The Arabian – Drinker of the  Wind

And God took a handful of South wind and from it formed a horse, saying:
"I create thee, Oh Arabian. To thy forelock, I bind Victory in battle.
On thy back, I set a rich spoil And a Treasure in thy loins.
I establish thee as one of the Glories of the Earth...
I give thee flight without wings."
-- Bedouin Legend
(Byford, et al. Origins of the Arabian Breed)

Such is the long heritage as a cornerstone in the life and culture of the middle-east it seems almost compulsory to begin with the classic quote ascribing the creation of the Arabian horse to Allah. And a very pretty image it is too. Of course the science of D.N.A. is a far better guide to the biological history of the Arabian than is poetry!

There is little doubt that as d.n.a. work continues many of the myths and legends associated with the Arabian will be shown to be nothing more than good stories; creations of a the vibrant and poetic culture that covered the river lands of the Euphrates, Nile and Tigris rivers.

Current testing establishes the Arabian as just one of the Equus Caballus family tree, thus dismissing the old claim that the Arabian was a unique race apart and that it should be re-named Equus Arabicus, rather than sharing E.Caballus with other breeds.  

But even if the more flowery claims are not true culture certainly did impact on the way in which selective breeding was carried out over more than a thousand years. Those elements of form that the Bedouin prized so highly; the rounded forehead or “Jibbah”, the high crested arching neck or ”Mitbah” and the tail, gaily carried as if waving a flag, were traits held in high regard. And, as with all selective breeding, other traits, closely genetically associated with those being consciously selected, were also, unconsciously, selected.

There is no question that the horse was of supreme importance to the Bedouin, primarily as an instrument of war – and, given such importance it is not at all surprising that the breed flourished within a state of political and geographic isolation. Traditions of purity were enshrined in the culture so that the breed should remain “Asil” or pure – in that form believed to be intended by Allah. Mixtures of anything supposed as “foreign” blood were forbidden by the Bedouin, in the belief that only those in the Great Desert were in fact of the same breed.

Of course it has to be remembered that the science of genetics was in its earliest infancy in this time, and that many of the beliefs had their foundation in cultural tradition and religion rather than in fact. Whatever the Bedouin believed, we can not now reasonably doubt that these early “Asil” Arabians shared a very great deal of genetic material with those other North African horses existing around the periphery of the Great Desert – what we would now call the ‘Barbs’ and ‘Turks’. Equally, in such an epoch of petty wars, raids and skirmishes there can be little doubt that horses were an important item to be captured or traded for.

Throughout this period the Silk Road was the greatest conduit for the trade and exchange of goods between China and the Middle East that has ever been. In combination with the “Tea and Horses” caravan route, which alone saw the trade of as many as 20,000 warhorses per year between Tibet and China in exchange for Chinese teas during the years of the first millennium, these routes facilitated a spread and intermingling of the finest horses.

So, whether it is recorded or not, the admix of “Asil” Arabians and other horses from throughout the region must surely have taken place. Could there have been such a valuable and cherished equine commodity, on which so much then depended in terms of military and commercial strength, yet was never raided for and stolen?

Five families, known as “Al Khamsa”, were to become established; Kehilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban. With other, less prestigious strains or sub-strains such as Maneghi, Jilfan, Shuwayman, and Dahman, these formed the basis of the Arabian breed – and it is from these ancestral families that the Arabian horses of modern times are descended.

It is this sense of history that plays such a large part in the Arabian “fancy”, which wields power over owners and breeders alike. And, as in the best of families, ‘skeletons in the cupboard’ in the form of a ‘Barb’ or a ‘Turk’ sire back in the clouded past of a bloodline merely provide a little added interest.

But to suggest that the Arabian is, by default, “gentle and affectionate”, to take just one of the common claims, and that this “gentleness and tractability is now inherited” is nonsense. Such statements only work if one believes that only nature (genetics) governs behavior – rather than what we know to be true, which is that the behavior of all living things is a mixture of their genetics plus environment. So don’t expect a poorly managed and reared Arabian to be either gentle or affectionate in demeanour. In fact expect it to be considerably worse than a cold-blood breed subjected to the same conditioning! That same intelligence and spirit that charms and beguiles can also have an equal and opposite negative aspect. Simply rouse the fighting spirit in a hot-blood and see where the day’s lesson ends up! That same courage, badly handled, becomes sheer obstinacy. In the same way there is little possibility of achieving an intelligent horse if the daily environment to which it is confined is sterile and boring. A horse, or a child, come to that, may be born with a potential for intelligence – but for that potential to find expression it requires nurture in the form of a supply of challenges that can be reasonably overcome.

The Arabian is not for everyone, nor its close cousins the Thoroughbred and Anglo-Arabian. If it’s easy compliance and pliability you’re looking for then arguably breeds such as the Andalusian or any of the growing number of warmbloods are an easier, less fiery and reactive horse. Nor is the Arabian suitable for all disciplines. There is, for example, little that can easily compete in the International dressage arena with the much larger European warmbloods – although the Arabian is gaining popularity at an amateur level. Nor does the Arabian have the height and sheer muscle mass needed to challenge the warmblood giants in show jumping – yet the Arabian is far better a jumper than most would suppose.

It is in the discipline of Endurance racing that the Arabian’s star shines the most brightly. Just as our long-distance events require human athletes of light build and indefatigable stamina so too does the equine distance event. The whole physical aspect, lithe musculature over fine dense bone, is so perfect for the discipline that very few other breeds – and then usually part Arabs of some description - feature in competition results.

It is in the show ring that the greatest controversy over breeding tends to originate. For it is here that aesthetics dominates over functionality – and cosmetic appearance takes precedence over underlying form. Witness the exaggerated swanlike fineness of joint between head and neck, the small ‘piggy’ eye and pronounced dishing of the face and the small, ‘neat’, head. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and in aesthetics there is no good or bad – merely what you like. But it is perhaps worth considering what the impact of breeding primarily for appearance has been on other domestic animals – most notably various breeds of dog. The German Shepherd is a good example. The standing show ‘posture’ expected of these dogs features a long straight back sloping strongly down to compact hips, with the rearmost hind leg running at an angle similar to that of the back. Appearance wise the posture gives a suggestion of a dog constantly ready to leap upwards into action. But in breeding for this posture changes occurred to the pelvic bones producing a tendency to displacement of the hip, as a result of which the breed went through a period during which it was difficult to find a sound specimen. A study of any wild dog would have revealed that they tend to be slightly hip-high – with the back running at a small angle down to the shoulders – rather than the other way around. In a functional sense a level back would certainly seem better – at least evolution, having refined the wild dog for thousands of years, says so.

To some it already seems as if there are now two distinct types of Arabian – the show type, and the endurance type. Going back over photographs of champions from the 1950s it does seem as if necks have become more sinuous and both head and eye smaller – but is this necessarily good? Having prized this great breed, not only for the purebred, but also for its ability to improve courser breeds, will we now risk spoiling our foundation stock in the search for an abstract?

Some would argue that there has already been some damage done to the breed, on the basis that both breeding and mothering problems are becoming all too common. Yet the consensus view of specialists studying selective breeding suggests that core behaviors, such as breeding or mothering, are most resistant to change and difficult to eliminate. So if we are not breeding these behaviors out of our horses could it be that we are, in its stead, managing important behaviors out of our horses?

For all the talk of culture that surrounds the Arabian there is singularly little mention of the importance of the Equus culture. Yet we have ample proof that culture is an evolutionary tool which is designed to operate alongside genetics to create an efficient behavioral paradigm. So many Arabians are raised in environments that fail to offer any real support for their natural behaviors that it should be no surprise if social and/or sexual dysfunctions occur.

The challenge ahead is to design management systems that allow our Arabians to develop, and be tested, both psychologically and physically. It would surely be a great shame were we to squander such a treasure by putting aesthetics – or commerce – ahead of true substance. For what would horse breeding be without our most honoured and adaptable of equine servants?