ARABIANS—AWESOME TRAIL HORSES
Gary and Doris Hubbell
970 988 2335
Nervous! Flighty! Spooky! Unpredictable! High-strung! Dangerous!
Let’s assume the words above were used to describe a breed of horses. Which breed would you think it could be? Quarter horses? Foxtrotters? Hanoverians? No, ARABIANS! That’s right, Arabians! Those are the stunningly gorgeous but dangerous, crazy little horses that you can’t count on, right? You’d better be a good horseman or a little touched in the head to ride Arabians.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard all that nonsense, particularly from the old-time cowboys who shuffle along half bent-over because of their many epic horse wrecks, which should tell you something about their horsemanship.
Doris and I are proud to tell you that we love Arabian horses.
Our two personal horses, Slick and Stoney, are both Arabians, and we own several more. Slick turned 20 years old and Stoney turned 19 this spring, and between the two of them, they’ve seen more of the Rocky Mountains than the next 50 “experienced trail horses” you could find.
I know that when I leave the trailhead to go on a week-long elk hunt or a wilderness pack trip, I’m well mounted on either one of those nice geldings. They’re absolutely dependable, sure-footed, careful, strong, responsive, and a lot of fun to ride. And it’s not just those two geldings. We’ve owned close to a dozen Arabians, and our experience has been similar with pretty much all of them.
So let’s go back and de-construct the Arabian horse, and see where that leads us.
The horse evolved in the Persian desert areas that would now be known as Syria, Iran, and Iraq, the loyal and trusted equine companions of the warring Bedouin tribes. The Bedouins were much like the Indian tribes of the American West in the 1700’s and 1800’s, using light, fast horses to travel long distances on raiding parties, stealing livestock and plunder from their enemies. Mares were particularly treasured for their courage and fortitude in battle. Bloodlines were jealously guarded and impure blood was not allowed in the breed. Top mares were rarely, if ever, sold, and dynasties were founded with the top bloodlines in the breed.
Europeans in the Middle Ages had basically two choices in their horse arsenal—either large, heavy workhorses that doubled as warhorses to carry a knight and his heavy armor; or ponies that a friar might ride or that might be used to pull a cart. European Crusaders, confronted with the swift, light cavalry of the Moors and the Arabs, brought back some of those fast, light horses and infused the blood into European horse breeds. Eventually the Ottoman Turks sent three Arabian stallions to Europe between 1683 and 1730—the “Godolphin Arabian”, The Byerley Turk, and the Darley Arabian—which became the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred horse.
European royal families became enamored with Arabian horses. Russians, Germans, and Poles all used them as cavalry mounts into the 1940’s, culminating with the tragic Polish cavalry charge against invading German tanks in 1939. In the Colonies, the Arabian helped contribute bloodstock to the founding of the Morgan horse breed, and in France, the Percheron horse owes the Arabian for its infusion of light horse blood.
The first Arabian horses were imported to the American colonies in 1725, and George Washington even rode an Arabian horse. (Think of the words to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and it makes sense.) The breed didn’t really get started on the continent until the 1920’s, when several different infusions of bloodstock started to arrive on American shores. In 1919, when there were only a few hundred Arabians in America, the president of the Arabian Horse Registry, W.R. Brown, organized the first Cavalry Endurance Ride, and took first place on an Arabian mare carrying 200 pounds of weight. The Army’s U.S. Remount Service got interested in the event in 1920, and required the horses to carry 245 pounds of weight 60 miles a day for five straight days, putting in at least nine hours a day. A grade Army thoroughbred won the competition (remember, thoroughbreds are descended from Arabian bloodstock), but Arabians outclassed all other breeds. In 1921, the Army agreed to lower the weight limit to 225 pounds, and W.R. Brown won the race again on an Arabian gelding, and yet again in 1923 on an Anglo-Arab gelding.
The Army went on to found an Arabian breeding program.
When mechanized armor displaced the horse as the motive power for ground invasions, the program was given over to Cal-Poly College in San Luis Obispo, California, and is still in operation today.
So…back to the question: How are Arabians as mountain trail horses?
And the answer is: outstanding.
First, let’s give a description of the breed.
Arabian horses are smaller in size than most other horse breeds. An average gelding will be 14.2 hands and about 900 pounds, with fine bones, smaller feet, a dainty, beautiful head, an arched neck, a high croup and high-set tail, a shorter back, and quite often, a long, flowing mane and tail. Grey, chestnut, and bay are the most predominant colors, and buckskin, palomino, and pinto colors are almost never seen. Quite often you’ll see dainty little Arabians that are barely 14 hands and 800 pounds, and only occasionally will you see Arabians up to 16 hands and 1,200 pounds.
If you take a close look at the croup and tail-set on a quarter horse and compare it with the croup and tail-set on an Arabian, you’ll see one reason why Arabians have such great endurance. A quarter horse has a steep croup, low-set tail, and powerful hindquarters, which gives the horse great acceleration and short-distance speed. The Arabian’s tail is set high and flat on his rump, which helps an animal achieve long-striding endurance. Of course, it’s well known to riders on the endurance racing circuit that Arabians make the best endurance horses, and their heart-lung capacity is outstanding.
If you plan to spend some time in the mountains covering the country, an Arabian horse is an excellent choice.
You might think these fine-boned horses would be incapable of the hard work of climbing mountain trails at high elevations with a big load of rider and gear—and you’d be wrong. If a 15-hand, 1,100-pound horse is the “normal” size horse for you and your gear, you can most likely ride a 14.2-hand, 950-pound Arabian and have a stronger horse under you. However, it’s true that Arabians aren’t the best choice for overly large people. A 900-pound Arabian just won’t be able to carry a 230-pound man, 45-pound saddle, and a bunch of extra gear up the mountain. For this work, as an aside, we’ve owned two Belgian/Arabian crosses, and they were fantastic mountain horses for larger people. The next one I come across, I’ll buy. The other two weren’t with us long before someone just had to have them. As a second aside, half-Arabian horses can make outstanding mountain trail horses. We’ve had paint/Arab and quarter/Arab crosses as well, and they’ve made fantastic mountain horses. My son Reed owns a 15-hand, 1,100-pound pinto Arabian (paint stallion, Arabian dam) that is truly one of the best horses ever to ride in the mountains.
We’ve done it all with our Arabians: packing camps into the high country and bloody elk quarters and antlers back out of the mountains; gathering cows; week-long pack trips and dude rides; and extensive work as a babysitter for little kids. Those Arabians have crested the passes at 12,500 feet, they’ve swum the Crystal River at flood stage, and they’ve carried more little kids and first-time riders than the next ten horses in our string combined.
So what’s all that noise about nervous, flighty Arabians?
Well, there is some truth to that. Arabian horses are sensitive and intelligent. They’re so attuned to people that they take on the mood and mindset of the people around them. If you’re nervous and jittery; loud and unobservant; or ill-tempered and uncaring, you’re going to turn a previously calm, peaceful horse into a bundle of nerves.
I can walk out to our pasture right now and grab a piece of baling twine, wrap it around Slick’s muzzle, and go for a one-rein bareback ride. Bring me any fat little kid crying for his mother, scared to death of riding a horse, and Slick will take care of him. Yet if you want to go round up a herd of horses and push them across the river, you won’t find a quicker, more responsive horse.
If anything, Arabians are a challenge to your horsemanship.
If you’re used to riding cold-blooded quarter horses that you can smack with a romal or knee in the gut, you’d better learn to LIGHTEN UP when it comes to Arabians. They won’t tolerate abuse. If you think you can yank on a leadrope and bully an Arabian, you’ll probably cause him to rear up and pull back, and that’s when things get dangerous.
On the other hand, if you’re calm and methodical about your horsemanship, and you can show the horse the desired action and how to repeat it, they’ll learn quickly. Looking back on the eight years that we outfitted in the Marble area, leading over 10,000 people on horseback rides, I can’t think of one serious incident where one of our dozen or so Arabians caused trouble. (There was one little gelding who had been so spoiled that he was almost ruined, but that’s another story—it was the previous owner’s problem, not the horse’s. He ended up making a great saddle horse.)
Don’t get mad at an Arabian; chances are he’s trying his hardest to do the right thing.
On the other hand, don’t baby-talk your Arabian. Talking baby talk to anyone or anything is practicing condescension, and these animals want to be your partner and your friend, not your gitchy-goo sweetie-pie.
If you’ve always liked the looks of Arabians, chances are that you’re already suited to own one. They’re very special horses, and it’s true, it takes special people to appreciate them. Enjoy.
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