How do you explain the current rage for Arabian horses in the United States, a land where mechanization supposedly made the horse obsolete half a century ago, the land super-colossal of motor cars and racing cars, of tractors and bulldozers, jet planes and rockets?
Only a few years ago this oldest and most fabled of horse breeds was an exotic curiosity in America. Now there are Arab Horse Clubs and All-Arabian Horse Shows in nearly every state in the Union, there are three national organizations and three national magazines devoted entirely to the breed. The number of purebred Arabs—or Arabians as they are also called—jumps by the thousands each year, as fast as the horses can be bred or imported. In one state alone, California, there are more Arabians than in all of Arabia. Even former President Lyndon B. Johnson, keeping up with the times, has bought one for himself.
Of course, the Arabian horse is a beautiful animal, some say the most beautiful in all of God's creation. With its distinctive, intelligent head, alert eyes and pointed ears, its high arching neck and flowing mane, its delicate floating gait, it is poetry itself brought to life. Thus the ancient Greeks who carved its image onto the Parthenon walls saw the Arab not only as the ideal horse, the model for all horses, but as a god, the winged Pegasus, which appropriately enough became their symbol for poetry (Aramco World, May-June 1965).
Yet, in the early part of this century, the Arabian's very elegance made it unpopular in America. It was too beautiful for work—and too small, standing only 14 to 15 hands high (a hand counting for four inches) compared to 16 and more hands for the kind of horse Americans liked for riding, harness racing, jumping or hunting. It was not even a good horse for "show": if American horse-owners wanted to show off, they liked to do it much more pretentiously, with a large flashy animal like the American saddle horse, whose high-stepping gait (artificially induced by weighted shoes) and upraised tail (surgically produced) invariably brought horse show spectators to their feet.
In still earlier times there were other reasons for the paucity of Arabians in America as well as Europe. Poetically speaking, the Bedouin tribesmen of the desert said that God had created their horse out of the wind and given it to them as their most prized possession, hence not to be disposed of lightly. In truth the Bedouins could not have survived in the vast sandy reaches of the desert without the Arabian's toughness, stamina and ability to survive on scant forage and, in war, to run circles around other cavalry horses. Thus the Bedouins were reluctant to sell these horses, particularly their mares, which they preferred in battle to stallions and through which they traced pedigrees.
Some few animals, mostly stallions, did eventually reach America. George Washington rode a horse of Arabian blood given to him by one of his generals, Lighthorse Harry Lee of Virginia, and he is said to have liked the animal so well that he took great pains to secure others to draw the coach of his wife Martha. American naval officers secured a few Arabians during their battles off the Barbary Coast in the early 1800's, and the Sultan of Turkey gave two to General U.S. Grant in 1877. But it wasn't until the early 1900's that any serious attempt was made to import stallions and mares for breeding purposes, and then only in very few numbers.
Because of the limited supply, these early importations and their offspring were expensive—too expensive for the ordinary things one does with a horse. "But what do you do with them?" someone asked a rich American who had invested in several purebreds. The owner sniffed. "Do with them? Nothing. You just look at them."
As fate would have it, breeding of Arabians in the United States began just about the time that horses generally were about to lose their utility. In the early part of this century, the number of horses in the country was at its highest peak ever, some 23 million, most of them doing farm or ranch work or otherwise used in rural areas. But only a few years later, with the introduction of the car, the truck and the tractor, who wanted to buy a horse? Farmers and ranchers sold most of their animals to pet-food manufacturers.
Horses were still ridden for pure pleasure or for sport (as hunters, chasing after the hounds and foxes) or were kept for display in the status-conscious horse shows, but even these were drastically reduced in number during and after World War II with the rapid shift of population to cities and suburbs; not only was it becoming increasingly costly to keep and feed horses, but the open country spaces needed for cross-country riding or fox hunting were being rapidly reduced by fences and suburban sprawl. In the 50's it seemed as if the horse was about to become extinct or relegated to zoos: in New York City, the Central Park Zoo displayed farm ponies along with cows and sheep and chickens as curiosities no longer seen by the general public.
Then, along with suburban living, came another great and general change in American life: affluence. What do you do when you have everything and have done everything, and you still have a lot of time on your hands? Why, you buy a horse. Horses are a lot of fun to ride and own. They give one a sense of freedom and power. They put you high up above everyboby else. Furthermore, a horse is something of flesh and blood, able to return affection. Finally, there's something both romantic and nostalgic about owning a horse, an image which both television and the movies foster and magnify.
Enter the Arabian. He is not only a horse but from his long and close association with humans (more than any other breed) he is a horse superbly suited to being an animal companion of humans.
Nobody knows for sure where the Arabian came from, whether he evolved naturally from some prehistoric animal like Przewalski's wild horse or whether he was selectively bred into his present classical form, but historians think he has been living with humans for more than 5000 years, sharing their daily life in every respect—the wanderings, the hunger and the thirst, the heat and the cold, the battles. He even slept in the tent of his owner at night, ready for instant action in case of danger, ready to signal danger by whinnying or stamping his feet. Arab legend abounds with stories of horses that were loyal to their masters to death, and vice versa.
American cowboys and Indians lived intimately with their ponies too, but not to the extent of the Bedouins. Nor were they interested much in breeding to preserve the purity of blood lines, as the Bedouins have done for centuries. The bronco, the horse that had to be "broken" to be ridden—and even after that might pitch you off if given half a chance—was the symbol of the American West.
The Arabian's close identification with humans, on the other hand, makes it easy for him to become a household pet, an animal that everybody in the family, from Junior to Sis to Grandpa, can ride and enjoy. Women and children may even ride stallions in competition in horse shows, a privilege accorded to no other breed.
But sociability is only one of the breed's many virtues, as any owner will tell you before you can say "A" for you-know-what. As they say, you can almost see the animal's intelligence, in the broad forehead with the characteristic "dish" or concave nose tapering to a small velvety muzzle. This forehead and dish, known as the jibhah, are what connoisseurs look for in a horse said to be a purebred. Typically, the eyes are large, almost bulging, and set wide to the side of the head, giving a wide angle of vision, as if nature had intended it to be able to see and know more than the average animal.
Because of its intelligence, the Arabian learns quickly, two to three times as fast as most other breeds. It can easily be taught tricks like bowing to the ground, counting, or rearing in the air, a maneuver that equestrians generally don't like to teach horses for fear that, once in the habit, they will do it spontaneously to throw their rider. A well-trained Arabian, however, can be depended upon not to rear except on cue.
Owners tell you that he is also a joy to ride, with his easy swinging gait. He has only three gaits naturally, but can be taught five, including a formal one called the "park" after the traditionally mannered riding of equestrians in Central and Hyde Parks.
The Arabian is still expensive, costing anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000 (for a blue-ribbon stallion), but in other respects is cheaper and easier to keep than other breeds. From his experience in the desert, where often he had to make long forced marches on a handful of dates, he is an efficient feeder and will keep his condition for a much greater length of time than, say, a Thoroughbred which tends to become gaunt if not fed regularly on hard grain.
His strong bones are as dense as ivory and he has many fewer leg problems than most other breeds, particularly compared to such highbred types as the Thoroughbred. In 300-mile endurance rides conducted by the U.S Remount Service in the 1920's, only 15 percent of the pure Arabians developed leg problems compared to 90 percent of the pure Thoroughbreds. Because his bones are so strong, and because he has a relatively short back (one vertebra less than other horses), he can carry more weight per pound, and for longer distances, than any other horse, which was also demonstrated in the Remount Service's endurance tests. After five days over rough country, carrying heavy weights, many hardly showed any fatigue at all.
"The Arabian's ability to function as well as his beauty both come from the way he is put together," says Gerald Donoghue, president of the Arabian Horse Owners Foundation and a long-time breeder himself. "He is perfectly proportioned, nothing in excess, no one part of him an extreme in relation to any other part. He is built for action, from his legs to the flaring nostrils, set of the neck and rib cage which give him the wind to run for incredibly long distances without getting winded."
"It's a glorious animal," echoes Carl Newton of San Antonio, Texas, who bought a stallion for his son, Larry, five years ago. Larry enjoyed and loved the animal so much that now the Newtons, father and son, have 20 Arabs which will form the foundation stock for a breeding farm to be managed by Larry when he graduates from Texas University.
"The Arab is such a special kind of horse, with so much character, that to raise and train one to its fullest potentiality demands a very special kind of intelligence and imagination. It's also the kind of horse that a child can grow up with, and never lose interest in, the rest of his life," Newton says.
Yet; yet. A purely pleasure horse? A companion for city and suburban dwellers? Isn't this a rather dismal end for the steed which was born out of the wind and which once pounded hooves across the desert expanses to the wild shouts of turbaned shaikhs? Which next to Allah was given credit for the great Muslim victories in Asia, Africa and Europe?
No. Because the new interest in horses in the United States is not only helping to preserve the Arab as a pure and unique and fixed breed, but also strengthening other distinct and popular breeds which are based upon the Arabian. Indeed, from the Middle Ages on, the Horse-from-the-East was the "daddy" or "granddaddy" of nearly all the modern breeds of so-called "light" horses, from the Spanish barb which Cortez and the other conquistadors rode in their conquests of the New World, to the quarter horse, to the English Thoroughbred. In one way or another all these modern breeds derived certain of their outstanding characteristics from the Arabian and in one way or another, as recent breeding history is beginning to show, all of them must some how get new infusions of Arabian blood if they are to retain their special qualities.
It is a strange, ironic story of history circling back upon itself, as if everybody had forgotten that nearly all of the horses brought to America after its "discovery" by European nations had at least some Arabian blood in them. Even the famed mustang of the American West traces back to the Arabian through the barb, which was a mixture of native Spanish stock with horses ridden by the Moors when they invaded Spain. In spite of the romantic stories written about it, the mustang was not generally a handsome or striking animal. Its head, with a straight or Roman nose inherited from the Barbary horses of North Africa, was "ugly" compared to the sculptured head of the Arabian. Neglected, stolen by Indians, roaming wild over the American plains and prairies, inbreeding, the mustang tended to become a scrubby, scruffy animal. But it did retain certain Arab qualities: wiriness, endurance, ability to withstand hunger and thirst.
Through no fault of its own the mustang is now virtually extinct. But the Thoroughbred and other breeds directly descended from the Arabian are still very much alive, and their continued preservation, with all their outstanding qualities, is a matter of great concern to all who love horses or who simply want to see the wonderful variety of the animal world preserved.
The Thoroughbred, whose very name suggests the purity and preservation of blood lines, is a good example. It was developed in England specifically for racing purposes, mixing the speed and will-to-run of the Arabian with the height and long legs of native stock, and all Thoroughbreds whether in the United States or England trace back to three famous stallions, the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian and the Byerly Turk. Imported into America in the early 18th century, the Thoroughbred launched the racing tradition in this country and also became the foundation stock for some other new specialized breeds like the American standard bred and the American saddle horse.
But what happens when Thoroughbreds are bred to Thoroughbreds? You get more Thoroughbreds, but continued inbreeding over a long period, as many breeders have been discovering, isn't always a happy thing. Animals can become too "inbred;" they can lose their original qualities; they can degenerate, like the mustang. According to Mrs. Stanley (Boots) Kubela, an American racing enthusiast, many Thoroughbreds through inbreeding have lost their original toughness, particularly bone strength and lung power, which in turn is leading to shorter and shorter races. Though others may disagree, Mrs. Kubela thinks the future of racing lies with the Anglo-Arab, a mixture of Thoroughbred and Arabian, in other words, a Thoroughbred with a reinfusion of its original blood.
Breeders of other types have also been finding a loss of quality and even of type with continued inbreeding. Since all of these breeds trace back originally to the Arab, it is natural to look again to him for a restoration of what has been lost. "If you want to upgrade the animal of any breed, to give it class and style as well as sturdiness, you just can't beat the Arabian as a stud," says one breeder.
What distinguishes the Arab stallion from all other types is his amazing pre-potency—his ability to pass on the characteristics of the breed to his offspring—and this in turn derives from his centuries of existence as a fixed type. Other kinds of stallions may be beautiful animals themselves, but lack the power to transmit their qualities. On the other hand, even an Arabian which lacks a certain desirable quality himself may, because of the inheritance behind him, be able to produce that quality in his foals. It wasn't for snobbery, therefore, that Bedouins were more interested in the pedigree of a stallion than its looks. If it had the pedigree, the inherent quality would assert itself eventually.
And yet; and yet? A stud? A purely pleasure horse? A companion for urban and suburban dwellers? Is that all the great noble steed of the desert is good for in today's world?
Certain enthusiasts like Mr. and Mrs. Kubela of Seguin, Texas, have grander, and tougher, dreams. "We first became acquainted with Arabs when we had a ranch on the Gulf Coast, with the Colorado River running through it," Mrs. Kubela says. "Periodically, the river flooded and went on a rampage, and we needed horses that could go into the water after cattle and come back with the cowboys still on top. We tried Arabs, found that they could do the job, and we've been using them for ranch work ever since. The Arab was built for action, and somehow we've got to find opportunities for him to be where the action is."
Unfortunately, not many ranchers find a use for horses anymore. With the newer, gentler breeds of cattle and the smaller pastures, a rancher in a pickup truck with a bale of hay can usually call his herd into a corral. Even in the still-wild brush country of Texas, helicopters, airplanes and specially-trained cow dogs are replacing the horse for flushing stock out of the brush. Not a very romantic thought, yet that's the way it is.
But then there's racing. Traditionally, for very short races like a quarter of a mile, the quick-charging quarter horse has been the favorite. For longer races, a mile or so and under—the kind that traditionally has attracted the most attention and the most money—it's been the Thoroughbred. On a mile track the Thoroughbred, because of his longer legs and body, has the advantage. But suppose races were longer than a mile? Then the advantage shifts to the Arabian, with his tremendously strong legs and wind and staying power. In recent years races have been run on tracks as long as 2½ miles, and some of the contestants have ended up hardly panting. Arabian supporters think such longer races are not only more exciting to spectators and give them more for their money, but are good for the horses themselves, providing that opportunity to stretch their legs and test their mettle and be where the action is that Mrs. Kubela talks about. In the government stud farms in Poland, one of the main Arab-breeding countries of the world, every animal must learn to race and test itself on the track before it is put on the market. The proof is in the performance, and Polish Arabians are sought after the world over.
Possibly, in our rapidly changing world, other uses will be found for the Arab. But would this mean that the breed itself would change as a type? One question being raised is whether Americans, with their penchant for trying to improve everything they get their hands on, will or can do anything to "improve" the breed.
South African novelist Stuart Cloete has written, "The Arab is one of the few, perhaps the only, domestic animal which cannot be improved. It is already perfection and any attempt to change it is for the worse.''
Nevertheless, one change has already taken place, perhaps an inevitable consequence of living in affluent America. Fed regular rations of pure grain in contrast to the traditionally sparse desert vegetation, some Arabians have grown from the traditional 14 to 15 hands high up to 16 hands and better. Those Americans prone to thinking of bigness in itself as a virtue may consider this an improvement. And it may actually be a functional value, to accommodate modern Americans who are steadily growing in size right along with the horses. But some breeders like Gerald Donoghue tend to agree with novelist Cloete, that any change can only be a change for the worse. "Somehow the size of the classical Arab is just right. You breed a larger horse, and he tends to lose his refinement and elegance, to become coarser." Other breeders don't think size makes that much difference, that the Arabian's difference from other breeds lies primarily in his intelligence, courage, nobility, stamina, endurance and gentleness, and that so long as he retains these qualities, he will remain what he has always been, the ideal horse, a model for all other horses, one of the wonders of the world.
Claude Stanush grew up on a Texas ranch, spent 12 years as correspondent, writer and associate editor of Life and now free-lances and teaches in San Antonio, Texas.