The Arabian is one of the oldest recognized horse breeds, with a history spanning thousands of years. The breed originated in the Arabian Peninsula and spread worldwide through war and trade.
Today, nearly every modern breed of riding horse carries the influence of Arabian bloodlines. Originally bred in the desert by the nomadic Bedouin people, these horses are known for their distinctive beauty and charismatic spirit.
While the breed’s legendary history contributes to its enduring popularity, the traits that made Arabians prized in ancient cultures now help the breed succeed in modern equestrian sport.
Owners should also consider the unique traits and history of the Arabian horse when developing a care and feeding program. Arabians typically have longer lifespans than most horse breeds, and proper management can help keep them healthy as they age.
This article will discuss the history, characteristics, common health problems, and nutritional needs of Arabians. Keep reading to learn everything you should know about caring for and managing Arabian horses.
Arabian Horse History
The history of the Arabian horse is intertwined with the history of humankind. These horses are featured in various myths and religious texts, confirming the breed’s influence on ancient cultures and civilizations. 
The influence of Arabian horses extends far beyond the Arabian Peninsula, where they originated. These horses also served as mounts for prominent historical figures on nearly every continent, including carrying Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington.
Today, centuries of selective breeding are maintained by breed organizations that register thousands of Arabian foals born every year.
The ancestral origins of the Arabian horse are still subject to ongoing research. Evidence suggests that the Bedouin people of the Arabian peninsula domesticated desert horses before 1,500 BCE. 
Horses with features similar to the modern Arabian appear in rock paintings from the peninsula dating back to 2500 BCE. The region’s desert climate heavily influenced the breed, as desert horses needed to survive on little food and water in extreme temperatures. 
The Bedouin people were nomadic Arab tribes who inhabited desert regions stretching from North Africa to the Middle East, relying on camels and other livestock for their livelihood.
Bedouin tribes bred Arabian horses for war, selecting for intelligence, speed, endurance, and soundness. Horses in the desert relied entirely on humans, eating dates and camel’s milk where there was limited pasture or water.
Ancient Arabian horses were also bred for beauty and refinement. Some physical attributes of the Arabian breed, such as a bulging forehead and arching neck, gained high esteem due to their association with religious beliefs and superstition. 
Arabian horses carried Bedouin warriors through battle and into raids on enemy tribes. Many night raids required stealth, and riders often preferred Arabian mares over stallions that may call to enemy horses and give away their position. 
Prized war mares were highly valued in Bedouin culture. Some even slept inside family tents at night for protection from theft, predators, and weather hazards. Breeders also cherished Arabian mares, carefully tracing and refining bloodlines through desirable mare lines. 
Arab horses spread worldwide as spoils of war and honoured gifts. The Arabian was recognized as a distinct breed in the 6th century when its influence expanded alongside the spread of Islam. 
In medieval Europe, knights relied on heavier horses to carry them to battle. But their mounts couldn’t match the speed and agility of the horses of Eastern invaders. Lighter horses soon proved superior cavalry mounts following the invention of firearms. 
European nobility highly desired Arabian horses as symbols of prestige and valuable breeding stock. When breeding focuses shifted from war to pleasure, Arabian bloodlines played a valuable role in developing most riding breeds recognized today. 
Three Arabian stallions imported to England between 1683 and 1730 revolutionized racehorse breeding and founded the Thoroughbred breed. In the 1800s, Victorian-era travellers enamoured with the desert horses founded Arabian stud farms throughout Europe.
Crabbet Arabian Stud in England, founded by Lady Anne Blunt, provided foundation horses for studs worldwide. Several strains of Arabian horses developed, including Polish, Russian, Spanish, Egyptian, Shagya, and Crabbet Arabians. 
The Arabian Horse Association is the official breed registry for Arabian horses in North America. Formed by a merger between the Arabian Horse Registry of America and the International Arabian Horse Association, the AHA now maintains a database of more than 1 million horses.
The origins of the breed registry trace back to 1908, after the importation of 27 Arabian horses by Homer Davenport spurred enthusiasm for the breed in the United States. 
Today, the AHA is a full-service breed association dedicated to promoting and preserving the Arabian breed. The association registers pure Arabians, Half-Arabians, and Anglo-Arabians born in and imported to North America.
Arabian horses are easily recognizable by their distinct appearance and characteristics. Some of these characteristics helped the horses survive in a desert environment, while others contributed to the striking beauty of the breed.
Centuries of selective breeding have concentrated desirable traits that once made the Arabian a prized warhorse now make these horses an intelligent partner for modern riders.
While the Arabian continues to excel in endurance races, these horses are suitable mounts for pleasure riders in multiple disciplines.
Arabians are smaller, lighter horses. This breed generally ranges in height from 14.1 to 15.2 hands. However, all Arabians are classified as horses, not ponies, even if they fall under the traditional 14.2 hand cut-off.
These horses are best known for their refined heads, broad foreheads, dished faces, large eyes, and small muzzles. The slight forehead bulge between their eyes, called the jibbah by the Bedouin, increases sinus capacity and supports temperature regulation. 
The ideal Arabian has an arched neck, a well-set windpipe, and a clean throatlatch. A long, refined structure of the poll and throatlatch allows greater flexibility in the bridle and room to breathe.
Other distinct features include a long, level croup and high tail carriage. Arabians also have a short, straight back and well-sprung ribs. Some Arabians have fewer lumbar vertebrae and pairs of ribs than other horses. Short cannons and strong feet support soundness. 
The AHA registers Arabians with the following coat colours:
Purebred Arabians don’t have dilution genes necessary for dun, cremello, or buckskin coat colours. These colours are only possible in crossbreds. However, some Arabian horses carry a mutated dilution gene responsible for Lavender Foal Syndrome. 
While some art from Ancient Egypt depicts spotting patterns in ancestral Arabian-type horses, pinto and leopard complex patterns aren’t seen in modern Arabians. Except for the skin under white markings, all Arabians have black skin for protection from the desert sun.
Arabians have a reputation for being high-strung, but many owners argue this misconception is unfair. Arabian horses were bred for centuries to be loyal and courageous battle partners, and undesirable behaviours are often the result of mishandling.
Arabians are intelligent, sensitive, spirited, and hot-blooded horses. These attributes make the Arabian a quick learner and skilled athlete. With the right rider, these horses can make excellent equine partners, but they may not be suited for beginners.
Many Arabians also have naturally good dispositions from a long history of close association with humans. But like any horse, they can still become nervous or anxious.
Modern Arabians inherited the stamina that allowed their ancestors to cover long distances in the desert for thousands of years. Today, that heritage makes Arabians and their crosses a dominant force in modern endurance riding.
Arabians can also participate in Arabian-only shows sanctioned by the USEF in partnership with the AHA. Owners can participate in multiple disciplines, including western pleasure, reining, hunter, English pleasure, and halter classes.
These small horses also have the athletic ability to compete at the lower levels of other equestrian sports, including dressage, show jumping, and eventing. However, Arabians may not have the ideal conformation for the upper levels of the Olympic disciplines.
Many Arabian owners are discovering the breed’s talent for horsemanship and liberty schooling. Arabians are naturally curious and enjoy connecting with humans through groundwork.
Arabian Horse Health
Arabians are generally healthy horses with long lifespans. However, Arabians can inherit potentially fatal genetic disorders. Health problems can arise when Arabian breeders prioritize exaggerated looks over horse health.
Thankfully, genetic testing can identify horses that carry the traits for common diseases to protect the health of the Arabian horse population. With appropriate care and management, most Arabians can stay healthy into old age.
The genetic disorders affecting Arabian horses have been reported in nearly all of the breed’s bloodlines today. Genetic testing can help limit the risk of producing a foal with these disorders.
The four main conditions affecting Arabian horses include:
- Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disorder (SCID)
- Cerebellar Abiotrophy (CA)
- Lavender Foal Syndrome (LFS)
- Occipitoatlantoaxial Malformation (OAAM)
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency
SCID is an inherited autosomal recessive condition in Arab horses characterized by an underdeveloped immune system. Foals with this disease cannot produce antigen-specific immune responses and usually die from infections within the first six months of life. 
Cerebellar Abiotrophy (CA) is an inherited neurological condition found in Arabians and other horses with Arabian ancestry. Signs of CA can vary between foals but often include head tremors and ataxia. 
The condition is degenerative and untreatable, and the neurological defects make horses dangerous to themselves and others. Most owners choose to have affected horses euthanized before adulthood.
Lavender Foal Syndrome
LFS is a lethal inherited disorder associated with a mutated colour dilution gene that causes severe neurological abnormalities in Arabians. The condition’s name comes from the dilute lavender, silver, or pale pink coats that typically characterize affected foals. 
Most LFS foals have seizures and are unable to stand. Owners usually euthanize the foal if they don’t die immediately to limit prolonged suffering.
OAAM is an inherited developmental disorder that causes abnormal vertebrae. The vertebrae compress the upper cervical cord and cause neurological damage.
Symptoms can vary from mild limb weakness to paralysis, and most foals have an abnormal head carriage. X-rays can diagnose the disorder. Although research is ongoing into the multiple mutations that cause the disease, testing is available for one mutation found in Arabians. 
While the dished face is a hallmark feature of the Arabian horse, poor breeding practices that exaggerate this feature may contribute to health problems. Arabians with extremely dished faces may have breathing problems if their conformation restricts their airways. 
The horse’s head also needs enough space for long, continuously-growing teeth. If Arabians have abnormally small mouths, the teeth may erupt behind their jaw and cause painful dental problems. 
Most modern Arabians live in environments that vary significantly from their desert home. Lush pastures and excess calories can contribute to metabolic disorders in these horses that evolved to thrive on sparse diets. 
Arabians often have long life spans, and metabolic health is especially important for senior horses.
One survey found that colic was the leading feed-related health issue among Arabians. The Arabian’s sensitivity may contribute to ulcer problems, but more research is needed to determine if the breed has an increased risk of digestive issues. 
Care and Management
Like all horses, Arabians need good care and management to meet their needs. These horses are athletic and bred to travel long distances, so regular exercise and turnout are essential for their overall well-being.
If you turn your Arabian out on pasture, carefully monitor his weight to limit the risk of pasture laminitis. Research shows Arabians have a genetic predisposition for metabolic syndrome, which can make grazing on high-sugar grasses unsafe. 
Because of the breed’s increased risk of dental problems, owners should schedule twice-yearly dental exams. Routine dental care will help keep teeth balanced and catch issues before they cause pain. 
Despite common misconceptions, behavioural problems are not typical for Arabians. Work with your veterinarian and trainer to determine the root cause of aggressive, anxious or hot behaviour. Flighty behaviour could be a sign of gastrointestinal issues that require feed and management changes. 
Arabian Horse Nutrition
Arabian horses are generally considered easy keepers. The Arabian’s ancestors evolved to survive in the desert with little vegetation, so most horses in light work can maintain a healthy weight on a forage-only diet.
Although Arabians are naturally light, refined horses, poor body condition could indicate issues with digestive function. Consult your veterinarian and a qualified equine nutritionist if your Arabian struggles with weight maintenance.
Diet for a Mature Arabian in Light Work with Normal Body Condition
|(Amount / Day)|
|Mid-Quality hay (10% crude protein)||free-choice|
|Salt||30 g (2 tbsps)|
|Omneity Pellets||200 g (2 scoops)|
|Digestible Energy (% of Req)||101%|
|Protein (% of Req)||145%|
|NSC (% Diet)||8.9%|
The best diet for your Arabian will depend on lifestyle, physiological status and health history.
For example, Arabian horses participating in endurance events need a diet that provides adequate energy for sustained performances over long distances. In contrast, Arabians in light work may need lower calorie feeds and forage to manage metabolic health concerns.
Unfortunately, a lot of myths surround the feeding of Arab horses. Arabians have a reputation for getting “hot” when fed specific feeds. In reality, their basic needs are similar to most horses, as determined by the NRC’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses.
Forage should be the primary source of macronutrients for your Arabian, supplying most of the energy and protein required in the diet. Horses in light work should eat average-quality hay so that owners can provide free-choice forage without supplying excess calories.
- Selenium (in certain regions)
- Vitamin E (for horses consuming hay and not fresh pasture)
Deficiencies in these nutrients can contribute to poor hoof quality, reduced performance, immune deficiencies, problems with muscle function and more. Feed a vitamin and mineral supplement to fill the gaps in your horse’s diet and provide 1-2 tablespoons of plain loose salt per day to meet sodium requirements.
Even though Arabians originated in the desert, they still need constant access to fresh, clean water. Adequate water intake is vital for overall health and helps limit the risk of colic and other gut issues. 
Encouraging hydration is especially important during competitions and endurance events or when exercising in hot weather.
Energy and Protein
All Arabians need adequate protein in their diet, but muscle breakdown during exercise can increase protein requirements for endurance horses. Alfalfa can provide additional protein without excess sugars that could contribute to metabolic issues. 
If you need to increase the energy content of your horse’s diet, opt for forage over concentrates to limit excess calories and sugars. Feeding high-sugar grains to Arabians may increase the risk of ulcers, colic, insulin resistance, and behavioural problems. 
Fat is a safer source of concentrated calories if your Arabian needs additional energy. Consider feeding flax oil, soybean oil, canola oil, or other fat supplements.
Studies also show omega-3 fatty acids could positively affect insulin sensitivity in horses at risk of metabolic issues. 
Ration balancers and complete feeds can provide the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals missing in forage, but not all Arabians need a concentrate in their diet.
These feed products are not very concentrated, so a high feeding rate is required to balance the horse’s diet. This can add excess energy to the diet, potentially contributing to weight gain.
A comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement, such as Mad Barn’s Omneity will provide the required micronutrients without adding extra calories or sugars to the diet. Omneity also supplies key nutrients required for hoof health, coat quality and overall well-being.
Endurance Arabians with increased protein requirements could also benefit from additional amino acids to support topline and muscle mass. Three Amigos is a nutritional supplement that provides the three rate-limiting essential amino acids: lysine, methionine, and threonine.
Exercising horses should also be fed an electrolyte supplement to replace the electrolyte minerals that are lost in sweat during exercise and in hot weather. Mad Barn’s Performance XL: Electrolytes is scientifically formulated for performance horses to replace electrolyte sweat losses and encourage water intake.
Looking for personalized guidance on how and what to feed your horse? Submit your Arabian’s feeding program online for a free nutrition consultation by one of our qualified equine nutritionists.
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