One of the most famous horse breeds in the world is also one of the oldest. The Arabian probably ran wild in the Middle East for thousands of years. Archaeologists have unearthed skeletons that suggest it has changed relatively little over time.
But the Arabian horse probably would have remained in obscurity forever had it not become the war mount of the Bedouins. Camels were useful for their milk and their slow but steady method of travel. The horse, however, was ideal for the swift, silent raids which were a way of life for the tribes of the desert. Good war mares were prized, sharing the tents of their riders and being bred only to stallions of the purest blood, preferably from the same bloodline.
When the Moors set out to conquer Europe, beginning in the late 600s and early 700s, their prized Arabian war horses went with them. The light, agile Arabians presented a stark contrast to the heavy horses ridden by the armor-clad knights of Europe. Little wonder, then, that at first the Moors prevailed.
As the Middle Ages progressed and the knights traveled to the Middle East to fight the Crusades, they often captured Arabian horses and brought them home to Europe. Recognizing the advantage an athletic horse and a mobile rider had over a cumbersome steed and knight, many European nations began to shift their focus to Arabians, both purebred and crossbred.
Some Arabian blood undoubtedly was mingled in the gene pool of the Spanish mustang introduced by the conquistadors, but pure breeding of Arabians in America came later. By that time, the Arabian was a popular horse in England and had influenced the development of most light horse breeds. Early American colonists often brought Arabians and Arabian-derived horses with them.
Unfortunately, the turmoil of the Civil War destroyed any record of purebred Arabians on our shores. The first horse with known purebred descendants in America is Leopard. Leopard and Linden Tree were two Arabian stallions presented to Ulysses S. Grant by Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey. Grant gave both horses to Virginia horseman Randolph Huntington. While Huntington’s main interest was in showy trotting horses, in 1888, he imported two Arabian stallions and two mares from England to start a purebred Arabian breeding program.
The Arabian’s popularity in America, however, dates back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. One of the exhibits at this fair displayed 45 Arabian horses straight from the Middle East and handled by native Syrians. Most of these horses were auctioned after the fair was over, and thus attracted the attention of Peter Bradley and Homer Davenport. These two men spent the next few years importing native Bedouin horses.
The Arabian became available to horse owners of many stripes when the United States Army Remount Service adopted the breed as a prime cavalry mount. Not only did the Remount Service breed Arabians itself, but it offered the services of its Arabian stallions at readily affordable prices.
But a strange phenomenon occurred in later years. A handful of celebrities bought Arabian horses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and before long the breed was swept up in an overnight fad. A tax loophole made Arabian horses attractive financially—ownership for several years allowed complete depreciation of the horse’s cost and additional tax benefits after resale. Add to this the unique, refined appearance of the horse and the culture of opulence that grew up around horse shows and sales, and the result was rampant speculation in horses. Some horses gained value until their prices were in the millions.
The bubble burst in 1986 with the Tax Reform Act. With the loophole closed, horses lost their value overnight. Many breeders went bankrupt, while quite a few unfortunate Arabians suffered neglect in half-abandoned fields. The breed’s numbers continued to decline for the next few decades, registrations reaching the low point in 2010.
Today, however, the Arabian is for the most part in better hands. The dedicated breeders who decided to weather the storm and continue raising this favorite horse breed focused on producing a versatile pleasure horse, better suited to the needs of recreational riders. The Arabian can still be found across the world and in every state in America.
There are many different bloodlines of Arabians, each suited for different tasks, making the breed as a whole highly versatile. Probably the sport at which Arabians excel the most is competitive endurance riding, but they participate in other events from jumping to racing to dressage. This breed is quite at home under a Western saddle, as well. While it is not heavy and powerful enough for roping, stockier individuals thrive on the challenges of reining, cutting, and everyday work on the ranch. Thanks to this versatility and stamina, the Arabian has earned its place as a means of improving nearly any horse breed.
Some Arabians earn their keep by their looks. They have made their way into many films, but quite a few are simply pets, gracing the front pasture and coming out for a ride on the weekend.
The Arabian has a unique and almost indescribable personality. To say that the breed is “hot-blooded” only conveys part of the picture. While it is true that it is proud, fiery, and energetic, it is passionately loyal and affectionate toward a kind and experienced horseman. Its sensitivity makes it quick to pick up on the wants of its rider, and it obeys readily. This breed is smart and particularly loves a challenge presented to it by a trusted owner.
Unfortunately, this spirit can make the Arabian difficult for beginners to work with. These horses have excellent memories, and inconsistent handling or bad experiences will sour them. They can easily develop nervousness when in inexperienced hands. This will particularly show up if they are stabled for long periods of time.
Sun-related skin problems are not an issue in this desert breed.
Most Arabians are structurally sound, with hooves and lungs made for endurance. However, riders must respect the fact that these horses mature slowly. It is best to avoid strenuous activity, particularly jumping, until the bones and joints are fully developed, around five years of age. Also, this breed seems to be prone to crippling arthritis after an injury.
Some Arabians suffer from strangulating lipomas, which are lumps of fat. Often these lipomas are harmless (at least at first), but they can grow and cut off blood flow to the intestinal tract, causing serious complications.
Six genetic defects have been discovered in the Arabian breed and in Arabian-derived crosses. These are:
- Severe combined immunodeficiency, in which the foal is born without an immune system.
- Lavender foal syndrome, in which a light-colored foal is unable to stand and experiences seizures.
- Cerebellar abiotrophy, in which the horse loses important neurons, causing incoordination and head tremors.
- Occipitoatlantoaxial malformation, in which abnormal vertebrae in the neck cause incoordination and paralysis.
- Equine juvenile idiopathic epilepsy, in which horses experience seizures at a young age, but eventually grow out of them.
- Guttural pouch tympany, in which air collects in the Eustachian tubes.
Genetic tests are available for the first three of these defects.
- Feed efficiency.
- Ideal size for smaller riders.
- Incredible stamina.
- Price fluctuations.
- Difficult personality for beginners to handle.
- Genetic defects.
- Slow maturity.
- Unusual build, which means a special bridle and saddle will be necessary.
- Size too small for long-legged riders or for many horse sports.