
Another way Arabian horses spread to the rest of the world was through the Ottoman Empire, which rose in 1299, and came to control much of the Middle East. Though it never fully dominated the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, this Turkish empire obtained many Arabian horses through trade, diplomacy and war. The Ottomans ecouraged the formation of private stud farms in their territories in order to ensure a supply of calvalry horses. Ottoman nobility, such as Muhammad Ali of Egypt also collected pure, desert-bred Arabian horses. An early record of importations and horses occurs with the stud farm of El Naseri, or Al-Nasir Muhammad, an Egyptian Sultan (1290-1342) who imported and bred numerous Arabians in Egypt. A record was made of his purchases, which describes many of the horses as well as their abilities. The record was deposited in his library, forming a source for later study. During his time, an early anatomical study of Arabian horses was also conducted, with several Arabic anatomical diagrams of Arabian horses surviving in manuscripts today.
From the Middle East to Europe
There were some ways the Arabian horse reached Europe .Muslim invasions and during the Crusades, beginning in 1095, European armies invaded Palestine and many knights returned home with Arabian horses as spoils of war. As the knights and the heavy, armored war horses who carried them became obsolete, Arabian horses and their descendants were used to develop faster, agile light cavalry horses that were used in warfare into the 20th century. Probably the earliest horses with Arabian bloodlines to enter Europe came indirectly, through Spain and France. Others would have arrived with returning Crusaders. Under the Ottoman Empire, Arabian horses often were sold, traded, or given as diplomatic gifts to Europeans and, later, to Americans.
One major infusion of Arabian horses into Europe occurred when the Ottoman Turks sent 300,000 horsemen into Hungary in A.D. 1522. Many Turks were mounted on pure-blooded Arabians, captured during raids into Arabia. By 1529, the Ottomans reached Vienna, where they were stopped by the Polish and Hungarian armies, who captured Arabians from the defeated Ottoman cavalry. Some of these horses provided foundation stock for the major studs of Eastern Europe.
Polish and Russian breeding programs
With the rise of light cavalry, the stamina and agility of horses with Arabian blood gave an enormous military advantage to any army who possessed them. Thus, many European monarchs began to support large breeding establishments that crossed Arabians on local stock. One example was Knyszyna, the royal stud of Polish king Zygmunt II August, and another was the Imperial Russian Stud of Peter the Great.
European horse breeders also obtained Arabian stock directly from the desert or via trade with the Ottomans. For example, Count Alexey Orlov of Russia obtained many Arabians, including Smetanka, an Arabian stallion who was a foundation sire of the Orlov trotter. Orlov provided Arabian horses to Catherine the Great, who in 1772 owned 12 pure Arabian stallions and 10 mares. To meet the need to breed Arabians as a source of pure bloodstock, two members of the Russian nobility, Count Stroganov and Prince Shcherbatov, established Arabian stud farms by 1889.
Notable imports from Arabia to Poland included those of Prince Hieronymous Sanguszko (1743-1812), who founded the Slawuta stud. Poland's first state-run Arabian stud farm, Janow Podlaski, was established by the decree of Alexander I of Russia in 1817. By 1850, the great stud farms of Poland were well-established, including Antoniny, owned by the Polish Count Potocki (who had married into the Sanguszko family); later notable as the farm that produced the stallion Skowronek
The rise of the Crabbet Park Stud
Perhaps the most famous of all Arabian breeding operations founded in Europe was the Crabbet Park Stud of England, founded 1878. Starting in 1877, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Lady Anne Blunt made repeated journeys to the Middle East, including visits to the stud of Ali Pasha Sherif in Egypt and to Bedouin tribes in the Nejd, bringing the best Arabians they could find to England. Lady Anne also purchased and maintained the Sheykh Obeyd stud farm in Egypt, near Cairo. Upon Lady Anne's death in 1917, the Blunts' daughter, Judith, Lady Wentworth, inherited the Wentworth title and Lady Anne's portion of the estate. She obtained the remainder of the Crabbet Stud following a protracted legal battle with her father, Wilfrid. Lady Wentworth expanded the stud, added new bloodstock, and exported Arabian horses worldwide. Upon Lady Wentworth's death in 1957, the stud passed to her manager, Cecil Covey, who ran Crabbet until 1971, when a motorway was cut through the property, forcing the sale of the land and dispersal of the horses.
Historically, Egypt was known for importing horses bred in the deserts of Palestine and the Arabian peninsula rather than as a source of native bloodstock. By the time that the Ottoman Empire dominated Egypt, the political elites of the region still recognized the need for quality bloodstock for both war and for horse racing, and some continued to return to the deserts to obtain pure-blooded Arabians. One of the most famous was Muhammad Ali of Egypt, also known as Muhammad Ali Pasha, who established an extensive stud farm in the 19th century. After his death, some of his stock was bred on by Abbas I of Egypt, also known as Abbas Pasha. When Abbas Pasha was assassinated in 1854, his heir, Elhami Pasha, sold most of his horses, often for crossbreeding, and gave away many others as diplomatic gifts. A remnant was obtained by Ali Pasha Sherif, who then went back to the desert to bring in new bloodstock. At its peak, the stud of Ali Pasha Sherif had over 400 purebred Arabians. Unfortunately, an epidemic of African horse sickness in the 1870s that killed thousands of horses throughout Egypt decimated much of his herd and wiped out several irreplaceable bloodlines. Late in his life, he sold several horses to Wilfred and Lady Anne Blunt, who exported them to Crabbet Park Stud in England. After his death, Lady Anne was able to gather many remaining horses at her Sheykh Obeyd stud.
Meanwhile, the passion brought by the Blunts to saving the pure horse of the desert helped Egyptian horse breeders convince their government of the need to preserve the best of their own remaining pure Arabian bloodstock that descended from the horses collected over the past century by Muhammad Ali Pasha, Abbas Pasha and Ali Pasha Sherif Therefore, the government of Egypt formed the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) in 1908. Today, the RAS is known as the Egyptian Agricultural Organization (EAO).
To rebuild some bloodlines that had been lost, RAS representatives traveled to England during the 1920s and purchased eighteen descendants of the original Blunt exports from Lady Wentworth at Crabbet Park and returned these bloodlines to Egypt. Other than several horses purchased by Henry Babson for importation to the United States in the 1930s, and one other small group exported to the USA in 1947, relatively few Egyptian-bred Arabian horses were exported until the overthrow of King Farouk I in 1952. After that, many of the private stud farms of the princes were confiscated and the animals taken over by the EAO. After that, as oil development brought more foreign investors to Egypt, some of whom were horse fanciers, Arabians were exported to Germany and the United States, as well as to the former Soviet Union, then an ally of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Following the death of Nasser in 1970 and the rise of a less Soviet-oriented government, even more Egyptian-bred Arabians were exported. Today, the designation "Straight Egyptian" or "Egyptian Arabian" is popular with some Arabian breeders, and the distinct "dry" look of the modern Egyptian-bred Arabian is an outcross used to add refinement in some breeding programs.
Western and Central Europe
The 18th century marked the establishment of most of the great Arabian studs of Europe, dedicated to preserving "pure" Arabian bloodstock. The Prussians set up a royal stud in 1732, originally intended to provide horses for the royal stables, but soon more were established animals were bred for other uses, including the Prussian army. The foundation of these breeding programs was the crossing of Arabians on native horses, and by 1873 some English observers felt that the Prussian calvalry mounts were superior in endurance to the British mounts. The observers credited the Arabian basis of the breeding program for this superiority.
Other examples included the Babolna Stud of Hungary, set up in 1789, and the Weil stud in Germany (now known as Weil-Marbach or Marbach stud), founded in 1817 by King William I of Wurttemberg. Arabians were also introduced into European racehorse breeding, especially in England via the Darley Arabian, Byerly Turk, and Godolphin Arabian, the three foundation stallions of the modern Thoroughbred breed, who were each brought to England in the 1700s. King James I of England imported the first Arabian stallion, the Markham Arabian, to England in 1616. Other monarchs obtained Arabian horses, often as personal mounts. One of the most famous Arabian stallions in Europe was Marengo, the war horse ridden by Napoleon Bonaparte.
During the mid-1800s, the need for Arabian blood to improve the breeding stock for light cavalry horses in Europe resulted in more excursions to the Middle East. Queen Isabel II of Spain sent representatives of the crown to the desert to purchase Arabian horses and by 1847 had established a stud book. Her successor, King Alfonso XII imported additional bloodstock from other European nations. By 1893, the state military stud farm, Yeguada Militar was established in Cordoba, Spain for breeding both Arabian and Iberian horses. The military remained heavily involved in the importation and breeding of Arabians in Spain well into the early 20th century, and the Yeguada Militar is still in existence today.
This period also marked a period of considerable travel to the Middle East by European civilians and minor nobility, and in the process, some travelers noticed that the Arabian horse as a pure breed of horse was under threat due to modern forms of warfare, inbreeding and other problems that were reducing the horse population of the Bedouin tribes at a rapid rate. By the late 1800s, the most farsighted began in earnest to collect the finest Arabian horses they could find in order to preserve the blood of the pure desert horse for future generations. The most famous example was Lady Anne Blunt, the daughter of Ada Lovelace and granddaughter of Lord Byron.