The Arabian Horse

From the flame of Allah himself
came the world's finest horse.

by Colin Campbell

The Santa Ynez Valley in northern Santa Barbara County is justly famed for its beauty and fertility--and for its Arabian horses. Since 1957 more than 50 Arabian horse breeders have established ranches in the Valley, creating the densest population of Arabians per square mile in the world. The attractions of the Valley may seem obvious to Santa Barbarans, who need travel only thirty miles to enjoy them, but they must be overwhelming to cause Arabian breeders from all over the country to uproot their ranches and resettle here, transporting upwards of 30 horses as much as 3,000 miles. Yet the Valley alone can't explain this expensive immigration; to understand it fully, one must understand the Arabian horse.

A thousand years of careful breeding lies between the Arabian horse and other breeds. According to legend, Allah Himself created the first Arabian from wind and flame as the only horse fit for the nomadic Bedouins. Possibly closer to fact is the story that Mohammed the Prophet selected five perfect mares to begin a line of horses suitable for the nobility. Indisputable is the fact that for over a millenium the Arabian has been carefully bred to the highest standard of strength, stamina and intelligence.

The harsh desert environment of Arabia ruthlessly culled weaker horses; all the sentiment in the world couldn't bring nonexistent water to a dying horse. The Bedouins themselves eliminated stupid or intractable horses from the line, as such animals were not granted the protection of the family tent during the freezing winters. As a result of these ages of selective breeding, the Arabian is the most genetically and temperamentally stable of all the varieties of Equus Caballus.

Its appearance is strikingly different from that of other horses, even to the unpracticed eye. The distinctive arch of the neck and the extra-large nostrils are noticed first. The Arabian head is proportionately wider than in other breeds, allowing for a larger brain and higher intelligence. The spine has fewer bones, shortening the back and making the rump higher than the shoulder-and creating a stronger, more efficient muscle structure.

The Arabian is so different from other types that we are lucky they can interbreed; Arabians, when crossed with other types, always produce stronger, more vigorous horses, and breeders in the Santa Ynez Valley are cross-breeding to create ever more perfect horses. But the major impact of cross-breeding began centuries ago, at about the time of the discovery and colonization of America.

The image of Indians chasing buffalo on horseback is so familiar to Americans today that it is somewhat startling to remember that the horse was introduced to this continent by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century. But the affinity between man and horse is based mostly on utility, and the Indian found the horse to be vastly useful. By 1730, the horse had spread to the Canadian border as an integral part of Indian life, and white settlers moving into Indian territory assumed that the horse had been known to the Indian since antiquity. What kind of horses were they?

Before coming to America the Spaniards had conquered North Africa, where they found a superior breed of horse: rather small, but alert, intelligent and possessing immense stamina. These Arabians were interbred with the larger and heavier Spanish horse; even in this diluted strain the Arabian proved its worth and was the horse of choice of the Conquistadores. In the New World it swiftly adapted to the dry Southwest and to the grassy plains further north.

On the Atlantic seaboard the horse wasn't adapting well. In New England horses were considered a sinful luxury. There were only 200 horses in Virginia as late as 1670; oxen were preferred, as they did more work and were cheaper to maintain. In the Dutch and German colonies draft horses such as Clydesdales and Percherons were used. The rich farmlands of New York and Pennsylvania, however, were able to support horses that stood 19 hands high at the shoulders (a "hand" is 4 inches) and weighed up to 2500 pounds. They had been bred for size and as riding horses they were very suitable for a knight wearing a few hundred pounds of armor.

Around 1730 the Arabian horse revolution began. Traders began to bring Arabian stallions to English ports, where they were an instant hit. As one writer of the time said, "The Arabians seem capable of going on for surprising distances under heavy weights without tiring. They depend on stoutness and long endurance of privations rather than on short bursts of speed for finding favour with their masters. Little energy is expended on nervous and unruly behaviour."

The results were immediate. Three stallions brought to England-the Darley Arabian, the Goldolphin Arabian, and the Byerly Turk-were crossed with existing English race horses; the resulting offspring were so superior that today every Thoroughbred race horse in the world descends in direct male line from those three stallions.

In America, the Arabian had even more impact. As settlers pushed westward they came upon new and unexpected climates, hazards and terrain. New types of horses were required to meet these new conditions, and various crossings of Arabians with local horses produced the Standardbred, the American Saddlebred, the Tennessee Walker, the Quarter Horse, the Hackney and, some people claim, the Morgan.

By the time of the Revolutionary War the blood of the Arab had spread through the colonies. The intelligence, endurance and courage of the colonist's mounts were often decisive in battles against the Redcoats, who were supplied with the more lethargic English saddlers and draft horses. The Arabian contributed greatly to the success of the revolution and the expansion of the United States, leading the way in the forms of mixed-breed stagecoach horses, cow ponies, smaller but more durable draft horses, and many other special-use horses.

But with the invention of the motorpowered truck, tractor and car, the decline of the horse in the U.S. began. In 1920, there were still nearly thirty million horses in our cities and on our farms, but by 1959 (the last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture kept records on horses) only three million were left. The national mood was that horses were outmoded, suited only for circuses, cowboy movies and backward farms. The Arabian, too, suffered in the general decline; by 1952 there were only 7,600 registered full-blooded Arabians left in the United States.

But there were some believers left. In 1957, Charlie and Frances Eblen came to the Santa Ynez Valley to start an Arab breeding farm on a modest 10-acre ranch with their white stallion, Buna. A few years later a Minnesota breeder arrived in the Valley on his 75th visit to California in search of the ideal spot to relocate his Arabian breeding ranch. "I had looked from San Diego to north of San Francisco," he says. "I wanted a ranch that would be self-sustaining, with the finest climate and scenery possible. The Santa Ynez Valley was my choice. "

Americans with growing leisure time began to rediscover the joys of pleasure riding, and there is no horse more suited to pleasure riding than the Arabian. Gradually, other breeders began to hear of the horses of the Valley. Many came to visit and buy; some became entranced by the Valley and established their own ranches there.

To a rancher, any move is expensive. The cost of uprooting and then reestablishing in a new area is much higher than the basic transportation cost, so a long move is not that much more costly than a short one. Breeders who had been searching Florida, Texas and Arizona for optimum conditions often took just one look at the Santa Ynez Valley before deciding to settle there.

There are many criteria for an optimum horse ranch. The smog and general pollution of the big cities must be avoided and there must be plenty of wide-open space available, secure from future encroachment by the urban developer. Varied and scenic terrain is another plus factor, as is a climate allowing year-round operations. Yet these factors must be balanced against the necessity of locating near a large, easily accessible market, a market with the sophistication and awareness necessary to appreciate the Arabian horse.

The Santa Ynez Valley fit the bill perfectly, even to supplying some of the finest horse-specialist veterinarians in the country. As more and more people nation-wide became interested in Arabians, the back roads and winding country lanes of the Valley became posted with the identifying signs of the ranches: Four Winds, Arabesque, Brierwood, El Sherif, Harlequin, Singing Winds, Dove Meadow, Somerset, Hidden River. By 1969, the number of registered Arabians in the U.S. had risen to 45,000, and the Valley itself claimed nearly thirty ranches.

The problems and joys of breeding and raising Arabian horses naturally tends to form a bond between those who experience them, and in 1973 the non-profit Santa Ynez Valley Arabian Horse Breeders Association was formed in recognition of this bond. It is perhaps unique among similar organizations around the country in that membership is limited to those who actually live in the Valley, thus bringing a remarkable unity of purpose to the club.

The Association publishes a directory which is distributed free to horse enthusiasts and provides Arabian horse information to interested visitors callers. Horse care and training clinics around the county are sponsored by the Association, and funds generated through its functions are donated to veterinary schools and to research on equine diseases. Its monthly meetings feature noted speakers who provide insight into the many facets of horse ownership.

Today, there are more than a hundred thousand registered Arabians in the United States, and the Santa Ynez Valley increases that number by three or four hundred each year. This rising production has not been accompanied by any decrease in quality; in fact, the reverse is true.

The Valley has several "Living Legend" stallions, so designated because of their influence as a sire on the entire breed. Legion of Merit winners have ceased to be a rarity, and National Champion horses are plentiful. These titles are granted only after the accumulation of sufficient points in accredited shows and competitions; because of their great endurance and intelligence, Arabians are constant winners. In the Diamond 100 Mile Endurance race last year, nine of the first ten finishers were Arabians.

The Arabian's versatility in the show ring was demonstrated last year by the 13-year-old gelding of 14-year-old Nancy Hardin, who won the International Saddle Seat Medal at the Santa Barbara National Amateur show; Nancy was riding the only Arabian entered in a highly competitive class.

But the real value of the magnificent Arabian is its ability to be enjoyed by its owner. The Arabian is a horse you can chum with, a trustworthy pal, one who adapts himself to the moods and whims of his rider. A resident summed it up for us:

"There goes Paul Hemming, riding Raffon as if he were one of the neighborhood saddle horses. I don't know what Raffon's worth-he's a National Champion and a Legion of Merit winner-but suppose a car hit him? I don't think Paul considers his value, he's just out having a good time. Raffon's good to ride, Paul likes to ride him, so they go out for a ride. That's what's so great about the Valley. "

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