Breed evolution: Legend holds that the Prophet Mohammed, determined to test the devotion and courage of his Arabian mares, selected 100 of the best and deprived them of water for several days. Finally freed, they raced toward a nearby stream. But just as they reached their goal, Mohammed sounded his horn to summon them. Only five mares stopped and, ignoring their thirst, hastened back to their master. Those ancestral five were chosen as worthy mothers of this ancient, noble breed.
What's known is that Arabian horses were first domesticated in the Middle East more than 3,500 years ago. Originally, they were war horses. Their survival, and that of their owners', were dependent on the horses' stamina, courage, and strength. Discriminating owners allowed only horses that epitomized those characteristics to breed on.
Kind, tractable temperaments were just as important. Nomadic Bedouins shared their tents with treasured mares and foals. Over centuries, the Arabian horse remained remarkably pure. Selective breeding has customized their bodies to overcome harsh conditions on desert and mountain trails.
Arabians have one less vertebra than other breeds, just 23, and one less rib. Their short, strong backs allow them to carry heavy loads relative to their stature, which averages 14.1 to 15.2 hands high. Their thin skin and light muscling help heat and lactic acid dissipate rapidly. And, except for white markings, Arabians (even grays) have black skin, which resists sun damage.
Arabians also have well-sprung ribs and a deep heartgirth, which allows for exceptional lung capacity. And they tend to have greater bone and hoof density than other breeds, which, combined with relatively large feet, improves shock absorption on the trail. Arabian blood has been used to improve almost every modern equine breed, from Thoroughbred to Percheron.
The Arabian Horse Association, located in Aurora, Colorado, registers Arabians, Half-Arabians (those with a purebred sire or dam), and Anglo-Arabians (Thoroughbred/Arabian crossbreeds).
Owners tell us: Even though she'd long admired Arabians from afar, Darolyn Butler wasn't really acquainted with them until?she was 31 years old. She made a dramatic switch from her "cowgirl rodeo/horse-show life" into the endurance and?competitive trail riding worlds.
"Luckily, I had been accustomed to riding fairly spirited Quarter Horses, so the change to the likewise-spirited Arabian wasn't too challenging," says Butler. She quickly fell in love with the Arabian's "Maserati-type steering" and agility.
"Even crusty old cowboys who've spent their lives working on cattle and horse ranches, and have been introduced to the Arabians at my place, state that they'll never go back to the 'other breed' after riding an Arabian," says Butler.
Butler owns and runs Cypress Trails, an endurance, pleasure-riding, and boarding stable. The property adjoins some of the most scenic and challenging trails in Texas. She's ridden more than 30,000 miles of competition and more than 100,000 miles in training and rail riding. "I'm afraid I'd never be happy riding any other breed," she says of her Arabians.
Butler sees her horses as nothing short of amazing. In addition to trail riding all week, they regularly go on intense training rides and participate in endurance racing, many times at the international level, about once a month.
"These are the same horses that carry a 5-year-old on a trail ride or a white-knuckled 60-year-old on his first horseback ride," Butler says. "Pretty incredible animals I think."
On the trail: Butler introduces about a dozen Arabians per year to the trail. "Starting a new Arabian on trail that has seen nothing but a racetrack or a home pasture is always interesting," she says. "Many of them actually don't know how to follow the little trail that meanders through our piney wood forest. However, it only takes a trip or two for them to get the hang of it, and then you can't make them leave the trail.
"What's even more interesting is how quickly they become ingrained on which fork they're taking," Butler continues. "I try to change them up, just so they don't get too habitual out there, but many times I've noticed that even after one time of going in a certain direction, they're bound to go that way the next time."
After showing Arabians for 40 years, Kay Herbst, 73, and her husband, Fritz, 76, enjoy riding their horses on the trail. The couple has been breeding, training, showing, and trail riding their Arabians since 1962. "The Arabian horse, if properly trained and conditioned, is a thinking horse that will keep you out of trouble on the trails," says Kay.
In 2007, Kay achieved the 1000 Mile Award from the AHA's Frequent Rider Program. All miles were ridden on mountain trails with her horse, Zi Bask (known as Scooter). In 2005 and 2006, she was awarded the Arabian Horse Breeders High Point Recreational Riding Award, for hours ridden outside the show ring.
"The award is open to every age group, so it was with great pleasure that I beat out every younger contestant!" Kay says gleefully.
Every year, the Herbsts spend a month or two in the mountains of Oregon camping with their two Arabian geldings. One year, Fritz was riding a young, green Arabian gelding named Kovada Bey. The couple had just completed a hard, eight-mile, uphill trail when they came to a creek. Kay rode Scooter into the creek to get a drink. However, Kovada hadn't yet learned that wading into a creek was safe.
"Kovada was tired and thirsty, so he just followed Scooter into the water," recounts Kay. "All of a sudden, he realized he was standing in a rapidly running mountain creek. He lifted his head and tried to find the closest thing to solid ground - that was me and Scooter."
Luckily, Kay saw Kovada coming and moved her calm mount out of the way. "We were laughing so hard," she says. "What a way to teach a green horse that running water isn't scary. Kovada decided standing in a creek wasn't so bad after all and started drinking. Lesson learned!"
The Herbsts plan on trail riding their Arabians for many years to come. "We enjoy showing the younger people that you can enjoy life, riding your horses on the trails even in old age. It can't get any better than this!"
Selection savvy: If you're just beginning your involvement with Arabians, find a knowledgeable mentor, preferably a veteran trail rider. Avoid former show horses, especially halter horses. Unfortunately, the effects of their training and stressful show lives can be difficult to overcome. Look for a calm horse with a soft eye, one that confidently approaches you in the pasture. Under saddle, look for an easygoing walk and a willingness to work off your leg, yielding to pressure and flexing in circles. Arabians are smart and sensitive; that's part of the fun. You must think about what you ask of them, and have clarity in your request. In other words, you must be a little smarter than your Arabian!
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