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Volume 37, Number 2March/April 1986

In This Issue

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The Arabian Horse

In America

Written by Betty Patchin Greene and Susann Heidrich
Additional illustrations by Michael Grimsdale
Additional photographs by Katrina Thomas

In the United States last year, the Arabian horse was a sure thing - in the auction ring if not on the track. At one Arizona auction, according to Newsweek, an Arabian mare sold for $2.5 million and breeders paid out a stunning $39 million for 280 Arab stallions and mares.

This is not as unusual as it might seem; since the early 1970's Arabians have been winning both races and adherents throughout the country. As recently as 10 years ago, said Saudi Business, there were not more than 82,000 registered Arabians in the United States, Canada and Mexico whereas today some 237,000 horses are registered and some 100,000 owners listed - one of them President Reagan, another basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Once an exotic novelty in American horse circles, Arabians have been gradually increasing in popularity since the 1950's when post-war affluence enabled a surprisingly large number of Americans to take up riding. But the Arabian's popularity really boomed in the early 1970's as numerous softhearted riders discovered the secrets that inspired praise and poetry for more than 1,000 years and numerous hardheaded businessmen discovered that breeding and selling Arabians could provide sound tax shelters and high profits.

Today, as a result, breeding and selling Arabians is a big-bucks operation. Business Week, for example, reports that New York's real estate giant Arnold Fisher bought an Arabian mare named Autumn Rose in 1983 for $275,000 and has already sold one of her fillies for $300,000. Another U.S. businessman, publisher Jarrell F. McCraken of Texas, bought two Egyptian horses for $40,000 in 1970 and is reported to have grossed $20 million breeding and selling Arabians in 1985.

This soaring interest in the Arabian horse is a recent development, obviously, but, in fact, offshoots of Arabian bloodlines have played a vital, if often unknown, role in North American history. Indeed, the Arabian has been important in all the America's - South America, Central America and North America -ever since the Spanish Conquistadors unloaded 16 Spanish-Arabian horses onto the beaches of Mexico in 1519 to launch the conquest of Mexico. Two were Andalusian stallions, the rest Arabians.

At that point in history, there were no horses on either the South American or North American continents. But after seeing the importance of horses in the conquest of Mexico - an overwhelming force of Aztecs fled in terror from a tiny but mounted band of Spaniards - the conquistadors quickly began to import large herds of them. In 1539, for example, Hernando de Soto landed 300 horses in Florida, most of them Arabians, and rode them during his incredible expedition to Oklahoma during which he discovered and crossed the Mississippi River.

Most of those Arabians, however, escaped - as did most of the approximately 250 Arabians and Andalusian-Arabian-Barbs imported in 1540 by Francisco Vazquez de Coronado as he and a handful of intrepid lieutenants fanned out through today's New Mexico and Texas. The horses, however, often survived and began to breed in the wild or were captured by Indians.

In the American West, something interesting happened to the descendants of those Spanish horses. Centuries earlier, the horses brought to Spain from the Barbary States in North Africa by the Muslims - a closely related breed called the "Barb" - had been often crossbred with heavier European stock to produce animals better able to carry Europe's heavily armored warriors. Now, on the harsh American plains and deserts, those horses, like the Arabians that survived the rigors of the Arabian Peninsula ages ago, began to adapt to American conditions as well. One result was the mustang or Indian pony which, interestingly, was much closer in size and nature to the original Arabian suggesting, perhaps, the enduring qualities of the Arabian bloodlines.

Purists, no doubt, might raise questions concerning this development: bloodlines running from Arabian horses in Arabia and North Africa to Indian ponies and wild mustangs in the United States via Spain and Mexico do seem tenuous.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the stock brought to Mexico was descended from Arabians and Barbs. Unquestionably, crossbreeding in Europe affected the size and look, and unusual colors and types certainly emerged from random mating and Indian breeding in the American West. Most experts, however, believe that the Arabians' chief characteristics survived. In the West, in fact, with no other crosses, inbreeding sometimes preserved those characteristics and may even have strengthened them.

In the next 300 years, the horse became an important factor in the life and culture of many American Indian tribes. Just as it had to the Arabian Bedouin, the horse became both a necessity and a prize; intertribal raids, indeed, were conducted for the same reason: to capture horses. And though nothing like the Bedouin love for the Arabian ever grew up in Indian cultures, the Indian's prosperity came to depend on the horses; with a horse the Indian could reach more distant hunting grounds and could track and kill the great herds of buffalo more easily. And later, as American settlers headed west and the cattle industry expanded, the mustang was also adopted and adapted by the white man: by the U.S. Cavalry in hopes of matching the fleet Indian ponies and by cowhands for the use on the great Texas ranches and on trail drives. By the18th century, consequently, the Andalusian-Arabian-mustang had spread throughout the American West. Indians, cattlemen and cavalrymen trained and bred them differently, of course, and thus affected their temperaments and looks.

New England horsemen also liked the Arabians, especially purebred Arabians - though they came to the Atlantic coast by quite different routes. In 1747, for example, an Arabian-Barb-Turkish horse was imported by a man named Nathaniel Harrison and in seven years sired 300 foals.

According to Bruce's American stud book, some 42 Arabians were brought to America between 1760 and 1860. One of them, a dapple gray charger sired by a famous desert-born Arabian called Ranger, was owned by George Washington. While taking command of the Continental Army in Boston, Washington expressed an interest in horses ridden by Connecticut cavalrymen, learned that they had been sired by Ranger and asked a friend, Virginia's Lighthorse Harry Lee, to investigate. Lee got the dapple gray Arabian for him and Washington, six-feet-three-inches tall and weighing more than 90 kilograms (200 pounds), rode him for years after.

Over the years, other Arabians were brought to the States. During America's campaign against the Barbary pirates in Morocco, U.S. naval officers captured what were undoubtedly Barbs. In 1838, Commodore James Elliot brought some Arabian mares and stallions from Syria aboard the famous Constitution. In 1840, President Martin Van Buren received two Arabians from the Sultan of Oman (See Aramco World, September-October 1975) and in 1854 an American named Keene Richards was sent to Arabia in search of Arabians for the New Orleans Jockey Club. Most of the horses that Richards brought back were killed or scattered in the Civil War, but about the same time two great Arabians were presented to Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state, William H. Seward, and in 1877 Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II sent two to President Ulysses S. Grant.

For a country the size of the United States, those horses were an exceedingly modest number. Nevertheless, by 1908 the U.S. Department of Agriculture had approved the first studbook of the Arabian Club; it listed 12 breeders and 71 Arabians. Then, in the 1920s, interest in Arabians picked up as matinee idol Rudolph Valentino appeared in such films as The Sheik and Son of the Sheik riding Arabians – as did the popular Will Rogers in his films. By 1930, records show, there were 710 horses of Arabian blood listed, by mid-century there were 10,000 and by the 1970s, there were more Arabians in California than in Arabia.

In retrospect this seems somehow natural. Because of the Spain-to-Mexico-to-California connections, California has always had noticeable, it indirect, links with Islamic Spain. One, that persisted until the early 19th century, was local rule in northern California by an administrator called an alcalde, a Spanish word and concept derived from al-Qadi, an Islamic official responsible for settling disputes under the Shari'a, the Islamic code of law. (See Aramco World, November-December 1976.)

Another link is the vaquero and his mustang. As noted, Arabian strains in the form of the Indian pony or the mustang, affected the lives of both Indian and cattleman. But the links of the mustang to the Arabian's homeland were somehow closer in California because of the vaquero, the cowboy of California. As Arnold Rojas, author of The Vaquero wrote: "Although he often did not know it, all the vaquero's beliefs and superstitions about horses came from the Arabs, and their influence was predominant in all the vaquero's relations with his mount."

Himself a vaquero, Arnold Rojas had learned a lot about horses from an aged Spanish-speaking Arab named Abu Khalil, who somehow wound up in California. In his book, in fact, his list of the mustang's characteristics are comparable to those recorded by the famous Arabist, Colonel H.R.P. Dickson and his descriptions of a vaquero's relationship with his mount resemble that of the Bedouin with his. The vaquero, for example, did not bulldog steers or work cattle as, say, Texas cowhands did. Instead they relied on the total control from the saddle made possible by the Arab-Spanish techniques of riding and guiding horses.

In 1848, Lieutenant Joseph Warren Revere - grandson of a famous New England rider - also compared the Californians' love of horses with that of the Arabs. "After his wife and children, the darling objects of a Californian's heart are his horses. In this respect he is not surpassed by the Arab... [and] the lineage of the California horse is undoubtedly of the purest and highest... all derive their descent from the Andalusian horse... pure Arabian descent ... I should know something of the Arabian horse, having seen and mounted the noblest of the race in the stables of Muhammad Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, and his son Ibrahim Pasha."

In California, consequently, there grew up an astonishing "society on horseback," as one alcalde, Walter Colton, put it in his memoirs. Californians, he wrote, swing casually into the saddle to ride a few yards or a few hundred miles and from the back of a horse, he said, also herd cattle and rope wild animals for sport - including the formidable grizzly bear. All their horses, he added, "vindicate their Arab ancestry."

Mustangs also played a role in providing the famous, if short-lived, Pony Express mail service from Missouri to California. Riding on a series of mounts stationed up to 32 kilometers apart (20 miles), the Pony Express riders each covered up to about 160 kilometers a day(100 miles), a distance perfect tor horses with Arabian characteristics.

By 1850, when California had joined the Union, the cattle barons had come to California too, and had begun to establish ranches that even today boggle the mind; one baron, Henry Miller, owned a ranch about the size of Belgium. But whatever the size, the keys to success were the vaqueros and their horses.

Even when cars supplanted horses as transport, the vaquero and his horse survived. William Tevis, son of a cattle baron and a friend of Kojas early this century, used to reminisce about the skills ot the vaquero that he had learned on his father's vast Kern County ranch - skills that kept the California horses busy in rodeos and polo matches long afterwards. Those horses, he said, were of Arab descent. "They came with the Spanish settlers."

Today, not surprisingly, California with 42,404 purebred Arabians registered has the largest horse population in the United States. Nevertheless, it is still just one of the states where the Arabians are flourishing. In the 1960's many Texans, including President Johnson, began to show interest in Arabians and today Texas lists 12,856 purebred Arabians. Other western states with a notable number of horses are New Mexico, Washington, Indiana and Illinois. In the Hast, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut, home of Washington's dapple gray, also have numerous Arabians - as does Florida.

In Florida - where de Soto landed his original 300 - one of the more successful breeders is Alex Courtelis, who, appropriately, is an immigrant from Egypt, a source ot fine Arabian bloodlines ever since lady Anne Blunt set up the Shaikh Obeyd Stud near Cairo. (See Page 23).

Once in real estate, Courtelis now puts much of his time into breeding and selling Arabians whose bloodlines go back to Bask, possibly the most famous U.S. Arabian ever. Astallion from Poland, Bask has sired more than 1,400 horses worth an estimated $500 million.

According to Saudi Business, Florida's experience suggests the growth of the Arabian horse market in the United States today. In 1971, for example, one firm there sold 26 horses for a total of $517,000 and in 1983 sold the same number for $9 million. In 1984, furthermore, a Florida firm sold one Arabian stallion in Kentucky for $3.2 million.

As such figures suggest, the Arabian horse, in its purest form, has made as astonishing comeback. Once automobiles caught on, horses became so scarce in the States, that the Central Park Zoo began to put them on display. Now, though, thanks to dedicated horse lovers and owners - with an assist from shrewd businessmen and investors and some helpful publicity from Presidents Johnson and Reagan - the beauty, the brains and the stamina that have been the trademark of the Arabian are flourishing again.

This article appeared on pages 12-21 of the March/April 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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