Purebred Arabian horses compete in one of the many races organized exclusively for the breed in Saudi Arabia.

No breed of animal has enjoyed the fame and universal admiration as that of the Arabian horse nor has had a greater impact on the course of history. For centuries, the qualities that have made this breed stand apart from all others - beauty, grace, endurance, intelligence, courage and affection for its owner - have endeared the Arabian horse to owners and enthusiasts alike. Today, Saudi Arabia is undertaking a national program to safeguard the breed and its unique characteristics.

King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, here at a race (above) with Riyadh Governor Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, actively support efforts to preserve and propagate the Arabian horse, which is a living part of the Kingdom's rich culture and heritage.

The horse has played an integral role in the development of civilization. It originated in North America, where it later became extinct. Travelling to Asia by the Bering land bridge, it was first domesticated in the steppes of Central Asia by nomadic tribes who used the animal to extend their range and, later, in their attacks on the settled peoples of the Middle East. Its appearance transformed the nature of life in the civilizations that blossomed in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Up until the beginning of this century, the horse was the principal means of transport and an essential aspect of warfare.

The first traces of the breed that is now known as the Arabian appear in the historic record more than 3,500 years ago. Rock paintings and inscriptions in the Arabian Peninsula depict horses that are extraordinarily similar to modern Arabians. Though shrouded by the mists of time, the Arabian's roots most likely extend to the Najd plateau in the heart of the peninsula. It was here that the breed appears to have been developed by the nomadic tribes. To the bedouin, goats and camels were necessities that made life possible in their arid land. But it was the number and quality of a man's horses that was considered the measure of his prestige and the extent of his power.

Through scrupulous breeding, the hardy bedouin over time developed a horse that, because of the environment it lived in, was smaller and more finely shaped than those that developed into the drafthorses and warhorses of Europe and Asia. It was also endowed with extraordinary stamina and speed and was fearless in battle. And because the horse was tethered from birth in the shade of the bedouin's tent in the heat of the day, the breed developed an affinity for man that borders on loyalty and affection.

The Arabs' love for the breed is reflected in thousands of poems and sayings. Even the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) contain numerous passages of praise for the horse. This fondness for the breed and its value to the Arabs ensured the survival of the Arabian horse over the centuries.

It was with the advent of Islam that the Arabian horse began to have a major impact in other parts of the world. Muslims, mounted on fine Arabians, rode east and west, spreading Islam from China to Spain. In most of these lands, the Arabian was bred both as a separate breed and also was mixed with domestic horses to produce new strains. The Andalusian horses of Spain are one example of the latter.

In their encounters with Muslim merchants and armies, Europeans began to take note of the agility, speed and endurance of Arabians and actively sought out fine stallions and mares through purchase, barter or spoils of war. These were bred with the heavy horses of Europe to produce better strains. They also formed the original gene pool for royal stables established by European monarchs to breed Arabians. Several of these stables still exist today in Poland, Russia and Germany and are sources of purebred Arabian horses.

Crown Prince Abdullah (top) with the Crown Prince's Cup. Many breeders and owners (above) vie for the honor of having one of their horses win the prestigious trophy.

The Arabian, as well as the Andalusian, traveled to the New World with the Spanish Conquistadors, including Cortez, de Soto and Coronado. These formed the nucleus for the breeds that later appeared in north, central and south America. Some that escaped or were captured by native Americans later became the famous Mustangs of the western United States and the ponies on which the plains Indians pursued the buffalo.

American colonists were also actively importing Arabian horses from the 17th century onwards at a time when the Arabian was becoming widely popular with the European nobility. These horses were bred and sold in the United States. Indeed, George Washington, noticing that some of his Connecticut cavalry were riding Arabians, asked a friend for one. General Washington was presented with an Arabian and rode the animal, named Ranger, at Valley Forge and throughout his campaigns. A succession of other American presidents also owned Arabians. In recent times, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan continued this tradition.

In Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, three Arabian stallions were brought to Britain and bred with English horses to produce the thoroughbred. All thoroughbred horses in the world today trace their ancestry to those three horses. Indeed, most outstanding breeds of modern European and American horses have some Arabian blood in them.

The popularity of the Arabian reached such an extent that the large numbers being exported to Asia, Europe and the Americas in the 19th century threatened the breed in its original homeland, the Arabian Peninsula. In 1863, when 600 horses were purchased for export from the Shammar tribe alone, a moratorium had to be placed barring further exports for several years.

Although bedouins continued to breed and sell horses across the peninsula, a resurgence in the popularity of the Arabian across the world has required the taking of additional steps to safeguard the Arabian horse in recent decades.

In Saudi Arabia, owning and breeding horses has always been popular with both city dwellers and bedouins. The founder of the modern Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, owned a famous stable, as do many of his sons today. Thus, although the breed was not under serious threat, a major national effort was undertaken some three decades ago to preserve and propagate it.

The National Arabian Horse Show (top) will promote interest in breeding the Arabian horse. Saudi Arabia also fields equestrian teams in international events.

The establishment of the Arabian Horse Research Center in Dirab was a major step. Run by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water, the center conducts research on pure breeds of Arabians, documents ancestry and seeks to maintain the original bloodlines. Located some 30 miles southwest of the capital, Dirab owns a breeding stock of several hundred stallions and mares from the five strains developed by the bedouin. Most are descendants of horses from King Abdul Aziz's stables.

A registry established by the ministry has been a major boost for the Kingdom's effort to preserve the Arabian horse. By issuing certificates documenting the bloodlines of individual horses, it has allowed a larger number of owners to become involved in breeding. Whereas this was once conducted primarily by members of the royal family and bedouin tribes, the national program seeks to involve larger numbers of private entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.

Although there are breeding stables throughout the Kingdom, Riyadh, at the heart of Najd, is the equestrian center of Saudi Arabia. In the wadis and plains around the city and in the nearby farmlands of Al-Kharj are many stud farms and stables owned by private breeders who raise horses for their personal enjoyment as well as for sale.

To allow owners to showcase their horses as a means of promoting public interests and involvement, Saudi Arabia has established races for purebred Arabian horses. These are held at race courses in Riyadh and other cities, as well as at special events such as the Jenadriyah National Heritage and Culture Festival.

The most famous of these races are the King's Cup and the Crown Prince's Cup. Horses are raced for the prestige of winning these cups, as well as for prize money running into tens of thousands of dollars. Many breeders enter several horses, seeking the honor of receiving a trophy from the hands of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz or Deputy Prime Minister and Commander of the National Guard Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, both of whom actively support horse breeding and racing in Saudi Arabia.

This mare and her foal demonstrate the qualities that have made the Arabian the most popular breed of horse throughout the world.

Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has taken other steps that augur well for the future of the Arabian horse. One was the first National Arabian Horse Show held in Dirab last November. Thirty breeders entered more than 170 of their finest horses. A panel of experts presented awards in different categories and age groups. The selection of outstanding horses will increase their value as breeding stock and encourage interested businessmen who lack expertise to become involved in breeding. The horse show is to be held regularly on an annual basis.

Also, the first public auction sanctioned by Dirab and the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation was held in Riyadh in January 1997 at the Riyadh Equestrian Club. The auction presented 52 purebred Arabian horses, which brought an average price of eighty-four thousand dollars. Such auctions are expected to increase both public interest and the value of breeding quality horses.

President of the Equestrian Federation Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad views the lifting of restrictions on the import and export of pure Arabian horses, which were originally introduced as a means of preserving them, as another step in promoting breeding in the Kingdom. Linking serious Saudi breeders with those in Arab and other countries and facilitating the transfer of purebred horses are expected to further improve the strain and engender greater interest in this effort.

In addition to the Ministry of Agriculture and Water and private breeders, several government organizations are also involved in breeding and maintaining Arabian horses. The most notable of these is the National Guard which has cavalry units that participate in presentations and special events. Private clubs and university clubs also own and breed horses and encourage young enthusiasts to enter riding and jumping courses. To satisfy the growing public interest in riding, a number of stables have been established that hire out horses, particularly Arabians, to enthusiasts.

While focusing on the breeding of Arabian horses and encouraging public interest in them, the Equestrian Federation and several clubs also are actively involved in showjumping thoroughbred horses, primarily for competition in the Olympics and international events.

The different programs now being undertaken in Saudi Arabia are expected to preserve the Arabian horse in its ancestral land and allow future generations to enjoy this noble breed that is a living part of their rich culture and heritage.

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