Horse Breeds

The enduring legacy of the Arabian horse

The Arabian horse is one of the oldest horse breeds developed by humans.

With its distinctive dished head shape and high tail carriage, the Arabian is one of the most easily recognisable horse breeds in the world.

It is believed that the breed originated in the Arabian Peninsula, which is located in the Middle East, mainly modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This breed is known for its distinctive beauty, endurance, and intelligence, and I wanted take a look at the history, physical characteristics, and cultural significance of this distinctive breed.

The origins of the Arabian horse are shrouded in mystery.

The Arabians are commonly believed to be one of the oldest and the most influential horse breeds in the world.

They are also subject of many myths and legends about their origins, some of which date back even to the times of King Solomon.

The history of modern populations of the breed, described in pedigree records, is no longer than 200 years.

The development and improvement of the breed is linked with Islam, but the exact origin of the Arabian horses is unclear.

The history of the Arabian dates back over 2,000 years, and the breed is believed to have been developed by Bedouin tribes, who lived in the Arabian desert.

Horses with the distinctive features appeared in rock paintings and inscriptions in the Arabian Peninsula as early as 3500 years ago.

There are theories about where the ancestors of the Arabian originally lived, most of which suggests the proto-Arabian came from an area along the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent.

Another hypothesis is that the Arabian originated in modern-day Yemen, where dried out riverbeds indicate there once were good pastures in the area, perhaps as far back as the Ice Age.

The Bedouin tribes relied heavily on their horses for transportation, hunting, and warfare. Therefore, they carefully bred their horses for speed, stamina, and agility.

The Bedouin were very protective of their horses as they considered the horses to be a valuable asset to their way of life.

The Arabian horse is a small, compact breed.

They stand between 14 and 15 hands (142-152 cm / 56-60 inches) tall.

They are known for their refined and elegant appearance, with a dished profile, large nostrils, and a high-set tail. Their coat comes in a range of colours, including black, bay, chestnut, and gray.

One of the most distinctive features of the Arabian horse is its endurance.

Arabians have a high level of stamina and can travel long distances without tiring.

This is in part due to where they come from, the dry climate of the Arabian peninsula – and in part due to their structure.

Arabians have well-sprung ribs, large, flexible nostrils and unique attachment of the neck to the head all allow for tremendous lung capacity.

Arabians were used as war horses in battles and became known for their bravery and agility.

Beginning in 1095, European armies invaded Palestine and many knights returned home with Arabian horses as spoils of war.

Though it’s likely that some Arabian horses had already trickled in through Spain and France even before that.

A major infusion of Arabian horses into Europe occurred when the Ottoman Turks sent 300,000 horsemen into Hungary in 1522.

Many of them were mounted on Arabian horses that had been captured during raids into Arabia.

By 1529 the Ottomans had reached Vienna, where they came up against Polish and Hungarian armies who, in turn, captured the Arabian horses from the defeated Ottoman cavalry.

Some of these animals became the foundation bloodstock for major studs in Eastern Europe.

Later, as knights and the heavy, armoured destriers they rode became obsolete, Arabian horses were used to develop faster, more agile light cavalry horses.

With the rise of the light cavalry, the stamina and agility of horses with Arabian blood gave the military that possessed them an enormous advantage.

As a result, many European monarchs supported large breeding programmes that crossed Arabians with local stock.

Arabians were eventually also introduced into the racing horses of Europe, and most notably, three Arabian stallions were the founding bloodstock of the Thoroughbred breed.

Monarchs liked to obtain Arabians as personal mounts, the most famous Arabian stallion in Europe was Marengo, the war horse of Napoleon Bonaparte.

You’ve probably seen this painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps painted by Jacques-Louis David. The horse in the painting is believed to be Marengo.

Trade with the Ottomans also provided access to more pure Arabian horse stock, and the mid-19th century saw increased excursions to the Middle East from Europe.

Queen Isabel II of Spain sent representatives to purchase Arabian horses, and by 1847 had established a stud book. King Alfonso XII, her successor, imported additional bloodstock from other European nations.

By 1893, the state military stud farm, Yeguada Militar was established in Córdoba, 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.

European civilians and minor nobility, not to be outdone by their royal counterparts, also began travelling to the Arabian peninsula for horses, and in the process, some travellers noted that the Arabian horse as a pure breed of horse was under threat due to modern forms of warfare, inbreeding and other problems, reducing the horse population of the Bedouin tribes at a rapid rate.

By the late 19th century, the most farsighted began collecting 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, who would go on to start the Crabbet Park Stud.

The European studs suffered from modern warfare.

World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire all contributed to many historic European stud farms being lost as well as destroying most of the breeding programs in Russia.

However, the Soviet government re-established an Arabian breeding program, the Tersk Stud, which included Polish bloodstock as well as some imports from the Crabbet Stud in England.

In Poland, the Antoniny and Slawuta Studs were decimated, only five mares surviving, while the Janów Podlaski Stud survived.

The Spanish Civil War and World War II had a devastating impact on horse breeding throughout Europe.

The Veragua stud, which had been founded in the 1920s by Cristóbal Colón de Aguilera, who was a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus, was destroyed, and its records lost, with the only survivors being the broodmares and the younger horses.

The Crabbet Park, Tersk, and Janów Podlaski studs survived.

Postwar, Spain, Poland and Germany developed or re-established many well respected Arabian studs.

The Polish studs were particularly hard hit, both by the Nazis and the Soviets, but were able to become world-renowned for their quality Arabian horses.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States obtained valuable Arabian bloodlines as spoils of war, which they used to strengthen their breeding programs.

The Soviet Union had taken steps to protect the breeding stock at the Tersk Stud, and following the end of World War II, they were able to use horses captured in Poland to re-establish the breeding program.

In the 1950s, the Russians also obtained additional horses from Egypt to augment their breeding programs.

During the Cold War, only a few Arabian horses were exported from behind the Iron Curtain, but the ones that did caught the eye of breeders world-wide.

Improved international relations between eastern Europe and the west led to major imports of Polish and Russian-bred Arabian horses to western Europe and the USA in the 1970s and 1980s.

And the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, greater political stability in Egypt, and the rise of the European Union all increased international trade in Arabian horses.

The first horses on the American mainland since the end of the Ice Age arrived with the Spanish Conquistadors.

Hernán Cortés brought 16 horses of Andalusian, Barb, and Arabian ancestry to Mexico in 1519. More horses followed with each new arrival of Conquistadors, settlers and missionaries, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado brought 250 horses of similar breeding to America in 1540.

Many of the horses escaped or were stolen and became the foundational stock of the American Mustang.

The Americans brought Arabian horses captured in Europe during World War II to the United States, mostly to the Pomona U.S. Army Remount station.

The Arabian Horse Registry of America was established with 71 horses in 1908. By 1994, the number of horses had reached half a million.

Today there are more Arabians registered in North America than in the rest of the world put together.

The legacy of the Arabian breed is global.

The Arabian horse has played a significant role in the culture and history of the Middle East.

Bedouin tribes considered their horses to be a symbol of their wealth, power, and status. Horses were often given as gifts or used as dowries in marriages.

They were also used in traditional Arab horse races, where wealthy merchants and tribal leaders would compete for prestige and honour.

Known for courage, intelligence, loyalty, and a spirited but gentle disposition, the Arabian horse has an affinity for humans.

For centuries, the Bedouin treated their horses as members of their family.

They raised the foals with their children and allowed the mares to seek shelter in their tents.

Arabian horses form strong bonds with their humans, have a strong desire to please, they actively seek affection and will return it in kind.

This unique combination of characteristics make Arabians versatile horses that eagerly engage in the tasks set for them, whether that’s riding English or Western, excelling at horse shows, working cattle or racing.

Or simply being amazing equine companions. Arabians tend to live long lives and remain active well into their senior years.

The genetic dominance of the Arabian breed and its influence on other breeds is well-documented.

The Europeans quickly found that crossing Arabians to European stock resulted in offspring that were faster, required less feed, lived longer, and had improved stamina.

Arabian blood is a strong contributor to almost all modern light breeds in the world today.

The Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, Andalusian, Morgan and Welsh Cob are only a few examples.

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