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The Arab horse is perhaps the most influential of all breeds in the modern equine population. Consider its prominence in the modern Thoroughbred through the three founding stallions, the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk, Turk being another word for Arabian. This Arab foundation of the Thoroughbred is often overlooked in favour of the subsequent pre-eminence of the Thoroughbred, which itself has gone across the world to influence so many different breeds.
But what the Thoroughbred has gained in speed over the short distance, the Arab has retained over the long distance. Its iron-strong strong bones and hooves, supple joints, short back, unique oxygen-to-energy conversion with every breath and its quick intelligence make it pre-eminent in endurance. And its friendly disposition and aptitude for quick learning make it the ideal riding companion.
The Arab is considered by some to be the oldest evidenced breed of horse in the world. There are both cave drawings and rock carvings which suggest that the Arab was in existence at least two and a half thousand years before the Christian era, its distinctive conformation and beautiful dished head making the horse easily identifiable.
The breed developed by the nomadic Bedouin has a long and illustrious history which is interwoven uniquely into the activities of man through the centuries in both the Arab states and across the world.
The Arab is deemed to be not only the most beautiful of all horses but also one of the toughest, borne out of its ability to survive in desert conditions. This rare combination of quality and physical soundness is not really seen in any other breed. In addition, the Bedouin found it a brave warhorse as well as a loyal companion in harsh desert conditions.
The Arab is noted for its dished profile and small neat ears, features carried into many other breeds, particularly the smaller Welsh ponies. The Arab’s trademark high prominent tail carriage – the ‘flag of the Prophet’ when the horse is in motion is actually caused by a physical characteristic unique to the breed. The Arab horse has 17 ribs whereas any other horse has 18, 5 lumbar bones behind the saddle area whereas other horses have 6, and 16 tail vertebrae whereas all other horses have 18. This results in a shorter stronger back, able to carry the rider for longer distances without strain.
The colours of a true Arab horse are limited to chestnut, bay and black, any of which may turn to grey/white with age. Parti-colours such as piebald and skewbald are not permitted nor are dun, palomino or roan. Some Arabs do however carry the sabino or overo gene, responsible for white spotting or splashing on some coat colours, especially the belly. These genes appear quite obviously in some Welsh ponies, both in terms of the amount of white they may feature on their legs and faces and also with the splashing or “frothing” effect of white hairs on an otherwise solid coloured coat.
Both the skin and hair of an Arab are fine and silky, the muzzle small, the eyes large and the chest normally deep to allow plenty of room for heart and lungs. The movement at trot is a distinctive ‘float’ as the horse springs lightly on the diagonals. On average they weigh between 400kg - 500kg.
The Arab breed plays quite a specific role on the UK performance horse scene. Apart from a thriving ridden and in hand following, the Arab influence may be found in both part and full bred form in the lighter show ring horses such as hacks and riding horses. Conversely at the other end of the spectrum, the Arab horse is a hugely popular choice for endurance riders having the soundness, speed and stamina for this event and demonstrating that it really is not just a pretty face. Endurance riding is growing hugely in popularity across the UK particularly as it is supported by prominent Arab owners who have both endurance Arabs and Thoroughbred racehorses based at studs in the UK. The governing body in the UK for endurance riding is Endurance GB. Endurance riding is a recognised equestrian discipline by the FEI. It is not essential to have an Arab horse competing in endurance riding, particularly at the lower levels, but many of the top horses are all pure bred Arabs.
Arab racing has also shot to prominence in the UK with an ardent and dedicated following. Arab racing is governed by the Arabian Racing Organisation which in turn is affiliated to the UK Jockey Club. Dedicated Arab Flat races are held on prominent race courses, sometimes alongside mainstream English flat racing. The Arab racing season runs from May through to September.
The Arab in crossed or part-bred form is an excellent influence on other breeds. When crossed with a Thoroughbred, the resultant horse is referred to as an Anglo Arab. Anglo Arabs have been popular in the sporting disciplines as they offer the qualities of the Thoroughbred in terms of speed (although the Arab is no slow coach) but also the greater endurance and soundness properties that the Arab can offer. Tamarillo, William Fox Pitt’s famous and successful three day event horse was an Anglo Arab and this type of breeding can be found in other equestrian disciplines as well.
The Arab Horse Society founded in 1918 is the organisation for the governance and registration of the Arab breed in the UK. It organises the largest single breed show in the UK – at Malvern for three days at the end of July each year.
It runs an annual Performance Horse Awards competition for ridden horses across all disciplines. And it administers a breeding initiative under the Premium Performance Scheme to identify the best pure, part and Anglo-Arab stallions for mare-owners wishing to produce good ridden horses.