When I was in the third grade I remember reading the novel “Black Stallion“. It painted a picture of the most beautiful horses in my mind, which wasn’t difficult as, like most little girls of that age, I already thought horses the most majestic creatures on Earth. The titular horse in that novel is an Arabian, and the first time I had a chance to see one of these magnificent creatures in person was at the 2016 Canadian National Arabian and Half-Arabian Horse show at Brandon’s Keystone Centre.
Arabian horses are special for a great many reasons. Not only are they prized in modern times for their beauty, but these equines have played a crucial role in human history. The most famous world leaders since antiquity have preferred Arabians as their mount of choice; these leaders include names like Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. Arabians were essential to the development of Egyptian chariots, which allowed the Pharaohs to more rapidly expand their empire and lay their horseless enemies to waste. There was even a version of the Pony Express in the Fertile Crescent which linked the eastern empires together in a way that was inconceivable prior to the domestication of the Arabian horse.
Believed to be one of the very first tamed horses, Arabians got their name even before the people of the region. The Bedouin have been credited historically with the first intentional breeding and record keeping of these beautiful creatures. An arid and difficult habitat led to these hot-blooded horses developing substantial lung capacity and increased endurance over other early horse breeds. This same harsh climate meant that the nomadic peoples of the area had to often share resources like food, water and even shelter with their animals and this contributed to the loyalty and affection the horses show their people even to this day. They are quick to bond with their humans and are incredibly intelligent. In fact, the Bedouin people were so connected with their horses, that when telling the oral history of a family they would not only relay the story of the people, but with the same intensity and accuracy, the history of that family’s horses.
The first Arabian horses were initially bred as a war weapon, as most horses of that time were. Mounted soldiers had a clear advantage over infantry. In addition to this, having faster horses made it easier to herd and subsequently steal enemy sheep, camels and goats, to be added to the raiders’ own stores and stock.
In the early Middle East, contests were often held and settled in the same way street racers today will race for pink slips. The winner of the race would be allowed to take the best of the loser’s herd as their trophy, though not the best mares as they were considered to have no determinable price. These prize mares were exalted as a most cherished and honorable gift of the highest caliber, and thus were only ever gifted under the right circumstances.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, Christian Crusaders returned to Western Europe with these incredibly well-bred animals. While Europe had been breeding horses to carry their Knights, the Arabian breeds were far superior in speed, endurance, jumping and aesthetic. Three “Eastern Stallions” were brought to England in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, and they are the genetic base upon which the English Thoroughbred breed was crafted. In fact, 93% of all modern Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to these three studs. The Arabian is also at least partly responsible for the proliferation of the famous French Percheron and the Russian Orloff Trotter. By tracing these breeding practices, it can be seen that the majority of all light breeds of horses have some connection back to the original Arabians bred more than 2500 years ago. What is also amazing is that unlike most breeds we see today, the Arabian was not a result of selective breeding, but rather a naturally evolved breed dating back thousands of years, which has been genetically preserved by maintaining and honoring its bloodlines.
The modern purebred Arabian horse has not changed much in the more than two millennia since its domestication. Breeding was selective and purposeful right from the onset by the people of the Arabian Peninsula. The Bedouin tribes were adamant in maintaining the purity of the breed and that has led to the evolution of the impressive creatures we see today, the main difference being simply an increase in size of the modern animals compared to their ancestors.
Current Arabian horses still maintain their predecessors very distinctive features and they are one of the most easily recognizable breeds on earth. A “dished”, or slightly concave, short head paired with a long, arched neck allow for maximum oxygen intake from a practical standpoint, but also lend an air of extreme sophistication and propriety to their stance. They generally stand 14 -15 hands tall and weigh 350-450 kg. A short back, a long level croup (top of hindquarters) and a high tail carriage contribute to the regal stance and elegant appearance of this breed. Arabians are also unique in that they have one less set of ribs than other horses, thought to allow for greater lung expansion resulting in better endurance. Large liquid eyes and broad nostrils complete the unique facial structure of the Arabian. The Arabian horse is also one of the best breeds to demonstrate a floating gait, that is, a gait where the suspension phase of a gallop or trot is at its longest. (The suspension phase is the part of the gait when all four hooves are off the ground) During shows, these features and abilities are judged against standard criteria and the competition is incredibly intense; every exhibitor to these major events brings their absolute best.
In 1957 the first All Arabian horse show was held in Calgary as a chance for breeders and riders to exhibit their animals and skills. In the 61 years since then, many cities have played host to the Arabians. Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, and Regina all hosted before the event came to Brandon, where it has been hosted since 2011. As reported in the Brandon Sun in 2017, this show annually injects over $4.5 million of economic impact into our city. Last year the Keystone Centre and the Arabian Horse Association came to a five-year agreement, ensuring that the Westman region will be able to continue enjoying this incredible display of competitive horse showing through 2022.
The 2018 Canadian National Arabian and Half Arabian Horse Show is taking place at the Keystone Centre from August 12-18. Admission is FREE and, in addition to the competition and showing, there are plenty of merchandise vendors to shop, and the T.A.I.L. tours are particularly interesting. The free behind the scenes tour provides information on every aspect of keeping Arabian horses; they detail grooming techniques, proper feed combinations, tack and shed maintenance, harnessing and costuming, and conclude with the chance meet one of the animals up close and personal. So, take some time next week to go and admire these amazingly enchanting beauties. It is truly an experience not to be missed.