President's Message

"Arabians In Sport"

Pamela M. Turner

Article Background:

This message was written in 1987 and published in "Dressage & CT" in Feb,1988, "The Chronicle of the Horse", and several other publications also picked it up giving ASHAI considerable exposure. Since then interest, understanding and acceptance of the Arabian as a sporting horse has burgeoned. Other organizations have adopted some of ASHAI's goals and the term "Arabian Sport Horse" has become commonplace.

We are very proud of our contributions to the Arabian breed.



It seems that there is considerable confusion over the capabilities of the Arabian horse, in general. Therefore, in order to explain the need for, and the purpose of, the Arabian Sport Horse Association, it is, perhaps, necessary to first touch briefly on the history of the original Arabian before going into its current development in the United States.

The Arabian has been a sporting horse for centuries. Used in the desert as a warrior’s mount, it was prized for its speed, stamina and natural ability. Included in its rich heritage were races, games and jumping competitions as well as falconry (hunting) when not actually engaged in hostile tribal encounters. Of excellent disposition, the horse was easy to handle and keep—some of the time living in the same tent with its Bedouin master.

The bloodlines of these equine prizes were carefully guarded in order to preserve and improve the valuable qualities of speed, conformation and temperament. As the world grew smaller the Arabian rapidly claimed recognition for these qualities and the little "drinker of the wind" with the big heart and gentle disposition was called upon to produce and refine almost every known breed. In Europe today, carefully planned warmblood breeding programs include the Arabian for refinement, sensitivity and movement.

Much has been written on how the Arabian has been exploited and abused in the United States over the past few decades. That the entire breed has been maligned because of hype, glitter and glamour sadly goes to show that most critics of the Arabian as a breed are judging not the horse but those who breed and show him. Unfortunately, this critical bias has created almost enough general prejudice to put the whole breed out of the world of the true working horse altogether.

The fact that the Arabian has been used as a moneymaking entity is not the whole problem—there is, and always must be, a place for this all-important breed in the horse industry—rather, it is the way it has been used and, in many cases, by whom.

Discovered to be a very "showy" horse of great courage and spirit and, though very tractable, extremely impressive when excited, it soon became a status symbol for people who knew little or nothing about horses in general.

Trainers, many of whom did not understand the Arabian’s temperament, found it all too easy to "heat the horse up" behind the barn and present it to the owner and his overawed friends with nostrils flared, eyes wild, body taut, tail high, prancing in terror—ready for flight. This was thought to represent "presence"! The million-dollar-equine-collectible was created.

Trainers strove hard to outdo each other, using all kinds of methods to improve the "pizzazz." Out of this was developed the halter mania. Some stallions were broken to ride or drive—very few mares. They were all used for breeding. Colts, though perhaps full of promise as geldings, became worthless giveaways. Breeding was the thing—not for speed, intelligence, soundness, stamina or courage—for beauty; the beauty contest in the halter classes!

Although the Arabian, being a horse of the desert, does not trot with the knee action of the American Saddlebred, if and when they were broken to ride it was usually saddleseat style. Therefore, the action had to be "trained in" and, whenever possible, bred in. This has led to the introduction of a sort of auxiliary "trot." Some people say that the best show Arabian has three gaits: walk, "trainer’s gait" and canter. This second gait appears to be a fast, four-beat with a high front action and hocks coming up, not underneath the horse, as is natural for impulsion, but behind, under the tail. This gait, it seems, may now be enhanced by longer feet and heavier shoes!

So—the registered, purebred Arabian, the desert warhorse with its long, floating, ground-covering stride, so valuable in the improvement of other breeds, is being taught a whole new way of movement. Even more frightening than this thought is the fact that we are so dangerously close to finding this new gait actually bred in to the (American) Arabian.

Perhaps it should be said that not all Arabians are suitable to become outstanding sporting horses—just as in all breeds for specific disciplines, there are those that will not be champions. But surely this ancient breed deserves more respect than to be totally changed and altogether dismissed from the world of the true working horse because of an easily exploited disposition and a talent for "presence."

However, even if one were to judge only by the overwhelming response to the developing Arabian Sport Horse Association, it is very evident, and most heartening to know, that throughout all this promotional hoopla there have been, all across America, not just a few but many, many purists who have quietly continued to breed their carefully selected horses with love, care and understanding. They have not sacrificed the movement so precious for dressage and endurance, amiable disposition so necessary in a family horse and athletic conformation essential for any sporting animal.

These mostly small farms and individual owners are ASHAI’s compelling concern. They are investing their time and effort into ensuring the continuation of the original qualities of the Arabian. They seek to eliminate from their breeding programs any structurally unsound, over-refined horses with inadequate bone. They are able to appreciate the classic beauty of these horses without all the hype and glitter and they recognize and value their sensitivity, courage and natural presence. Using classical training methods, they are careful not to upset the natural balance, cadence, impulsion and light sensitivity inherent in the purebred Arabian and found predominant in the part-bred. Their horses, and the get and produce of their horses, are most likely to have retained the qualities of a working, sporting horse. They are also striving to continue the tradition of reintroducing carefully selected Arabian blood to improve and refine other breeds when necessary.

The Arabian Sport Horse Association is developing through these knowledgeable horse people. Not seeking to change, or exploit the Arabian, nor to create a new Arabian breed, its sole purpose is to encourage, promote and support the natural sporting capabilities of the purebred as well as the part-bred Arabian. With more exposure of the Arabian as a sporting horse the breed must surely suffer less abuse, exploitation and prejudice.