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Breed Spotlight: The Ancient and Amazing Arabian Horse

chestnut arabian horse with mountain backdrop
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Written by Nicky H

The History of the Arabian

Arabian horses are a bit like Marmite (a savory British spread)—people either love or hate them! The breed has a reputation for being on the flighty and sensitive side. But Arabian owners and breeders know there’s much more to them than meets the eye.

Arabians are among the oldest horse breeds in the world and are widely celebrated for their speed, endurance, and intelligence. I’ve owned, ridden, and competed on Arabians for years and want to share my passion for the breed while exploring their origins and uncovering the extent of their influence on the equestrian world.

The Origin of the Arabian

Some 3,500 years ago, a small, strong breed of horses with similar traits to the modern-day Arabian were domesticated by the Middle-Eastern Bedouins. Prized for their speed and agility, these horses were used in warfare and raids, while also being treasured as companions and protectors.

Evolving in a desert landscape, the Arabian became a tough breed of horse that was loyal to its human companion, could withstand the harsh conditions of the desert, and travel long distances with little food or water.

bay Arabian horse

source: canva

History of the Breed

The Bedouins bred Arabians for endurance, speed, intelligence, and soundness. Over the years they have produced five different strains, each with unique characteristics.

As the Muslim influence spread across the world, the Arabian horse went with it, first arriving in North Africa, before spreading further afield with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

Over time, many Arabian horses were given away as diplomatic gifts or stolen as the spoils of war, gradually infiltrating new countries and continents.

gray Arabian horse in traditional halter

Source: Canva

It wasn’t long before Arabians arrived in Europe where they replaced the traditional armored warhorse with a lighter, more agile cavalry.

The arrival of modern warfare coincided with the decimation of many established Arabian studs in Europe and Russia. The horses gradually lost their reputation as war horses and started gaining popularity as pleasure-riding horses.

Today, Arabians are found all over the world, with the largest population being located in the US.

They are among the top ten most popular horse breeds and excel at endurance and competitive trail riding, among other disciplines.

Characteristics of Arabian Horses

Arabian horses are known for their dished faces, high-head carriage, and diminutive stature. They rarely exceed 15 hh, have short backs, compact bodies, and noticeable withers.

Their hooves are small and tough, and their bones are strong, making them capable of carrying heavier riders over long distances.

Arabians evolved unique characteristics to cope with the desert climate. Their flared nostrils, large lungs, and well-sprung ribs allow for increased airflow, while their distinctively high tail carriage increases heat loss.

bay arabian horse trotting

Source: Canva

Influenced Breeds

The Arabian’s influence can be seen in almost every modern light-riding horse breed. Stock horses, warmbloods, ponies, and racehorses have all been influenced by the Arabian, and many Thoroughbreds can trace their ancestry back to one of three foundation Arabian stallions.

Thoroughbred Bloodlines

The Darley Arabian

Purchased by Thomas Darley in Aleppo in 1704, the Darley Arabian was exported to England and covered a selection of mares between 1706 and 1719. He sired several good runners, including Childers who, at the time, was thought to be “the fastest horse the world had ever seen.”

The Byerley Turk

This Arabian horse arrived in the UK in 1689 after Captain Robert Byerley allegedly took him from a captured Turkish officer. Unlike the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk had to work for a living, serving as Byerley’s war horse in both Hungary, and again at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

He then stood at stud in England sometime after the Battle of the Boyne, covering mares until around 1701. He sired many successful racehorses and his line continues to shape the racing industry in both the US and Australia.

The Godolphin Arabian

Imported to the UK from France in 1729, the Godolphin Arabian only sired his first racehorse after the dam rejected the advances of another stallion, called Hobgoblin. The result was a horse called Lath, who was considered the greatest racehorse of his generation.

Types of Arabian Horses

Although all Arabian horses belong to a single breed, within that breed are several different types, or lines, each of which has its unique history and characteristics.

  1. Egyptian – The Egyptian Arab is considered the most pure type of Arabian horse and can be identified by its dished face and high tail carriage. Egyptian Arabs are generally smaller and more fine-boned than other Arabians.
  2. Russian – Russian Arabians are known for their stamina, athletic ability, and calm nature. They were influenced by other types, including the Crabbet and Polish Arabians.
  3. Polish – There are two types of Polish Arabians – the elegant Seglawi and the athletic Kuhailan – although all Polish Arabians are celebrated for their athleticism and stamina. Polish Arabians have compact, muscular bodies, high-set tails, arched necks, and small hooves.
  4. Crabbet – Crabbet Arabians are taller than most other types, often reaching 15.2 hh, or even taller. They often lack the distinctive concave face of other Arabian types but excel in terms of strength and stamina.
  5. Spanish – The rarest of all the Arabian types, the Spanish Arabian is usually gray. They stand around 15 hh and are strong and athletic. Their curved tails and short necks set them apart from other Arabs.
  6. Shagya – Developed by the Hungarian military, the Shagya Arabian is the least pure of all the types, having been combined with heavier breeds to develop a cavalry horse with strength and size, as well as agility and speed.
dapple gray arabian horse

Source: Canva

Disciplines the Arabian Excels In

Arabians excel over long distances and dominate the endurance scene worldwide. They also perform well at competitive trail riding events and cut a striking figure in the show ring.

Some riders also compete with them in showjumping, dressage, and Western disciplines like roping and cutting.

Arabian Breed Associations

The main Arabian breed association in the US is the Arabian Horse Association, which registers Arabian horses throughout the country. There are also some state Arabian breed associations, and some global ones, like the World Arabian Horse Organization.

There are Arabian breed associations in other countries, including the UK, Australia, and South Africa.

chestnut arabian horse

Source: Canva

Common Arabian Crosses

In addition to pure Arabians, the world also benefits from several popular crossbreeds, including:

  1. Quarab – a combination of Quarter Horse, American Paint, and Arabian
  2. Morab – Morgan cross Arab
  3. National Show Horse – a cross between the Arabian and the American Saddlebred
  4. Anglo-Arabians – Thoroughbred cross Arab
  5. AraAppaloosa – a combination of Arabian and Appaloosa bloodlines
  6. Welara – a cross between the Arabian and the Welsh pony
  7. Pintabian – the Pintabian has 99% Arab blood and 1% Paint

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why are Arabian horses the best?

Arabian horses are strong, sound, and willing to work. They’re intelligent, with strong hooves, a great work ethic, and exceptional stamina. They also eat less than most other breeds!

Q: Why do Arabian horses raise their tails?

According to some, the Arabian’s high tail carriage reflects its pride and fiery temperament, while others believe it’s due to the breed’s body structure, arguing that the Arab’s croup is more horizontal than other breeds, leading to a higher tail carriage.

Q: How long do Arabian horses live?

Arabians are hardy animals with a longer-than-average lifespan. They commonly live for 25 to 30 years, and exceptional individuals, namely Magic, have lived for over 50!

Q: Are Arabian horses good for beginners?

Some Arabians are exceptional beginner horses, while others are challenging even for experienced riders. It really depends on the individual horse. Arabians are intelligent, brave, and kind, which makes them great for beginners, but they can also be stubborn and flighty, making them less ideal.

Q: How many Arabian horses are there in the world?

There are over one million registered Arabian horses in the world, and plenty more unregistered. The world’s largest population of registered Arabians is in the US, which stands at above 600,000 individuals.

Parting Thoughts

If you want to cover distance on horseback, there’s no better athlete than the Arabian. Fast, brave, and sure-footed, they cover the ground efficiently and safely, making them ideal for endurance and trail riding.

Their show-stopping beauty is also tough to beat, while their kindness and intelligence make them loyal and lasting companions.

chestnut arabian horse with stripe and two socks

Source: Canva

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Sources:

Speculations on the origin of the Arabian horse breed – ScienceDirect

Darley Arabian

Arabian Horse Association

About the World Arabian Horse Organization

Did You Know There are over One Million Registered Arabian Horses in the World? – horsereporter.com

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