Were it not for the Arabian horse, many of the world’s horse breeds would simply not exist. It is famous, of course, for being the foundation of the Thoroughbred, that equine powerhouse, but so many other horses and ponies have been influenced or improved by Arab blood.
Thought to date back at least 3,500 years, these lean, lithe horses of the desert were highly prized by the nomadic Bedouin people, who had domesticated the animal by 1,500 BC. They were the first breeders who, recognising the importance of lineage and inherited traits, were ruthlessly selective. The head of the tribe would be able to relate the history of each family of horses in his tribe as well as he could each family of Bedouin.
Riding these precious horses, the Bedouin would raid an enemy tribe to steal their herds of sheep, camel and goats, and it was the mare they chose for these attacks, as they were less likely to make any noise and give away their approach. The best war mares also exhibited great courage in battle.
Arabian horses were bred above all else to have stamina, so they could keep going in the harsh desert conditions almost beyond the point of exhaustion. They are intelligent and loyal, and retain the innate ability to bond with man, with whom, in those long-ago days on Arabia peninsula, they would share accommodation.
The Arabian horse has unique features, including the jibbah, a shield-shaped bulge between the eyes that is said to allow for a larger brain, and the mitbah, the way the head is set on to the neck, which gives greater flexibility.
Even the short, dished — or concave — profile with its flaring nostrils is as functional as it is beautiful, allowing for maximum oxygen intake. The extravagantly arched neck keeps the windpipe clear to carry air to the lungs.
They also differ from other horses in that some Arabians — though, nowadays, not all — have five lumbar vertebrae instead of the usual six, and 17 pairs of ribs rather than 18. The horse’s shorter, stronger back allows Arabians to carry substantial weight in comfort.
The modern Arabian horse is still a horse of great beauty, though it has a somewhat undeserved reputation for being highly strung and nervy, largely due to the way it is shown in-hand. But to me, it will always be the horse that pony-mad little girls draw — those huge, liquid eyes, tiny ears, long mane and tail.
An unknown Arab poet of long ago wrote: “The nostrils of [an Arabian] are like petals of a rose. The neck is an elongated wave from which floats brilliant ripples of silken mane. The ears, inward pointing, are lilies in trembling water, and the whole body of the mythical, yet fleshly, horse sways with the supple strength of wind, sun, and sand.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Nicola Jane Swinney is the author of Horses, a guide to the world’s most iconic breeds