Authentic Arabian Type
July 28th, 2009
Authentic Arabian Type
By Scott Benjamin
"Never have I seen or imagined so lovely a collection. Their stature was indeed somewhat low; I do not think any came fully up to fifteen hands; fourteen appeared to me about their average; but they were so exquisitely shaped that want of a greater size seemed hardly, if at all, a defect. Remarkably full in the haunches, with a shoulder of a slope so elegant as to make one, in the words of the Arab poet 'go stark raving mad about it'; a little, very little, saddle-backed, just the curve that indicates springiness without weakness; a head broad above and tapering down to a nose fine enough to verify the phrase of 'drinking from a pint pot', did pint pots exist in the Nejd; a most intelligent and yet a singularly gentle look, full eye, sharp thorn-like ear, legs fore and hind that seemed as if made of hammered iron, so clean and yet so well twisted with sinew; a neat round hoof, just the requisite for hard ground; a tail set on or rather thrown out at a perfect arch; coats smooth, shining and light; the mane long, but not overgrown or heavy; and an air and step that seemed to say 'Look at me, am I not pretty?'; their appearance justified all reputation, all value, all poetry. If asked what are, after all, the specially distinctive points of the Nejdee horse, I should reply, the slope of the shoulder, the extreme cleanness of shank, and the full rounded haunch, though every other part too has a perfection and harmony unwitnessed (at least by my eyes) anywhere else."
Thus were the words of William Gifford Palgrave, distinguished Arabic scholar, Roman Catholic priest and much-traveled British Diplomat, as recorded in 1863, in assessing the Arabian horses of the Ibn-Saoud Stud of the Nejd. Aptly detailed through the eyes of an historian, this vivid account of the Arabian horse sheds great insight into the distinctive characteristics that ordain the Arabian as unique within the equine world as well as into the definition of Arabian type. This type, has of course, been expounded upon by countless experts throughout the ages, yet this brief narrative perhaps comes closer to summarizing the true essence of the Arabian than any other.
When considering authentic Arabian type, it is essential to put the breed in the context of its origin - the Nejd of the Arabian Peninsula. Implying upland by its very name, the Nejd is an open steppe rising 2500 to 5000 feet above sea level. Primarily an arid, desert region of sand, rocks and widely dispersed oases, the Nejd comprises the vast central region of modern day Saudi Arabia. The Nejd is a harsh environment in which the basics of life, food and water, are scarce, and the existence of both man and beast is challenged in the extreme.
Within this unforgiving terrain, the nomadic tribes of the Arabic Bedouin have survived for millennia. Essential to their survival has been their relationship with the Arabian horse; a creature most prized above all earthly possessions. The oral tradition of the Bedouin claims the Arabian horse was first captured thousands of years before the birth of Christ from among the wild horses of the Nejd and tamed for utility under saddle. This was the beginning of perhaps the most important and most intimate coexistence between man and any other member of the animal kingdom, one that would drive both progress and civilization and forever change the fortunes of both species. Since that time, the horse of the desert has been both warhorse and wealth for the Bedouin, providing a sense of power, a mode of transportation and the facilitation of fundamental commerce to the starkly practical and oftentimes bleak existence of the nomad.
Amongst the Bedouin, the life of the Arabian horse was starkly unromantic - harsh, little food of poor quality, scarcity of water, hot dry conditions, times of restrictive confinement followed by swift and tortuous raids. The life of the Bedouin was that of the daily struggle for survival, hence life was approached in the most unforgiving of contexts. Raids were considered an essential element of Nomadic culture, especially those taken against travelers. Life was one of incessant warfare, entailing forced marches and the roughest treatment. Pity was not taken for the injured or dying - death was accepted as both inescapable and inevitable. Both environment and culture seemed the most unlikely combination in which the successful rearing of any creature could long be sustained, yet through centuries of natural selection dictated by the necessity of man's survival, the Arabian horse has not only efficiently evolved, but astonishingly thrived.
The extraordinary environmental conditions of the Arabian Peninsula demanded the evolution of a superior equine athlete of exceptional intelligence and uncommon courage. Strength, fortitude and tenacity of constitution were paramount if any horse were to survive life as a warhorse on the rugged terrain. Swiftness and endurance were vital to the success of raids, and only those Arabians with the best combination of these nearly polar attributes were fortunate enough to escape the dangers of battle and earn the respect of their masters. Vitality of spirit and courage were also essential to success in battle; this was to be tempered by intelligence and kindness as both a willing mount and as a large domesticated mammal forced to live in close coexistence with the spartan, mobile life of his keeper. Beyond this, the Arabians of the Nejd were required to be extremely efficient metabolizers, capable of going for many days without food or water, and sustaining both strength and vitality on very poor quality foods. The extreme daytime heat of the region furthermore predisposed those horses capable of dispersing heat more efficiently through thinner, more highly dilated skin for an increased chance of survival. Even those individuals blessed with the best combination of critical characteristics were subject to the availability of food and water and the good fortune of eluding death in battle. It is within this crucible that the Arabian horse was perfected and the distinct type of the breed made evident.
The modern Arabian, though no longer a warhorse subject to the cruel and unforgiving environment of the Arabian Desert, remains a breed of horse richly abounding in the qualities that made his ancestor a survivor. Above all, the Arabian horse was bred to serve his master, whose very life depended on the bravery, faithfulness and swiftness of his steed. These intrinsic merits as a synergistic whole define the breed as distinctly Arabian, comprising the essential elements of authentic Arabian type.
Perhaps, best described as a cross between an Olympic gymnast and a champion long distance runner, the Arabian horse is unrivalled as an athlete in the equine world. The defining characteristics of Arabian type are most often those that have historically been in highest demand by horse breeders of the civilized world down through the centuries. As the original racehorse, the Arabian was crucial to the foundation of the Thoroughbred, contributing the ability to run at great speeds over vast distances with courage, tenacity and superior physical fortitude. Arabians put the "hot" in the "hot-blood", and all horses considered as such are largely Arabian in origin. The superior density, structure and quality of bone along with balance and harmony of proportion are unrivalled in the equine world and have been highly sought after in all equine breeds in which athleticism is of primary importance. Superior beauty, quality and refinement have always been distinct Arabian traits - all warm-blooded horses inherit these aesthetically pleasing and spiritually inspiring attributes from the horse of the Nejd.
Type in the Arabian breed must always be approached within this historical perspective and primarily from a broad vantage point, as a superior summation of definitive characteristics, rather than a singular focus on the more striking traits of the horse. It is of paramount importance to consider the unique qualities of the desert horse as defined by Lady Wentworth - utility, soundness, temper and vitality - those qualities that separate the Arabian from the other breeds as superior in all respects. More quantitatively, yet not wholly so, these fundamental assessment criteria can be put into the context of four major areas: Balance, Quality, Movement and Disposition.
Chiefly, the Arabian is a horse of superb balance, symmetry and harmony of proportion. The Arab is not a horse of extremes, but rather a distinctively athletic horse of perfect three-dimensional utility. Although balance is essential to all horse breeds, the zenith is achieved within the structure of the Arabian. Simply put, the Arabian horse is "the quintessence of all the good qualities of an equine in compact form". It is true that balance is also a fundamental element of correct conformation, yet it is equally essential in establishing the foundation of type. Without balance, the Arabian horse fails to be a creature of utility, the very aspect that has so endeared him to the service of man. Certainly exceptional individuals within the breed may be extreme in one or more specific attribute - say head, neck, height or movement - yet the ultimate goal has always been balance and harmony to achieve a supremely useful, and in all ways synergistic, design. True beauty of the Arabian horse must always first be assessed as the eurhythmy of a harmoniously integrated composite of form and function.
If extreme is to be accepted in any aspect of Arabian type it is in the area of Quality. This elusive attribute, though often hard to quantify, is unmistakable by all who have seen it. Sometimes referred to as beauty, refinement, elegance, presence, charisma, radiance or vitality, quality is the singular element of breed type that has defined the excellence of the Arabian most proficiently. This quality is manifest in the proud, alert command of the Arabian stallion, the confident maternal bearing of the Arabian mare, the zest for life of the young foal, and the intelligent majestic countenance of the Arabian as both a creature of Nature and in service to mankind. All Arabians labeled as typey must radiate irreproachable quality. It is exactly the quality of the Arabian about which the author wrote, when he penned the words "there is something about the outside of the horse that is good for the inside of man".
Efficiency and capability of movement are vital in defining Arabian type, for the warhorse was principally a superior form of transportation. Bedouin mounts were expected to be both swift and enduring, demands, which forced the evolution of the Arabian as an equine of superior soundness, agility and versatile athleticism. As the original surefooted vehicles of war, Arabian horses were expected to have great dexterity - to be able to charge at great speeds with lancers astride and to stop at a dead halt upon assault, make a swift and surefooted turn on the haunches and beat a hasty retreat to safety. This agility not only required uncompromising soundness, but ample muscularity and synergistic strength of proportion, attributes which serve the Arabian well as the most celebrated versatile athlete in the Animal kingdom. The stride of the Arabian horse has always been long, light, true, powerful and purposeful, with great overreach, efficiency of exertion and fluidity of motion. All Arabians of superior type exude abundant athletic ability.
As important as balance, quality and movement are to the most fundamental definition of Arabian type, they are of little consequence if the disposition of an Arabian is failing. Arabian horses are, without question, intelligent, kind, willing, courageous, curious and social. Blessed with an enthusiastically energetic but supremely tractable character, the Arabian horse is unrivalled as a companion within the equine world. His forced, extremely intimate coexistence with the nomadic Bedouin demanded a highly compliant and agreeable disposition. Yet despite domestication, the Arabian horse remained a vitally indomitable force within his desert environs, an attribute which proved critical to his resiliency and survival. It is perhaps this most intangible quality that has most endeared the Arabian horse to mankind.
Once a thorough assessment of the broadly unique qualities of Arabian type has been considered, it is then of prime importance to acknowledge the hallmarks of the Arabian breed, which number three. They are:
Head & Neck
Some may classify these hallmarks as five, separately categorizing the head from the neck and subsecting the topline into back and croup (ignoring the loin). Yet since the head and neck, as well as the topline as a whole, exist in such critical harmony in a typical Arabian, they should seriously be considered in conjunction.
For many Arabian enthusiasts, the breed hallmarks have come to define Arabian type. But to classify any horse as just essentially the upper third of his physical form would be a gross underestimation of the importance of the rest of the horse not only in defining function, but in understanding the true essence of type. Rather than dealing with each of these distinctive and essential hallmarks separately, it is important to analyze them in relation to their coexistence within the horse as a whole.
Succinctly defined, type in the Arabian horse is the ideal combination and ultimate manifestation of beauty and utility. Neither can be sacrificed at the expense of the other if true Arabian type is to be attained in the phenotype of the breed's representative population. It is within beauty that the aforementioned fundamental elements of quality and disposition are brought to life, and within the context of utility that the crucial components of balance and movement become functionally manifest.
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