Arabian History | News & Info
Unparalleled beauty, a rich history and a unique ability to bond with their owners
From the ancient deserts of the Middle East evolved the oldest known breed of riding horse, the Arabian. Now one of the most popular breeds in America, the Arabians' incredible energy, intelligence and gentle disposition allow riders to excel in most equine sports and activities. Today, Arabian horses spend as much time on the trail as they do at horse shows and other competitive events.
For thousands of years, Arabians lived among the desert tribes of the Arabian peninsula, bred by the Bedouins as war mounts for long treks and quick forays into enemy camps. In these harsh desert conditions evolved the Arabian with its large lung capacity and incredible endurance.
Historical figures like Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Alexander The Great and George Washington rode Arabians. Even today, one finds descendants from the earliest Arabian horses of antiquity. Then, a man's wealth was measured in his holdings of these fine animals. Given that the Arabian was the original source of quality and speed, and remains foremost in the fields of endurance and soundness, he still either directly or indirectly contributed to the formation of virtually all the modern breeds of horses.
The prophet Mohammed, in the seventh century AD, was instrumental in spreading the Arabian's influence around the world. He mandated that the Arabians' numbers be increased, as the horses would be crucial to the inevitable battles that would be required for his religious conquests. He also proclaimed that Allah had created the Arabian, and that those who treated the horse well would be rewarded in the afterlife. These incentives, coupled with the Koran's instruction that "no evil spirit will dare to enter a tent where there is a purebred horse," further spurred the breeding of the Arabian.
The severe climate required the nomads to share food and water, and sometimes even their tents with their horses. As a result, Arabians developed a close affinity to man and a high intelligence.
Over the centuries, the Bedouin tribes zealously maintained the purity of the breed. Because of their limited resources, breeding practices were extremely selective. Such practices, which eventually helped the Arabian become a prized possession throughout the world, have led to the beautiful athletic breed we know today, which is marked by a distinctive dished profile; large, lustrous, wide-set eyes on a broad forehead; small, curved ears; and large, efficient nostrils.
Even today the purebred Arabian is virtually the same as that ridden in ancient Arabia. Arabians now display their athletic talents in a variety of disciplines from English to Western, with the Arabian positioned as the undisputed champion of endurance events.
If you're looking for a companion who'll be your partner in adventure or competition-and your friend for life-then an Arabian may be the horse for you.
Origin of the Arabian Horse
The origin of the Arabian horse remains a great zoological mystery. Although this unique breed has had a distinctive national identity for centuries, its history nevertheless is full of subtleties, complexities and contradictions. It defies simple interpretation.
When we first encounter the Arabian, or the prototype of what is known today as the Arabian, he is somewhat smaller than his counterpart today. Otherwise he has essentially remained unchanged throughout the centuries.
Authorities are at odds about where the Arabian horse originated. The subject is hazardous, for archaeologists' spades and shifting sands of time are constantly unsettling previously established thinking. There are certain arguments for the ancestral Arabian having been a wild horse in northern Syria, southern Turkey and possibly the piedmont regions to the east as well. The area along the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent comprising part of Iraq and running along the Euphrates and west across Sinai and along the coast to Egypt, offered a mild climate and enough rain to provide an ideal environment for horses. Other historians suggest this unique breed originated in the southwestern part of Arabia, offering supporting evidence that the three great river beds in this area provided natural wild pastures and were the centers in which Arabian horses appeared as undomesticated creatures to the early inhabitants of southwestern Arabia.
Because the interior of the Arabian peninsula has been dry for approximately 10,000 years, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for horses to exist in that arid land without the aid of man. The domestication of the camel in about 3500 B.C. provided the Bedouins (nomadic inhabitants of the middle east desert regions) with means of transport and sustenance needed to survive the perils of life in central Arabia, an area into which they ventured about 2500 B.C. At that time they took with them the prototype of the modern Arabian horse.
There can be little dispute, however, that the Arabian horse has proved to be, throughout recorded history, an original breed-which remains to this very day.
Neither sacred nor profane history tells us the country where the horse was first domesticated, or whether he was first used for work or riding. He probably was used for both purposes in very early times and in various parts of the world. We know that by 1500 B.C. the people of the east had obtained great mastery over their hot-blooded horses which were the forerunners of the breed which eventually became known as "Arabian."
About 3500 years ago the hot-blooded horse assumed the role of king-maker in the east, including the valley of the Nile and beyond, changing human history and the face of the world. Through him the Egyptians were made aware of the vast world beyond their own borders. The Pharaohs were able to extend the Egyptian empire by harnessing the horse to their chariots and relying on his power and courage. With his help, societies of such distant lands as the Indus Valley civilizations were united with Mesopotamian cultures. The empires of the Hurrians, Hittites, Kassites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and others rose and fell under his thundering hooves. His strength made possible the initial concepts of a cooperative universal society, such as the Roman empire. The Arabian "pony express" shrank space, accelerated communications and linked empires together throughout the eastern world.
This awe-inspiring horse of the east appears on seal rings, stone pillars and various monuments with regularity after the 16th century B.C. Egyptian hieroglyphics proclaim his value; Old Testament writings are filled with references to his might and strength. Other writings talk of the creation of the Arabian, "thou shallst fly without wings and conquer without swords." King Solomon some 900 years B.C. eulogized the beauty of "a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots," while in 490 B.C. the famous Greek horseman, Xinophon proclaimed: "A noble animal which exhibits itself in all its beauty is something so lovely and wonderful that it fascinates young and old alike." But whence came the "Arabian horse?" We have seen this same horse for many centuries before the word "Arab" was ever used or implied as a race of people or species of horse.
The origin of the word "Arab" is still obscure. A popular concept links the word with nomadism, connecting it with the Hebrew "Arabha," dark land or steppe land, also with the Hebrew "Erebh," mixed and hence organized as opposed to organized and ordered life of the sedentary communities, or with the root "Abhar"-to move or pass. "Arab" is a Semitic word meaning "desert" or the inhabitant thereof, with no reference to nationality. In the Koran a'rab is used for Bedouins (nomadic desert dwellers) and the first certain instance of its Biblical use as a proper name occurs in Jer. 25:24: "Kings of Arabia," Jeremiah having lived between 626 and 586 B.C. The Arabs themselves seem to have used the word at an early date to distinguish the Bedouin from the Arabic-speaking town dwellers.
This hot blooded horse which had flourished under the Semitic people of the east now reached its zenith of fame as the horse of the "Arabas." The Bedouin horse breeders were fanatic about keeping the blood of their desert steeds absolutely pure, and through line-breeding and inbreeding, celebrated strains evolved which were particularly prized for distinguishing characteristics and qualities. The mare evolved as the Bedouin's most treasured possession. The harsh desert environment ensured that only the strongest and keenest horse survived, and it was responsible for many of the physical characteristics distinguishing the breed to this day.
Horse of the Desert Bedouin
"An Arabian will take care of its owner as no other horse will, for it has not only been raised to physical perfection, but has been instilled with a spirit of loyalty unparalleled by that of any other breed."?
Somewhere in the inhospitable deserts of the Middle East, centuries ago, a breed of horse came into being that would influence the equine world beyond all imagination. In the sweet grass oasis along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in the countries that are now known as Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and in other parts of the Arabia peninsula, this hearty horse developed and would soon be known as the Arabian horse.
To the Islamic people, he was considered a gift from Allah, to be revered, cherished and almost worshipped. Long before Europeans were to become aware of his existence, the horse of the desert had established himself as a necessity for survival of the Bedouin people. The head men of the tribes could relate the verbal histories of each family of horse in his tribe as well as he could each family of Bedouin. The mythology and romance of the breed grew with each passing century as stories of courage, endurance and wealth intermingled with the genealogies.
The very nature of the breed, it's shape as well as it's color, was influenced by religious belief, superstition and tradition. It was believed that the bulging forehead held the blessings of Allah. Therefore the greater the "Jibbah" the greater the blessings carried by the horse. The great arching neck with a high crest, the "Mitbah" was a sign of courage, while a gaily carried tail showed pride. These traits were held in high esteem and selectively bred for.
Due in part to the religious significance attached to the Arabian horse, as well as the contribution it made to the wealth and security of the tribe, the breed flourished in near isolation. Traditions of breeding and purity were established to keep the breed "Asil" or pure, in the form intended by Allah. Any mixture of foreign blood from the mountains or the cities surrounding the desert was strictly forbidden. While other, desert type breeds developed in North Africa and the periphery of the Great Desert, they were definitely not of the same blood as Arabians and were disdained by the proud Bedouin.
The Arabian horse was primarily an instrument of war, as were horses in general in most societies of the time. A well mounted Bedouin could attack an enemy tribe and capture their herds of sheep, camels and goats, adding to the wealth of their own tribe. Such a raid was only successful if the aggressors could attack with surprise and speed and make good their escape. Mares were the best mounts for raiding parties, as they would not nicker to the enemy tribe's horses, warning of their approach. The best war mares exhibited great courage in battle, taking the charges and the spear thrusts without giving ground. Speed and endurance were essential as well, for the raids were often carried out far from the home camp, family and children.
The Bedouin people could be as hospitable as they were war like. If a desert traveler touched their tent pole, they were obligated to provide for this "guest", his entourage and animals for up to three days without request for payment. A welcome guest would find his mare's bridle hung from the center pole of his hosts' tent to indicate his status. In this way, tribes that were often at war would meet and, with great hospitality, break bread and share stories of their bravest and fastest horses.
Races were held with the winner taking the best of the losers herd as their prize. Breeding stock could be bought and sold, but as a rule, the war mares carried no price. If indeed they changed hands it would be as a most honored gift. Through the centuries the tribes who roamed the northern desert in what is now Syria became the most esteemed breeders of fine horses. No greater gift could be given than an Arabian mare.
The value placed upon the mare led inevitably to the tracing of any family of the Arabian horse through his dam. The only requirement of the sire was that he be "Asil". If his dam was a "celebrated" mare of a great mare family, so much the better. Mare families, or strains, were named, often according to the tribe or sheik who bred them.
The Bedouin valued pure in strain horses above all others, and many tribes owned only one main strain of horse. The five basic families of the breed, known as "Al Khamsa", include Kehilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban. Other, less "choice" strains include Maneghi, Jilfan, Shuwayman, and Dahman. Substrains developed in each main strain, named after a celebrated mare or Sheik that formed a substantial branch within the main strain.
A great story of courage, endurance, or speed always accompanied the recitation of the genealogy of the sub-strain, such as the great Kehilet al Krush, the Kehilet Jellabiyat and the Seglawi of Ibn Jedran. Each of these mares carried with them stories of great battles and intrigue. Their daughters were sought after by the most powerful Kings but often remained unattainable. Daughters and granddaughters of these fabled mares changed hands through theft, bribery and deceit. If any of their descendants were sold, the prices were legendary.
Each strain, when bred pure, developed characteristics that could be recognized and identified. The Kehilan strain was noted for depth of chest, masculine power and size. The average pure in strain Kehilan stood up to 15 hands. Their heads were short with broad foreheads and great width in the jowls. Most common colors were gray and chestnut.
The Seglawi was known for refinement and almost feminine elegance. This strain was more likely to be fast rather than have great endurance. Seglawi horses have fine bone, longer faces and necks than the Kehilan. The average height for a Seglawi would be 14.2 hands, the most common color Bay.
The Abeyan strain is very similar to the Seglawi. They tended to be refined. The pure in strain Abeyan would often have a longer back than a typical Arabian. They were small horses, seldom above 14.2 hands, commonly gray and carried more white markings than other strains.
Hamdani horses were often considered plain, with an athletic if somewhat masculine, large boned build. Their heads were more often straight in profile, lacking an extreme Jibbah. The Hamdani strain was one of the largest, standing as much as 15.2 hands. The common colors were gray and bay.
The Hadban strain was a smaller version of the Hamdani. Sharing several traits including big bone and muscular build. They were also known for possessing an extremely gentle nature. The average height of a Hadban was 14.3 hands, the primary color brown or bay with few if any white markings.
While the Bedoiun bred their horses in great obscurity, the highly war like people of the East rode their Barbs and Turks into Europe, bringing havoc with them and leaving waste in their wake. Though few Arabian horses accompanied the Turks and Vandals on their forays into Europe, their hardy Barb and Turkish mountain horses were no less impressive to their victims.
Europe had developed horses through the Dark Ages to carry a knight and his armor. Their lighter horses were from the pony breeds. They had nothing to compare with the small, fast horses upon which the invaders were mounted. An interest in these "Eastern" horses grew, along with fantastical stories of prowess, speed, endurance and even jumping ability. To own such a horse would not only allow for the improvement of local stock, but would endow the fortunate man with incredible prestige. Such a horse in the stable would rival the value of the greatest art work hung on the wall. Europeans of means, primarily Royalty, went to great lengths to acquire these fabled horses.
As the world slowly shrank due to increasing travel abroad, the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire began to send gifts of Arabian horses to European heads of state. Such was the nature of The Godolphin Arabian (sometimes called "Barb") imported to England in 1730 as well as The Byerley Turk (1683) and the Darley Arabian (1703). These three "Eastern" stallions formed the foundation upon which a new breed, the Thoroughbred, was to be built. Today 93% of all modern Thoroughbreds can be traced to these three sires. By direct infusion, and through the blood of the Thoroughbred, the Arabian has contributed, to some degree to all our light breeds of horses.
The Arabian horse also made inroads into other parts of Europe and even farther east. In France, the Arabian helped to make the famous Percheron. In Russia, the blood of the Arabian horse contributed to the development of the Orloff Trotter.
The Bedouins have generally been credited with the beginning of selective pure breeding of Arabian horses. These tribes, although their breeding records were kept by memory and passed down through the ages verbally, are also credited as the first to keep breeding records and maintaining the purity of the Arabian breed. To this date, many Arabian pedigrees can be traced to desert breeding meaning there is no written record but because of the importance of purity to the Bedouins, "desert bred" is accepted as an authentic verification of pure blood for those early imports.
Today the Arabian horse exists in far greater numbers outside of it's land of origin than it ever did in the Great Desert. In the early part of the last century; greed, ambition, desire for prestige, as well as an honest interest in saving the breed from extinction was the driving force behind governments, royal families and adventuring private citizens alike in the acquisition and propagation of this great prize of the Bedouin people--the Arabian horse.
Arabian Horses Spread to Europe
With the rise of the Prophet Mohammed and the dawn of Islam, circa 600 A.D., Arabia underwent a change in culture. Fired with zeal over their new-found Islamic faith, the Arab warriors swept out of the desert mounted on "Arabian horses," spreading the word of their Prophet. Bred in the desert their remarkable horses had evolved like finely tempered steel into the swift, elegant, graceful and magnificent war horse by whose means the Arabs shook the civilized world. The Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean countries as far west as Spain and others as far east as China, fell to Islam.?(Picture courtesy Arabian Horse Trust)
European horses soon felt an extensive infusion of Arabian blood, especially as a result of the Christian Crusaders returning from the East between the years 1099 A.D. and 1249 A.D. With the invention of fire arms, the heavily armored knight lost his importance and during the 16th century handy, light and speedy horses were in demand for use as cavalry mounts. Subsequent wars proved the superiority of the Arabian horse as the outstanding military mount throughout the world.
After the Crusades, people of the western world began looking to the people of the east for Arabian bloodstock. Between 1683 and 1730 a revolution in horse breeding occurred when three Arabian stallions were imported to England. The Darley Arabian, the Byerly Turk and the Godolphin Arabian founded the Thoroughbred breed. Today the majority of all modern Thoroughbreds can be trace to these three Arabian sires. By direct infusion, and through the blood of the Thoroughbred, the Arabian has contributed, to some degree, to all our light breeds of horses.
In the 1800's travelers in the Victorian era became enamored with the horse of the desert as significant Arabian stud farms were founded throughout Europe. The royal families of Poland established notable studs, as did the kings of Germany and other European nations. As a result of Lady Anne Blunt and Wilfred Blunt's historical sojourns into the desert to obtain Egyptian and desert stock, the world-famous Crabbet Arabian Stud was founded in England. This stud eventually provided foundation horses for many countries, including Russia, Poland, Australia, North and South America and Egypt.
Introduction of Arabian Horses to North America
America was built by utilizing horse power and colonists were quick to realize the value of Arabian bloodstock. Nathan Harrison of Virginia imported the first Arabian stallion in 1725. This horse reportedly sired 300 foals from grade mares. Our first President, George Washington, road an Arabian horse. The first breeder of consequence, however, was A. Keene Richard. He journeyed into the desert in 1853 and 1856, subsequently importing several stallions and two mares. However, his breeding program fell victim to the Civil War and nothing survived.
In 1877, General Ulysses S. Grant visited Abdul Hamid II, His Imperial Majesty the Sultan of Turkey. There, he was presented with two stallions from the Sultan's stable, Leopard and Lindentree. Leopard was later given to Randolph Huntington who subsequently imported two mares and two stallions in 1888 from England. This program, limited as it was, must be considered as the first purebred Arabian breeding program in the United States.
The Chicago Worlds Fair held in 1893 drew widespread public attention and had an important influence upon the Arabian horse in America. While every country in the world was invited to participate, Turkey chose to exhibit 45 Arabian horses in a "wild eastern" exhibition. Among the imported Arabians shown were the mare Nejdme and the stallion, Obeyran. Both subsequently became foundation animals No. 1 and No. 2 in the Arabian Stud Book of America (later changed to the?Arabian Horse Registry of America). Several years later, two other mares and one stallion were also registered. Many breeding farms today have horses whose pedigrees trace to these 19th century Arabians.
Historical importations from England and Egypt were made soon after the Fair by such breeders as Spencer Borden, who imported 20 horses between 1898 and 1911 to his Interlachen Stud, and W.R. Brown who imported 20 horses from England, 6 from France and 7 from Egypt between 1918 and 1932.
One of the most significant importations occurred in 1906, when Homer Davenport received permission from the Sultan of Turkey to export Arabian horses. Davenport, with the backing of then President Theodore Roosevelt, imported 27 horses which became the foundation of "Davenport Arabians." The Davenport importation of Arabian horses direct from the desert excited the few Arabian breeders in this country. This group of breeders decided that the time was right to form a registry to promote the horse and encourage the importation of new blood. In 1908, the Arabian Horse Club of America was formed (today known as the?Arabian Horse Registry of America?) and the first stud book published. Recognition of the Arabian stud book by the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Registry as a national registry and the only one for the purebred Arabian breed. Seventy-one purebred Arabians were registered at that point.
Another significant importation occurred in the 1920s, when the Kellogg Ranch, founded by W.K. Kellogg, brought in 17 select horses from the Crabbet stud farm in 1926 and 1927. Soon after, Roger Selby established the Selby Stud with 20 horses imported from Crabbet between 1928 and 1933. The Albert Harris importation consisted of two horses from England in 1924 and five from the Hejaz and Nejd desert regions in 1930 and 1931. Joseph Draper brought Spanish Arabians into the American picture when he imported five horses from Spain in 1934. J.M. Dickinson's Traveler's Rest Arabian Stud was established between 1934-1937 on an imported mare from Egypt and one from Brazil as well as seven mares from Poland. Henry B. Babson sent people to Egypt in 1932 who brought over two stallions and five mares. This farm still preserves the same bloodlines today.
In the 1940's and 1950's importations of Arabians to America slowed down as American breeding programs evolved from the previously imported stock. With the death of Lady Wentworth in 1957 and the dispersal of Crabbet Stud, importations in abundance were again made from England, and the post-war stud farms of Germany, Poland, Russia, Spain and Egypt were "rediscovered." Significant importations followed from these countries by several groups of dedicated breeders and again a new era of Arabian horse breeding dawned.
The Arabian Horse Today
Historically the Arabian has maintained a reputation as the horse of beauty, intelligence, courage, endurance, and romance. Because he was bred and reared in close contact with man from the earliest records, and existing in mutual inter-dependence, he developed an unequaled ability to bond with humans. Indeed, his intelligence has been celebrated in thousands of anecdotes. He is gentle, affectionate, and familiar, almost to the point of being troublesome. Foals, for example, have no fear of man, and are usually indifferent to sudden noises. The Arabian gentleness and tractability, while originally the effect of education, is now inherited, and is observed in foals bred in a foreign environment.
Because the Arab often engaged in a form of desert warfare known as "Ghazu," a form of quick mounted foray upon his neighbors, his life and welfare depended upon the endurance and speed of his Arabian horse. These stellar qualities of the Arabian horse were also the natural result of a good original stock, which by intensive breeding in a favorable environment had maintained its purity. His blood is commanding to a remarkable degree, and invariably dominates all the breeds to which it is introduced and contributes its own superior qualities to them.
When imported to England, the Arabian became the progenitor of the Thoroughbred. In Russia, the blood of the Arabian horse contributed largely to the development of the Orloff Trotter. In France, the animal helped make the famous Percheron. And in America, again it was the Arabian horse which became the progenitor of the Morgan and through the English Thoroughbred, to make the Trotter.
As the oldest of all the light breeds and foundation stock of most, the Arabian is unique. The Arabian breed is different in that it does not exist as a result of selective breeding, as were other modern light breeds, where it was necessary to establish a registry prior to the development of the breed, but was a breed that had been recognized for thousands of years and had been maintained and cherished in its purity over those years as much as is humanly possible.
The high intelligence, trainability, gentle disposition and stamina of the Arabian enable it to excel at a wide variety of activities popular today. Arabians are excellent on the trail as well as in the show ring. Show classes in English and western pleasure, cutting and reining, even jumping and dressage provide opportunities for fun and enjoyment at both all-Arabian events and open breed shows alike. As an endurance horse, the Arabian has no equal. The top prizes at endurance events almost always go to riders of Arabians. In addition, the Arabians' Bedouin heritage is evident in their unequaled ability to bond with humans, making them the perfect horse for family members of all ages.
With today's prices comparable with other popular breeds, excellent Arabian horses are now accessible to a broad base of horse enthusiasts. And, with more living Arabian horses in the United States than in all the other countries in the world combined, America has some of the best horses and breeding farms from which to choose.
This introduction to The Arabian horse is compliments of The Arabian Horse Registry and Arabian Horse Association.
Thank you to them for the use of this information.