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Arabian Horse Breed History, Characteristics & Uses

The Arabian Horse is likely the most iconic and recognizable of horse breeds out there, and with good reason. Versatile, enduring and intelligent, this breed is not only a marvel on its own, but it’s also the foundation to many other popular breeds.

Arabian Horse History & Origins

We don’t know exactly when the Arabian horse appeared, and there are many who link the breed to primitive types from the region. There is some evidence the breed may be as old as 3,500 years, which would make it one of the oldest known horse breeds. It was already established by the 17th century BCE.

What we do know is that the Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula relied on these horses for both war and daily life. Together with camels, they became the cornerstone of the nomadic lives, and as such, a great part of their culture and even religion. The horses were instrumental for war, and, for the Bedouins, for raiding.

There are legends that say the prophet Muhammad chose the five mares which would become the ancestors of the five Bedouin types (Habdan, Seglawi, Keheilan, and Abeyan) after a test of obedience. These mares bred the five strains of Asil (pure) Arabian horses.

Unlike Europeans, the Bedouins favored mares for war, as they are quieter and more reliable than stallions. They took the utmost care to keep their bloodlines pure, which gave origin to the oldest studbooks and breed registries in the world, as the tribes kept meticulous note of their horses’ ancestry and origins through oral tradition. Ancestry was traced through the female line.

Effective war horses, they spread through the classical world and later, through Europe, in special during the Crusades. Once established there, the Arabian became the foundation for several European breeds, in special the Thoroughbred. The influence of this breed lingers until today, as many Arabian crosses still exist, and new breeds often have the influence of Arabian horses in them.

The breeding of Arabian horses in Europe created new “subtypes” or strains, such as the Polish, Russian, Crabbet, and Spanish Arabian. Their influence wasn’t limited to Europe, as their arrival in the Americas and Australia also influenced local breeds, studbooks, and use.

Today, the Arabian horse is still immensely popular and sought after due to its versatility, beauty, and temperament. Rightly so, we included them in our top 10 most beautiful horse breeds article here.

Arabian Horse Breed Stats

Here are some interesting stats and information regarding the Arabian horse breed.

Height and Weigh

The Arabian horse stands around 14.1 – 15.1 hh, with occasional individuals above or under. They have an average height around 800 to 1000 lbs (360 to 450 kg).

Colours and markings

The Arabian Horse Association accepts bay, chestnut, gray and black horses. Pinto (e.g., overo, tobiano, leopard complex) and dilution (e.g., palomino, buckskin, dun) are not present in purebred Arabians, though there is pictorial evidence from Ancient Egypt that this was not the case in the past.

The Arabian horse may show sabino and rabicano genes, the latter giving an effect similar to roaning. However, true roaning genes do not exist in the purebred Arabian.

Conformation

The Arabian horse has a very iconic appearance. True type Arabians have a dished face and large nostrils, characteristics earned from developing in the desert. They have wide foreheads and small ears, smaller in stallions than in mares.

Their neck has a fine, well-set windpipe and clean throatlatch (mitbah), and Bedouin breeders favored horses with a slight bulge between their eyes, called a jibbah.

They have a short body with fine limbs, short cannons, and a level croup, with a high tail carriage. These horses may vary in muscle tone, according to use and breeding, but they have a general appearance of refinement and delicacy. This sometimes gives a false impression of daintiness and weakness, but the Arabian has very dense bones, which lends it quite a bit of strength.

There is an ongoing debate on whether the search for “type” and appearance in Arabians is crossing the line into functional defects.

El Rey Magnum, a foal born to Orrion Farms of an illustrious bloodline, recently caused some controversy due to an excessive dishing of its face. While his breeders laud him as a true example of the Arabian horse’s beauty, veterinarians raised concerns about the excessive selective breeding for characteristics that, taken to an extreme, may become harmful. See a video of him below.

Personality

Arabians are very friendly and good with humans, including children. Bedouins would often keep prized mares inside their tents, which led to the creation of social and good-tempered horses.

However, it’s also a hot-blooded breed, which means they are very spirited and energetic. This can sometimes be confused with stubborness and lead others to believe they are finicky and difficult, which is not the case. They are very intelligent, which means they learn good habits as quickly as bad ones, and while naturally inclined to cooperate and communicate with humans, they are also more sensitive to bad handling.

Uses

Arabians are all-purpose horses. They are well-known for their remarkable endurance and ability to sustain high speeds for long periods of time. This makes them excellent endurance riding horses, a discipline they dominate.

However, they are also popular in other sports in English and Western riding, including showjumping, cutting, reining and dressage, although to varying levels of success. Arabian part-breds and cross-breds are quite common in sports. Halter breeding shows for Arabian horses are also very popular.

Beyond sports, Arabians have great success in parades and shows, as well as in cinema. Due to their intelligence and striking appearance, they are popular in shows and presentations, especially those with an Arabic or Oriental theme.

Bay Arabian gelding, Thee Barok - Arabian Horse
Photo Courtesy: Lone Mare Studios Photography

Different Arabian Horse Types

There are many different “types” of Arabians within the breed. These come from distinct bloodlines and origins, many of which adapted to the country that bred them. While they all differ in small ways, due to selective breeding, they are all still Arabian horses first and foremost.

Egyptian Arabian

Also known as Straight Egyptian Arabian, this strain of Arabian horse comes from the stock owned by Viceroy Mohammed Ali and his son Abbas Pasha I, through the hands of royal and noble people all around the world. Today, to be considered a Straight Egyptian Arabian, the horse must trace all lines of its ancestry back to the Pyramid Society’s studbook.

Polish Arabian

Bred in stud farms around Poland, from where it derives its name, the Polish Arabian has become its own strain. There are signs of Arabian horses in Poland since the 16th century, taken as spoils of war from Turkish armies.

The Janów Podlaski Stud established breeding after World War I, when the horse went nearly extinct in Poland. Now, several studs exist, both in Poland and elsewhere, and produce high-quality Arabians who trace their lineage through the dam line to the original Polish horses.

Russian Arabian

The Tersk Stud, founded around 1921 in Russia, is the foremost standard for Arabian horses in this country. While there have been Arabians in Russia since the 16th century, it was only in the late 1800s that breeding truly began, and in the early 20th century that the Russian Arabian established itself. Sometimes known as Tersk horse, Russian Arabians favour speed and are excellent racehorses.

Spanish Arabian

Exceptional horsemen, the nobles of the Iberian Peninsula kept great care of their horses throughout the centuries. As such, interest in Arabian horses began quite early in the history of Spain, with the invasions and occupation of Iberia by the Moors.

However, it was only in 1847 that the first registry for Arabian horses truly began in Spain — one of the oldest in the world. And it was only in 1908, with imports from Poland and the Middle East, that the Spanish Arabian established itself. Fierce and powerful, the Spanish Arabian produced great champions, such as half-Spanish Magnum Psyche.

Crabbet Arabian

The Crabbet Park Stud is one of the most important sources of Arabian horses in the world. Its studs have helped establish the Spanish, Russian, Egyptian and Polish bloodlines, and it remains of vital importance for the breed today, and the most important Arabian horse stud in England.

Founded in 1878, the Crabbet stock is so influential that roughly 90% of purebred Arabian horses today trace back to Crabbet Park studs and mares.

Arabian Horse Facts

  • Arabian horses may sometimes have only 5 rather than 6 lumbar vertebrae. This also gives them one less pair of ribs and thus, a shorter back.
  • As we mention in our amazing horse facts article, Arabians have black skin regardless of colour, except under white markings. This helps them survive in the desert, as pink skin is more vulnerable to the sun.
  • The United States Equestrian Federation allows Arabian stallions to be shown by children and under 18s. This is the only breed where this is allowed.
  • The jibbah in an Arabian horse’s forehead helps the horse breathe in the dry, hot weather of the desert, the reason why Bedouins favour horses that show it.

Also, see how much an Arabian horse costs here.

Famous Arabian Horses

  • Marengo, Napoleon’s famous grey Arabian stallion.
  • Cass Ole, “The Black”, popularized for his role in the Francis Ford Coppola feature films The Black Stallion and The Black Stallion Returns.
  • Godolphin Arabian, one of the foundation stallions of the Thoroughbred breed.
  • Marwan Al Shaqab, owned by the Royal Family of Qatar. Three times World Champion.

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Comments 1

Comments

Terry

Wednesday 16th of September 2020

Thank you very much for the information. My horse was just put down on 9/11/20 & wanted to know how to calculate his correct age in human years. From the years we had him & his previous owners, we calculated he was 45+. He was a great Arabian & very much loved by us! You are a great source of information. You are very much appreciated.

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