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The Arabian Horse

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The Arabian horse

 is a breed of horse with a reputation for intelligence, spirit, and stamina. 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 (especially Brazil), and its land of origin, the Middle East.

 

Breed characteristics

A purebred Arabian stallion, showing dished profile, arched neck, level croup and high-carried tail.
A purebred Arabian stallion, showing dished profile, arched neck, level croup and high-carried tail.

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 mitbah or mitbeh 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.

 Size

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 (140 to 150 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 (150 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.

Temperament

Arabians are noted for both intelligence and a spirited disposition
Arabians are noted for both intelligence and a spirited disposition

For centuries, Arabian horses lived in the desert in close association with humans.[13] For shelter and protection from theft, prized war mares were sometimes kept in their owner's tent, close to children and everyday family life.[1] 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.[14]

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,[15] and do not tolerate inept or abusive training practices.[16]

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.[16] On the other hand, romantic myths are sometimes told about Arabian horses that give them near-divine characteristics.[17]

[edit] Colors

A gray Arabian, note white hair coat but black skin.
A gray Arabian, note white hair coat but black skin.

The Arabian Horse Association recognizes purebred horses with the coat colors bay, gray, chestnut, black, and roan.[18] 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.[citation needed]

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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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."[22]

[edit] Sabino

Main article: Sabino horse

One spotting pattern, sabino, does exist in purebred Arabians. The sabino gene (or gene-complex), produces white markings such as "high white" above the knees and hocks, irregular spotting on the legs, belly and face, white markings that extend beyond the eyes or under the chin and jaw, and occasionally, roaning.[23] Many Arabians meet the definition of having minimal to moderately expressed sabino characteristics,[24]

Some groups consider a "Maximum" Sabino to be a horse that is over 50% white.[24] Today, some researchers call horses that are over 90% white (with pink skin) "Sabino-white." In either case, studies at the University of California, Davis indicate that the gene (or genes) which produces sabino in Arabians do not appear to be the autosomal dominant gene "SB1" or "Sabino1," that often produces completely white horses in other breeds.[25]

 Rabicano or roan?

Main article: Rabicano
An extensively expressed rabicano Arabian horse
An extensively expressed rabicano Arabian horse

There are very few Arabians registered as roan, and some geneticists suggest that roaning in purebred Arabians is actually the action of rabicano genetics. Rabicano is a partial roan-like pattern. Unlike a true roan, a rabicano horse's body does not have intermingled white and solid hairs over the entire body, nor are the legs or head significantly darker. Another area of confusion is that some people confuse a young gray horse with a roan because of the intermixed hair colors common to both. However, a roan does not change color with age, while a gray does.

Colors that do not exist in purebreds

There is pictorial evidence from pottery and tombs in Ancient Egypt suggesting that spotting patterns may have existed on ancestral Arabian-type horses in antiquity. However, purebred Arabians today do not carry genes for pinto or Appaloosa spotting patterns, except for sabino. Spotting or excess white was believed by many breeders to be a mark of impurity until DNA testing for verification of parentage became standard. For a time, horses with belly spots and other white markings deemed excessive could not even be registered, and even after the rule was softened, excess white was sometimes penalized in the show ring. Purebred Arabians also never carry dilution genes.  Therefore, purebreds cannot be colors such as dun, cremello, perlino, palomino or buckskin.

To produce horses with some Arabian characteristics but coat colors not found in purebreds, they have to be crossbred with other breeds. Though the purebred Arabian produces a limited range of potential colors, they also never carry the frame overo gene ("O"), and thus a purebred Arabian can never produce foals with lethal white syndrome. In fact, Arabian mares were used as a non-affected population in some of the studies seeking the gene that caused the condition in other breeds.  Nonetheless, partbred Arabians can, in some cases, carry these genes if the non-Arabian parent was a carrier.

 Genetic diseases

There are four known genetic conditions in Arabian horses which usually result in euthanasia of the affected animal. All four are thought to be autosomal recessive conditions, which means that the flawed gene is not sex-linked and has to come from both parents for an affected foal to be born. There are two other genetic conditions that are not inevitably fatal, but can be disabling or fatal if not treated.[34]

Arabians are not the only breed of horse to have problems with inherited diseases; fatal or disabling genetic conditions also exist in many other breeds, including the American Quarter Horse, American Paint Horse, American Saddlebred, Appaloosa, Miniature horse, and Belgian.

The "genetic lethal" conditions (so called, though two of the four are not invariably lethal) in Arabian horses are:

  • Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). Similar to the "bubble boy" condition in humans, an affected foal is born with no immune system, and thus generally dies of an opportunistic infection, usually before the age of five months. There is a DNA test that can detect healthy horses who are carriers of the gene causing SCID, thus testing and careful, planned matings can now eliminate the possibility of an affected foal ever being born.
  • Cerebellar abiotrophy (CA). An affected foal is usually born without symptoms, but at some point, usually after six weeks of age, develops severe incoordination, a head tremor, wide-legged stance and other symptoms related to the death of the purkinje cells in the cerebellum. Such foals are frequently diagnosed only after they have crashed into a fence or fallen over backwards, and sometimes their symptoms are misdiagnosed as a head injury caused by the accident. The only way to confirm a diagnosis of CA is to examine the brain after euthanasia. The degree of severity varies, with some foals having fast onset of severe coordination problems, others showing milder symptoms. In theory, mildly affected horses could live a full lifespan, but in practice most are euthanized before adulthood because they are so accident-prone as to be a danger to themselves and others. There is currently no genetic test for CA.[36]
  • Lavender Foal Syndrome (LFS), also called Coat Color Dilution Lethal (CCDL). The condition gets it name because most affected foals are born with a coat color dilution that lightens the tips of the coat hairs, or even the entire hair shaft. Foals with LFS are unable to stand at birth, often have seizures, and are usually euthanized within a few days of birth. There is currently no genetic test for LFS.
  • Occipital Atlanto-Axial Malformation (OAAM). This is a condition where the cervical vertebrae fuse together in the neck and at the base of the skull. Symptoms range from mild incoordination to the paralysis of both front and rear legs. Some affected foals cannot stand to nurse, in others the symptoms may not be seen for several weeks. This is the only cervical spinal cord disease seen in horses less than 1 month of age, and a radiograph can diagnose the condition. There is no genetic test for OAAM, and the hereditary component of this condition is not well researched at present.
  • Equine juvenile epilepsy, sometimes referred to as "benign" epilepsy or "idiopathic" epilepsy, is not usually fatal. Foals are born normal and appear normal between epileptic seizures, usually outgrowing the condition between 12 and 18 months.  Affected foals may show signs of epilepsy anywhere from two days to six months from birth.  Symptoms of the condition can be treated with traditional anti-seizure medications, which may reduce the severity of symptoms. Though the condition has been studied since 1985 at the University of California, Davis, the genetic mode of inheritance is unclear, though the cases studied were all of one general bloodline group.  Some researchers have suggested that epilepsy may be linked in some fashion to Lavender Foal Syndrome due to the fact that it occurs in similar bloodlines and some horses have produced foals with both conditions.
  • Guttural Pouch Tympany (GPT) occurs in horses ranging from birth to 1 yr of age and is more common in fillies than in colts. It is thought to be genetic in Arabians, possibly polygenic in inheritance, but more study is needed.  Foals are born with a defect that causes the pharyngeal opening of the Eustachian tube to act like a one-way valve. Air can get in, but it cannot get out. The affected guttural pouch is distended with air and forms a characteristic nonpainful swelling. Breathing is noisy in severely affected animals.  Diagnosis is based on clinical signs and radiographic examination of the skull. Medical management with NSAID and antimicrobial therapy can treat upper respiratory tract inflammation. Surgical intervention is needed to correct the malformation of the guttural pouch opening to provides a route for air in the abnormal guttural pouch to pass to the normal side and be expelled into the pharynx. Foals that are successfully treated may grow up to have fully useful lives.

The Arabian Horse Association in the United States has created a foundation that supports research efforts to uncover the roots of genetic diseases.  The organization F.O.A.L. (Fight Off Arabian Lethals) is a clearinghouse for information on these conditions.  Additional information is available from the World Arabian Horse Association (WAHO).

 Mythology

Arabian horses are the topic of many myths and legends, particularly about their origins.

One creation myth tells how Muhammad chose his foundation mares by a test of their courage and loyalty. While there are several variants on the tale, one common version states that after a long journey through the desert, Muhammad turned his herd of horses loose to race to an oasis for a desperately-needed drink of water. Before the herd reached the water, Muhammad called for the horses to return to him. Only five mares responded. Because they faithfully returned to their master, even though desperate with thirst, these mares became his favorites and were called Al Khamsa, meaning, the five. These mares thus became the legendary founders of the five choice "strains" of the Arabian horse.  Although the Al Khamsa are probably fictional horses of legend,  some breeders today claim the modern Bedouin Arabian actually descended from these mares.[50]

Another tale claims that King Solomon of Ancient Israel was said to have been given a pure Arabian-type mare named Safanad ("the pure") by the Queen of Sheba.  Another version says that Solomon gave his renowned stallion, Zad el-Raheb or Zad-el-Rakib ("Gift to the Rider") to the Banu Azd people when they came to pay tribute to the king. This legendary stallion was said to be faster than the zebra and the gazelle, and every hunt with him was successful, thus the Arabs put him to stud and he became a founding sire of legend.

Yet another creation myth puts the origin of the Arabian in the time of Ishmael, the son of Abraham.  In this story, the Angel Jibril (also known as Gabriel) descended from Heaven and awakened Ishmael with a "wind-spout" that whirled toward him. The Angel then commanded the thundercloud to stop scattering dust and rain, and so it gathered itself into a prancing, handsome creature - a horse - that seemed to swallow up the ground. Hence, the Bedouins bestowed the title "Drinker of the Wind" to the first Arabian horse.

Another Bedouin story states that Allah created the Arabian horse from the four winds; spirit from the North, strength from the South, speed from the East, and intelligence from the West. While doing so, he exclaimed, "I create thee, Oh Arabian. To thy forelock, I bind Victory in battle. On thy back, I set a rich spoil and a Treasure in thy loins. I establish thee as one of the Glories of the Earth... I give thee flight without wings.  Other versions of the story claim Allah said to the South Wind: "I want to make a creature out of you. Condense." Then from the material condensed from the wind, he made a kamayt-colored animal (a bay or burnt chestnut) and said: "I call you Horse; I make you Arabian and I give you the chestnut color of the ant; I have hung happiness from the forelock which hangs between your eyes; you shall be the Lord of the other animals. Men shall follow you wherever you go; you shall be as good for flight as for pursuit; you shall fly without wings; riches shall be on your back and fortune shall come through your meditation."

Origins

An Arabian horse in the desert. Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1810
An Arabian horse in the desert. Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1810

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.

Desert roots

There are different theories about where the wild ancestor of the Arabian originally lived. Most evidence suggests the "proto Arabian" or "Oriental" horse came from the area along the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent.  Others argue for the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula, in modern-day Yemen, where three now-dry riverbeds suggest good natural pastures existed long ago, though perhaps as far back as the Ice Age. Some scholars of the Arabian horse theorize that the Arabian came from a separate subspecies of horse,  known as equus caballus pumpelli.  However, other scholars, including Gladys Brown Edwards, a noted Arabian researcher, believe that the "dry" oriental horse of the desert, from which the modern Arabian developed, was more likely one of the four foundation subtypes of Equus caballus that had specific characteristics based on the environments in which they lived, rather than being a separate subspecies.  Horses with similar, though not identical, physical characteristics include the now-extinct Turkoman Horse, the Marwari horse of India, the Barb of North Africa and the Akhal-Teke of western Asia.

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

Carl Raswan pictured on an Anazeh warmare
Carl Raswan pictured on an Anazeh warmare

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.

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