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Arabian Horse History

Arabian Horse History

Copyright & Design 2003 –2024 by Letta Smith, Cressant Hill Arabians

The Arabian Horse In History:

The Arabian is the oldest breed of horse in the world, possessing beautiful symmetry and harmony of proportion, with an exquisite head and high tail carriage. However, for the Bedouin, endurance and agility were of far greater importance in the harsh desert environment - only those with the strength and will to live; endured the intense heat, extreme cold and limited nourishment. The breed has been kept pure since the 7th century with "noble" mares being bred to "noble" purebred stallions. There was no need for a registry, as any deception would have brought dishonor on a tribe. The parentage could always be ensured as the mares were bred in the presence of witnesses - Arabian witnesses. The witness would stay with the mare for 20 days to be sure that no common stallion dishonored her. The mare was not allowed to see a stallion or donkey (even in the distance) during this time. The Bedouin would also sew up the vagina of his mare when going on a march or raid so that no inferior stallion could mate her. At foaling, the witness would have to be present to catch the foal before it touched the ground and then wash it. The witness would write up the legal birth certificate (Haj-Ja) within 7 days. The mare and foal shared the tent with the men and the neck of the mare often served as a pillow for her master. The foals grew up with the Bedouin children and when weaned after a month, were fed by hand.


The Strains:

Purebred desert horses were initially referred to as ARABI but this was later substituted by the term KUHAYLAN. However, this is really only one of the five most famous strains - Kuhaylan, Saqlawi, Abayyan, Hamdani and Hadban - collectively AL KHAMSA. There are many myths surrounding why the Bedouins separated their horses into strains. According to the best known legend, the Prophet Mohammed fenced a hundred mares for a few days without any water. When he opened the gates, the thirsty horses galloped to the nearby stream but before they reached it, the Prophet's trumpeter sounded the call to gather. Despite their thirst, five mares obeyed their master's call immediately without waiting to take a sip of water. These five mares, AL KHAMSA, are supposed to be the foundation mares of all genuine purebred Arabians. Opinions vary on whether the strain is indicated by external traits - according to Carl Raswan (a German who lived with the Bedouin before World War I), each strain name was chosen to express a distinguished type; while other leading authorities regard it impossible to differentiate a strain on the basis of appearance. According to Raswan, the types are:


KUHAYLAN - Strength. Ideal riding horse with tremendous endurance due to deep and wide chest and hindquarters.
SAQLAWI - Beauty. The most beautiful of Arabians with feminine elegance. Ideal show horse as head and tail carried very high, longer head, ears, neck and back and not too broad between the eyes.
ABAYYAN - Ideal racehorse as very fast and agile with splendid shoulder and enormous ribcage.
HAMDANI - More a hunter-type with large head and straight profile.
DAHMAN - Very classic with exceptionally large eye and short but strongly concave head.


However, most Arab horses outside Arabia are ten generations removed from the original imported stock and therefore it is no longer possible to associate type with a particular strain.

Conformation: The hallmarks of the breed are the distinctive exquisite head and high tail carriage, good conformation and charisma. The development of type, temperament and other characteristics is the result of selection based on the ideals of the breeder and this varies from country to country due to bloodlines, breeding stock and climatic influences. Thus there are variations in type, but they must all fall within the same broad concept of what constitutes the ideal.


The Arabian Head:
As one of its most distinctive features, the form of the head is extremely important and the Bedouin were very particular on three aspects of the head - the forehead (jibbah), the ears and the junction of head and neck (mitbeh). The forehead must be broad and somewhat rounded between the eyes. The curve of the forehead and breadth between the eyes provides a large cranial capacity and therefore a larger brain relative to their size. When viewed in profile, the head should be broad across the large, sharp-edged cheekbone but tampering to a fine muzzle. The cheekbones should have a clearly-defined bone structure and set fairly wide apart. It is important that the finely-edged and extremely flexible nostrils lie parallel to the profile of the face. The nostrils are set slightly higher than the end of the muzzle, and flare like trumpets when excited. The eyes must be large, rounded and expressive, sitting on the side of the head but rather low in the skull. The second point by which a horse is judged by a Bedouin, is the shape and carriage of the lively, flexible ears. The finely chiseled ears should be quite close together and curve to a point so that the tips almost touch in extreme cases. Mares ears are generally longer than the stallions. The transition from the head to the neck (mitbeh or throat line) should be gently curved with no acute or abrupt angles which gives the arched appearance on the neck. Stallions normally have a crest with greater thickness to the throat, however this is normally sweated out for showing.


The Arabian Body:
A typical breed characteristic is the short back but the fineness of neck, natural curve and the top line gives the appearance of length. A long, sharply-defined and well-laidback shoulder influences the length of the top line. The ribcage is well-sprung and rounded giving a deep girth. The quarters should appear well-rounded with both hips set high and having a good length from the hip to the buttock. Originally the Arabian was slightly higher at the croup than at the withers (overbuilt) but this has changed. The pelvis is completely developed in stallions by the age of three, but does not reach maturity until five in mares. The tail is set higher and should be a natural extension of the croup. At rest, the tail is carried loosely in a gentle curve away from the body. But when excited, the extreme vertical or even draped over the croup tail carriage is characteristic.


Their Legs:
The forelegs should be set well forward with long, strongly muscled upper arm, short cannon bones and large, flat knee. The circumference of the cannon bone is fine although having an extraordinary tight and solid construction. The tendons should lie parallel to the bone and be clearly defined while the pasterns need reasonable length and enough slope for the action to be elastic. The legs should be clean and be parallel but the hocks may swing slightly inward when moving forward. The feet should have an open form and tending towards circular. The horse should show a natural balance moving lightly and easily over the ground with a free, almost floating, action. The free shoulder and knee action of the forelegs should provide a long stride with the impulsion provided by the hind legs tracking up.


Their Coat:
Another characteristic is the coat's extraordinary softness which is due to its structure and not the fineness. The coat typically has a metallic sheen, even in greys, and should be silky so that the veins and skin markings show through. However, on certain parts of the body, especially around the eyes, muzzle and nostrils, there is little or no hair allowing the black skin color to show. Whatever the color, grey, chestnut, bay or black, it should be strong. All greys are born either bay or chestnut which changes due to a pigment loss in the hair. Some tend to darken with age while others become "flee-bitten" (flecks of the original coat color come through the white). A common feature on an Arabian, is the white markings - e.g. socks, stockings, blaze, snip.


Arabian Temperament and Versatility:

Temperament is determined not only genetically, environment plays a major role as well. However, their reliability, good character, courage and high-intelligence are generally recognized and can be clearly illustrated world-wide. One of it's great strengths, is the Arab's versatility . Horses are shown "in-hand", under saddle and in harness. In the "in-hand" or halter classes, the handler's job is to present the horse before the judge in the most advantageous way, even to the extent of masking faults. Sadly, this has led to the growth of certain disquieting practices in the determination to win. Arab horse racing has become immensely popular around the world, although the faster highly-selected Thoroughbred remains the leader in this discipline. Endurance rides which can cover distances of up to 500 km are totally dominated by horses of Arab breeding due to their stamina, toughness and cardio-vascular efficiency and ability to recover quickly from exertion. Arabs compete well in any equestrian discipline due to his true mettle, generous spirit and noble courage, sheer guts and determination coupled with the dignity, intelligence and beauty.


Much more can be found on the Arabian Horse Association website (click on this link Services & Links)


Contact us and we would be happy to mail you a “Discover the ARABIAN HORSE” info packet!

“Nature is

painting for us,

day after day,

pictures of

infinite beauty"


John Ruskin

Cressant Hill Arabians—Letta Smith

Truxton, Missouri USA


Arabian Horse Educational Information