They’re the “Energizer bunnies” of the equine world. On the trail, their diminutive stature, proud tail carriage, pretty faces, and big, dark eyes make them instantly recognizable. And beyond the Arabian Horse’s elegant exterior, centuries of selective breeding have endowed him with the stamina, soundness, surefootedness, intelligence, and a people-pleasing nature that make him an exceptional trail partner. Crossed with other breeds, the Arabian shares these characteristics with his Half-Arabian siblings.
While the breed has legions of fans, there are detractors that believe Arabians are “too spirited or high-strung” for family enjoyment on the trail. However, almost all negative experiences result from green riders paired with green or insufficiently trained horses, or horses soured by over-showing and a solitary, stall-bound life. With any breed, but particularly with the Arabian, care must be taken to match the skills and personality of horse to rider.
However, there are many more riders who wouldn’t hit the trails aboard anything but an Arabian. What makes the breed so uniquely suited to the trail? Is it the one for you? Read on for the information needed to make a savvy selection.
Many owners tout their Arabian’s willingness-almost necessity-to bond with people. 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 the 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 their owners’-was dependent on their stamina, courage, and strength. Discriminating owners allowed only horses that epitomized those characteristics to breed on. But kind, tractable temperaments were just as important. Nomadic Bedouins shared their tents with treasured. Arabian mares and foals. Over centuries, the breed remained remarkably pure.
Today, Californian Don Severa shares his daily ranch life and chores, as well as many pleasure trips into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with his homebred Arabian horses. How do his Arabians perform as trail mounts? In reply, he offers this tale.
“A friend and I spent the night at a high-mountain horse camp, and in the morning we decided to tackle a difficult six-mile climb to a beautiful lake. Normally, backpackers were the only ones to take this route-a seemingly endless, stair-step climb, up and over huge boulders.”
Each step was approximately 18 inches higher than the one below, so horses couldn’t easily step up, but had to give a strong push from behind, coupled with a little hop. The descent was even trickier. “Without any hesitation, our surefooted Arabians climbed from boulder to boulder, like mountain goats!” Severa recounts. “Arabians have enormous heart, and I’ve never had them refuse a request, whether the obstacle was a challenging climb, dizzying descent, or belly-deep water.
If you feel a real need for speed, you may choose to test your skills in endurance riding. Every year, the American Endurance Ride Conference (530/823-2260;www.aerc.com) sanctions more than 700 North American rides. Strict ride governance and veterinary inspections in recent years have increased safety for horses and riders. Arabians and Half-Arabians are without equal in elite national and international endurance events.
Californian Peter Rich, who’s bred and raised Arabians for nearly 30 years, likes to test his horses both in NATRC and endurance events. In 2003, six of his horses started the grueling Western States One Hundred Miles in One Day Endurance Ride (known as the Tevis Cup); five finished, and four were in the top-10, an amazing feat.
“Arabians are a sensible breed,” says Rich, a five-time Tevis finisher himself. “I’m a big man, and they carry me well, with the flexibility and surefootedness to negotiate challenging trails successfully.”
The Arabian Horse Association has several programs for competitors. Members who compete in competitive trail, endurance riding, and ride-and-tie events are eligible for year-end prizes. On the West Coast, look for competitions sanctioned by the Ride & Tie Association (650/949-2321; www.rideandtie.org), and the National Association of Competitive Mounted Orienteering (800/354-7264 or 360/264-2727; www.nacmo.com).
“That night around the campfire, other travelers couldn’t believe that our horses could-or would-climb something so challenging,” Severa continues. “But then, there are a lot of negative ‘myths’ about Arabians, and I enjoy debunking them. Mine are the most steady, trustworthy trail partners you could hope to have.”
Arabian blood has been used to improve almost every modern breed of horse, from Thoroughbred to Percheron. Some Arabian crosses, particularly those with Quarter Horse, Paint Horse, Morgan, and Appaloosa blood, have resulted in spectacular trail horses. They combine the superb physical suitability of the Arabian to the trail with the quieter temperament of the cold-blooded (draft) breeds. For many riders, the Half-Arabian is the perfect blend.
The Arabian Horse Association (303-696-4500; www.arabianhorses.com) registers Arabians, Half-Arabians (any individual with a registered, purebred Arabian sire or dam), and Anglo-Arabians (Thoroughbred cross with a purebred Arabian parent). It also sponsors trail-riding programs that offer national recognition for time in the saddle.
Note: The Morab (a registered Morgan-Arabian cross) and the Quarab (a registered Quarter Horse-Arabian cross) often have too little Arabian blood to be registered with the AHA as a Half-Arabian, so lie beyond the scope of this article.
Built for Trail Riding
Over thousands of years, selective breeding customized the Arabian body to overcome harsh conditions. Many of these adaptations help them triumph on the trail.
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, and 800 to 1,200 pounds. Their thin skin and light muscling helps heat and lactic acid dissipate more rapidly than other breeds. 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. They maximize airflow with large, flaring nostrils. And cheekbones placed wide apart at the throat (five to six inches) enable them to tuck their muzzle while running, without compressing their windpipe and restricting airflow.
Arabians also tend to have greater bone and hoof density than other breeds. That, combined with relatively large feet, improves shock absorption on the trail. Some riders, including Severa, who just returned from a week in the Sierras, ride their Arabians without shoes.
“It was the first time we’ve gone ‘barefoot,’ and it actually improved their traction on some surfaces,” Severa says. “Their feet came through in spectacular shape. When you have an Arabian that’s healthy on the inside, his feet are usually tough as nails.”
Because Arabians are built differently than other breeds, and Half-Arabians may inherit similar backs, be sure your trail saddle fits your particular mount. Steve Ray of SR Saddles in Bend, Oregon (SR Saddles, 541/317-0135; www.endurance.net/srsaddle), is a premier custom saddlemaker for trail riders; the vast majority of his saddles are for Arabians. He cautions that even if a saddle is advertised “for Arabians,” or “on an Arabian tree,” you still should carefully fit the saddle to your specific Arabian or Half-Arabian horse.
“Arabians come in all shapes and sizes,” Ray says. “Generally, an Arabian tree is wider at the withers, and has shorter bars than those on a stock saddle to accommodate the breed’s short backs.
However, a saddle that fits a 4-year-old may not fit the same horse at age 7. Arabian horses mature more slowly, often going through growth spurts as late as age 5, which make them ‘butt high’ and give them a downhill (forward sloping) back. Select a saddle tree that keeps your saddle level and distributes your weight evenly.
“Horses’ backbones become more pronounced with age, and they lose weight as they mature or get in shape,” Ray adds. “My trees are adjustable to accommodate those changes. Veterinarians tell you that most lameness problems are actually the result of poorly fitting saddles. It doesn’t make sense to scrimp on a well-fitting saddle, when it helps keep your horse sound.”
The Need for Speed
Do you love the relaxation of trail riding, but have an occasional competitive urge? Indulge yourself! Stamina, soundness, surefootedness, and intelligence-natural attributes that make Arabians and Half-Arabians great trail partners-also make them standouts in competition. Depending on how far and fast you want to travel, chances are, there’s a group to suit your specific needs.
Competitive trail organizations sponsor rides (not races) over marked courses that entrants complete within a predetermined period of time. The first to finish isn’t necessarily the winner. Instead, a compilation of scores for both the horse and rider establishes winning order. Horses are judged on condition, soundness, and success over natural trail obstacles; riders are judged on trail equitation, courtesy underway, stabling, horse grooming, and more.
The largest and best known national competitive trail group is the North American Trail Ride Conference (303/688-1677; www.natrc.org). It has 2,000 members, and sanctions 75 rides per year, from Alaska to Florida. Kathy Shanor of Parker, Colorado, has ridden her Arabians to three NATRC national championships. In 2003, her daughter, Kimberlie, 16, was the top NATRC junior rider in the nation, and her Arabian gelding, the top junior’s horse.
“Arabians are smart, and easy to train because they want to please,” says Kathy, who’s also a NATRC horsemanship judge. She recommends the NATRC experience for anyone contemplating competition. “You learn how to care for yourself and your horse on the trail, monitor his pulse and respiration, and negotiate obstacles. It builds confidence and competence in both horse and rider.”
Minimum age for NATRC riders is 10 years old; for horses, 4 years old. There’s no age limit, however, and senior competitors prove they’re not just getting older, they’re getting better.
Half-Arabian gelding Elmer Bandit, 33, was sired by an Arabian stallion, and is out of a Quarter Horse-Percheron cross mare. This year, Elmer and his owner/rider, Mary Anna Wood of Missouri, chalked-up their 24th NATRC national championship. In 2003, Elmer was the number-two horse in the country in the open lightweight division, and Wood was ranked number two in horsemanship. The big gray gelding was also the first horse to be inducted into NATRC’s Hall of Fame.
Find Your Arabian
Coloradan Kathy Shanor trains Arabians for both pleasure riding and competitive trail. “Matching horse to rider is imperative,” she notes. A lifelong horsewoman, she’s owned an Anglo-Arabian and a Morgan-Arabian. Today, she, her husband, and their two teenage children ride purebred Arabians.
“Arabians and Half-Arabians are great family horses because they’re so people-oriented and fun to live with,” Shanor says. Here are her buying tips.
- If you’re just beginning your involvement with Arabians, find a knowledgeable mentor. Often, it’s best to avoid advice from people trying to sell you a horse, as their interests might be conflicted.
- Find someone who owns and rides Arabians on the trail. Or, contact a respected breeder whose horses do well on the trail. Most horsepeople love to talk about their horses, and will gladly share their insights on the breed.
- Look for a calm horse that confidently approaches you in the pasture, one with a soft eye and good conformation. If he’s already under saddle, look for an easy-going walk-after all, you’ll be doing lots of that on the trail. Climb aboard, and ask him to work off your leg, yield to leg pressure, and flex in his circles, rather than offer stiff resistance.
- Good conformation means comfortable gaits. Look for a horse with a free-moving, sloping shoulder. Avoid the straight-shouldered horse, as he’ll have short, choppy gaits. Look for a nice length of neck for balance, a short back, and well-developed hindquarters. A well-balanced horse will be a comfortable ride.
- Arabians are smart and sensitive, and that’s part of the fun. Don’t expect them to be “push-button” horses. They’re never stupid or untrainable. You need to think about what you’re asking them and have clarity in your request-in other words, you need to be a little smarter than your horse!
- Avoid former show horses, especially halter horses. Unfortunately, the residual effects of their training and stressful show lives can be difficult to overcome. Also, avoid horses that seem nervous, “wired,” or ones that shy and spook easily. While many bad habits can be overcome with patient training, particularly newcomers to the breed should select horses with calm temperaments.
- Be sure you are right for the breed. Look elsewhere if you’re short-tempered, lack patience, or want a horse that just plods down a trail. Or you want a horse that’s “bombproof”-not that that quality exists in any breed.
- When you find a horse that seems perfect, arrange for a one- or two-week trial. Horses tend to act differently away from home, and most sellers will gladly negotiate a trial period. Spend time together: Ride your dream horse on the trail, and invite your mentor. (See first bullet.) Then welcome your new Arabian or Half-Arabian trail partner into the family. Congratulations-you have many wonderful rides ahead!
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