The Arabian Horse has been classified as a distinct sub-species having characteristics differentiating it from other horse breeds. These differences are evident in the skeleton, conformation and intelligence of the horse and distinguish the Arabian horse wherever it is found. The Arabian horse is a specialized desert product and a close descendant of the primitive stock of Arabia. Historically, the Arabian has been recognized as a horse of beauty, intelligence, courage, endurance and romance. Bred and reared in close contact with man from the earliest records and existing in mutual interdependence the keen brain of the primitive animal has been developed by such close human association. The superior intelligence of the Arabian horse has been celebrated in a thousand anecdotes. The Arabian is typically gentle, affectionate and familiar to the point of being troublesome.
The Arabian Horse is renowned for its soundness of limb and ability to withstand hardship. After all, the life and welfare of its Arab owner, who constantly engaged in the “Ghazu”, a form of quick mounted foray upon his neighbours, was often dependent upon these qualities in his horse. Such qualities are the result of good original stock with the purity being maintained by intensive and selective breeding in a favourable environment.
The unique appearance and special beauty of the Arabian has long been recognized. In his famous book Newmarket and Arabia, Major RD Upton wrote in 1873 that “the formation of the Arab is so perfect, there is nothing to spare, no waste, his form is one essentially of utility, the space for the seat of the rider is sufficient, and at once fixes his true position, the weight is therefore carried on that part most adapted for it. The rest of his frame is taken up with the powers of progression. Nature, the unerring artist, has not made a mistake and man, with his improvements, has not had the opportunity of spoiling him”.
The skeleton of the Arabian is characterized by a relative shortness of skull, slenderness of the lower jaw, larger size of the brain case and often fewer vertebrae in the back and tail. The Arabian’s head is also different, the upper half being larger in proportion to the whole size of the horse, especially in the depth across the jowls. The head has a triangular shape which diminishes rapidly to a small and fine muzzle, so small that it can usually be enclosed in the palm of the hand. In action, or when the horse is excited, the nostrils may become greatly dilated. The large lustrous eyes are set far apart and, when the horse is aroused, are full of fire. The Arabian is also known for a well co-ordinated, free, easy stride with a stylish, naturally balanced action. The front limbs should move with unrestricted shoulder and knee action, giving a longer, truer stride. Natural drive and impulsion from the hocks and stifle balance the proud, co-ordinated action of the horse. It must be remembered that the conformation of a horse dictates its action.
The South African breeders of Arabian horses, geographically isolated from other Arabian breeding nations due to the country’s location on the southern tip of Africa, have developed their own unique Arabian population based on English, Egyptian, Russian, Spanish and Polish blood lines. Today about 11 000 pure and partbred Anglo-Arabians are registered or recorded in South Africa. Breeding and showing (halter and riding) classes of part Anglo-Arabians are very popular in South Africa and many studs breed only partbreds and Anglos or Welsh/Arabian/English thoroughbred crosses for riding performance. All Regional Shows and the National Show for Arabians have halter classes as well as a large variety of riding and performance classes (English, Western, Formal Riding and Driving classes, Jumping, Dressage, Equitation, Children’s classes and Utility classes) which are well supported and form a very important part of the shows.
Endurance riding has grown tremendously since its inception in 1974, and the sport is still growing. About 1 700 participants started in 40 endurance races held all over South Africa during 1996. The average distance of these races is 80 km. The National ride (210 km), for which riders have to qualify, takes place in July every year and usually has about 250 participants. Almost all the horses that take part in endurance races are pure or partbred Arabians, but any breed can take part and all races are mixed. Purebred Arabians win most of the races and over long distances have the highest average speed of all breeds participating.
Although horses are not indigenous to Africa south of the equator, South Africa has a fairly long horse tradition, which began with the arrival of the first white settlers in the seventeenth century. The first registered purebred Arabian arrived in South Africa at the beginning of this century. It was the stallion “Azrek”, imported by the South African mine magnate, Cecil John Rhodes, from Wilfred and Lady Anne Blunt’s stud in England. “Azrek” was of excellent type, but was never bred to any pure Arabian mares in South Africa. A few years later, Captain Gorner Williams imported a few pure Arabian mares and stallions and started the first Arabian stud in the country. Sir De Villiers Graaff, who imported Arabians from Argentina, and Mr. W Lovemore, who imported Crabbet Arabians, soon followed suit. However, the offspring of these first three studs were mixed with other breeds and thus lost to the Arabian breed. Betty Arnold of Bedford in the Great Karoo founded the oldest existing Arabian stud in South Africa in 1951, starting her Olford Arabian Stud with the importation of three Crabbet mares from England.
The first South African National Arabian Horse Show was held in 1951 in Graaff-Reinet. The second show was held in 1953 at Middelburg in the then Cape Province. By 1959 the National Show had 114 entries and it was obvious that the Arabian Horse had established its niche in South Africa.
After 1960, many new studs were started all over South Africa and many horses were imported from England, Europe and the United States. The Arab Horse Breeders’ Society of South Africa was established in 1961 and presently has about 550 members, most of them active breeders. However, many members have joined as non-breeding members with the sole purpose of owning, riding and showing. South Africans ride their Arabians and breed horses that can be ridden, so continuing a tradition that originated in the desert many centuries ago.