Breed Profile: Arabian

Winter is upon (some of) us, so to distract you from the chill building on your toes and car windows, here’s the story of the most famous desert breed: the Arabian horse.

The Basics:

Arabian horses are perhaps one of the most physically distinctive breeds in the world. Their famous dished head, high-set tail, and compact body makes them relatively easy to pick out of a herd. These horse are generally 14.1 to 15.1 hands high, and the USEF classifies them as a horse (even though 14.2 is the cut off for pony height.)

Purebred Arabians may only be registered as black, bay, grey, chestnut, bay, or ‘roan.’ The roan gene does not exist in pure Arabians, but owners will register horses who have rabicano or sabino patterning as roan. All Arabians have black skin, except for a rare few who carry a dominant white gene from the R Khasper line. Purebreds will never carry dilution genes, which means that paint or cream colors (Palomino, dun, cremello, etc.)  are not possible in pure arabians. Appaloosa patterning is also not accepted in pure Arabians.


(A black ‘roan’ with rabicano patterning)

Exemplifying the concept of small but mighty, Arabian horses tend to have good bone density, strong hoof walls, and well angled shoulders and hips that give them natural athleticism. They traditionally dominate Endurance competitions, but can be seen in any and every ring, from hunters, to Dressage, to cutting (see video.) The have a reputation for being smart, loyal horses, but they are a hot-blooded breed, so potential owners should be prepared to handle their energy.

There are several breed associations for Arabians. The Arabian Horse Association is the U.S based organization and the World Arabian Horse Organization collaborates with over 80 countries to keep track of Arabians across the world.

*Bonus fact: Some Arabians have five lumbar vertebrae, as opposed to the usual six and 17 sets of ribs, where most horses have 18.

The History:

Arabian horses are one of the earliest domesticated breeds. There is artistic evidence of them coexisting with humans from about 3500 years ago, especially in Egypt. There are different theories about where exactly the Arabian line originated, but most historians agree that they were first domesticated by Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.

One of the most interesting aspects of the evolution of early (or proto) Arabian horses is their survival as a breed was largely dependent on humans. The desert environment is so harsh and unforgiving that horses needed human partners to supply water and reliable food they would struggle to find on their own. They adapted to live on very little, sometimes turning to dates and camel milk when water and pasture ran dry.


History suggests the Bedouin’s used horses mainly for war. These small, crafty horses capable of both bursts of speed and extended gallops were perfect for raiding. Mares were often preferred over stallions for stealthy missions, because they were quieter, and prized mares were known to live in tents with their masters. Since horses were often kept close to humans, a good disposition was as prized as athletic ability.

Early Arabian bloodlines were tracked through the mare’s line and passed on through oral tradition. The purest bred horses were known as Asil and cross breeding both out of Asil or out of certain strains was discouraged.

Arabian horses can be found in art from Egypt, records from Islamic countries across the Middle East, and in mentions of the Roman Empire. They reached Spain through the spreading influence of Islam, and to the rest of the world through the Ottoman Empire. They probably first came to Europe with returning Crusaders. As war tactics changed to favor faster, lighter battles, the Arabian was influential in creating a more modern war-horse.


(Surveying the fields for Nebamun, Tomb-chapel of Nebamun, c. 1350 B.C.E., 18th Dynasty, paint on plaster, 106.7 x 45.8 cm, Thebes, Egypt © Trustees of the British Museum)

Perhaps the most famous base for Arabian above the equator is in Russia and Poland. Arabians were hailed as symbols of power and wealth, so royalty and nobility hurried to establish large stud farms. Polish Arabians were most famous for racing, and an Arabian was the cornerstone of the Orlov Trotter breed in Russia.

An Orlov Trotter

Warfare, increased travel to the Middle East, and the world’s growing appetite for Arabian horses resulted in the beginnings of collapse within the breed, mostly due to inbreeding. Some major figures foresaw the possible downfall of Arabian horses, and began to fight to preserve the breed. The most famous may be Crabbet Park Stud in the Sussex, which was founded by Lady Anne Blunt (Lord Byron’s granddaughter.)

The World Wars destroyed many stud farms in Europe, and it took countries years to salvage what was left of the bloodlines, especially in Poland.

The Arabian’s influence in the United States is similar to its role in Europe. Arabian horses can be traced to famous figures like George Washington, who rode a grey Arabian named Blueskin. The Arabian Horse Registry of America was founded in 1908, and today there are more horses registered in North America than anywhere else in the world.


(“Forensically-recreated” George Washington at Valley Forge,

As in much of the world, the Arabian was instrumental in the development of American breeds like Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, and American Saddlebreds.

The Arabian Today:

There are drawbacks to the Arabian breed. These horses may suffer from many genetic diseases, including:

. Equine Juvenile Epilepsy – A non-fatal form of epilepsy. Usually horses have seizures until 1 or 1.5 years old and act normal between episodes. There’s a theory that it may be linked to lavender foal syndrome.

. Severe Combined Immunodeficiency – Foals are born without an immune system and usually die before three months of age. DNA test can identify carriers, so this disease is completely avoidable if breeders act responsibly.

. Lavender Foal Syndrome – So called because foals are often born a pale ‘lavender’ color. Many cannot stand upon birth, will have seizures, and die within a few days. There is a DNA test for carriers, so this disease is completely preventable.

. Cerebellar Abiotrophy – Foals are often seem normal until six months of age. Then they develop severe uncoordination as cells in their cerebellum die. Horses with mild symptoms may live a full life, but many are euthanized because they’re dangerously accident prone. Horses can carry these genes without being affected.

Some irresponsible breeding trends also favor horses with deeply dished heads, which may deform the nasal passage and affect breathing, overly long backs, and thin legs.


cygnus-mimi-stanley1Overall, the Arabian is one of the most popular breeds in the world. They are prized for their intelligence, their athleticism, and their disposition. They have proven themselves in show ring and family farms alike, and offer a link to a wealth of history from across the world.

Woodland has loved many Arabians as school horses, can you remember a few?

Do you have a favorite Arabian of your own? Let us know in the comments!

Until next time,

Happy riding

(Cover image from, other images from, Arabian Breeders Association of America, and

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