The Barb horse is a light breed from the Maghreb in North Africa. These horses descend from Berber horses of the region used by indigenous people thousands of years ago.

Barb horses has a significant impact on the development of Iberian breeds in Spain. Many breeds in the Western Hemisphere can trace their ancestry to Spanish Barbs brought to the New World by European explorers and settlers.

Modern owners cherish this historic breed for their unique personality and physical traits, which allow Barbs to excel as riding horses. Researchers also emphasize the importance of preserving Spanish and North African Barb horses to protect their distinct genetic heritage.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Barb horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Barb horses.

Barb Horse History

Barb horses are one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world. While several outside influences have shaped Spanish and North African Barbs throughout their long history, Barb bloodlines have also played a pivotal role in developing new breeds.


The history of horses in North Africa is still a matter of debate. Archeological findings suggest domesticated horses first came to the region in the second millennium BC. [1]

There is no evidence of horses inhabiting the African continent during early prehistoric times. Historians believe Equus caballus migrated to Africa together with humans through Egypt and the Strait of Gibraltar. [1]

The origins of the North African Barb horse has been traced to the Barbary Coast in the Maghreb. Today, the Maghreb is home to the countries of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Peaking in the 7th century, the region served as a busy transit route during conquests and migrations.

Heavy warhorses brought by the Romans likely influenced the breed, along with Arabian horses ridden during the Arab conquests of North Africa. [1]

Throughout the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula from the early 8th to the late 15th century, there was frequent migration of horses between North African and Iberian populations. Native Iberian breeds crossed with African Barb horses to produce the Spanish Barb.

Arabian influences eventually threatened the survival of the purebred Barb horse in their native Maghreb region as Arabian-Barbs and other crosses gained popularity in the late nineteenth century. However, recent genetic studies have found substantial diversity in early sire lines. [1]

Historic Use

Ancient civilizations in North Africa relied on horses to transport goods and people across the Mediterranean shrubland and the Sahara Desert. Horses were also used for war and conquests in the region.

The Moors used Barb horses to invade and occupy the Iberian Peninsula. Spanish Barbs descending from these war horses gained popularity in Europe as cavalry mounts, accompanying Spanish explorers and soldiers.

Horses brought to the Western Hemisphere during the Spanish colonization of the Americas had to be hardy to survive the stressful voyage. Colonial settlers relied on Spanish Barbs as all-around horses for riding, farm work, and war. [2]

Some Spanish Barbs left behind by explorers established the feral horse populations of the Americas. Today, the influence of Spanish Barbs is evident in Mustangs, Appaloosas, Criollo Horses, Paso Finos, and several other Western Hemisphere breeds. [2]

Horse breeding declined in North Africa when cavalry horses became obsolete in the 20th century. From 1965 onwards, African horse sickness significantly reduced the North African Barb population and temporarily halted the export of equines to Europe. [3]

According to census estimates, only 5500 North African Barb horses live in the Maghreb region today. While most horses with Barb ancestry in Spain belong to other Spanish breed registries, breeders are working to preserve a distinct Spanish Barb breed in North America. [1]

Breed Registry

Founded in 1972, the Spanish Barb Horse Association (SBHA) maintains and supports the selective breeding of horses in North America with a distinct Spanish Barb type to preserve the endangered historic breed.

The registry represents several foundation strains of Spanish Barbs that come from a particular area or breeder. Some of these strains of Colonial Spanish horses remained pure due to geographic isolation from feral populations with mixed gene pools.

These strains include the Wilbur-Cruce horses, an isolated population descended from horses brought to Arizona by Spanish missionaries in the late 1600s. Researchers found these horses have a close genetic relationship to North African Barbs and Old Spanish breeds. [4]

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Barb Horse Characteristics

The SBHA operates an open studbook that accepts horses for registration and breeding based on characteristics to uphold the ideal breed standard for Spanish Barbs. The traits that made them thrive in Colonial America now help these horses excel under saddle.


Spanish Barbs have an average height of 13.3 to 15 hands. These horses have a distinct type with Spanish characteristics that produce a balanced overall impression.

Their heads are refined with a broad forehead, tapering nose, large eyes, and small to medium curved ears. Profiles are often slightly convex. Their necks tie in low to deep bodies with medium-wide chests, well-sprung ribs, and deep heart girths.

Round hindquarters with long muscling, short backs, well-angled shoulders, and flexible pasterns produce smooth but active gaits. Their legs are proportionate to their body, with large bones and joints. Hooves should be well-shaped and hard.


Spanish Barbs can be any colour. Standard coat colours include:

  • Black
  • Bay
  • Gray
  • Chestnut
  • Dun
  • Grullo
  • Roan
  • Pinto

These horses also have thick, full manes, tails, and forelocks.


Spanish Barb horses have good temperaments and a strong willingness to please. These friendly, intelligent horses are quick learners who enjoy bonding with humans.

Owners often find these horses straightforward to start under saddle and calm in new environments. But like all horses, personality can vary between individuals and some Spanish Barbs may be more reactive.


Barb horses today are typically pleasure mounts. These horses are suitable for both English and Western disciplines. Their bravery and calm dispositions also make them popular trail horses.

Spanish Barbs are competitive in modern endurance racing thanks to their history covering long distances over barren terrain. Their trainability and conformations are also well suited for the dressage arena. Some continue to work as cattle horses on ranches in the American West.

Barb Horse Health

Barb horses are a relatively healthy breed. While they are not susceptible to the same genetic disorders as their Arabian relatives, infectious disease outbreaks have threatened Barb horse populations in their native countries.

Genetic Diseases

One study investigating the prevalence of equine genetic diseases in the Middle East and North Africa found significant differences between Arabians, Arab-Barbs, and Barb Horses. [5]

Researchers found genotypes associated with cerebellar abiotrophy (CA) and severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) in populations of purebred Arabians. One study observed the genotype for CA and SCID in Barb crosses, but not purebreds. [5]

These results suggest purebred North African Barb horses are not susceptible to the same genetic diseases as Arabians. But crossbreds or Barb horses with Arabian ancestry are at risk of inheriting CA and SCID. [5]

Spanish Barbs may share a genetic predisposition for osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD) with Iberian breeds. OCD is a joint condition in horses characterized by lesions in cartilage and bone, leading to pain, swelling, and potential lameness.

Research in Lusitano and Andalusian horses found osteochondral lesions in about 50% of animals. One study identified three candidate genes associated with OCD in Spanish horses. [6]

Health Problems

In the late 20th century, the emergence of African horse sickness significantly impacted North African Barb horse populations. First reported in Morocco in 1965, African horse sickness is an often fatal disease caused by a virus spread by biting midges. [4]

The virus causes fever, respiratory issues, and cardiac complications in horses, and can result in sudden death. While outbreaks have occurred in Spain, there is no history of reported cases in the United States or Canada. [7]

Other health problems affecting Spanish Barbs vary based on their use and management, and can include lameness, digestive disorders, and metabolic issues.

Barb horses with competition careers are more susceptible to conditions typical of performance horses, such as gastric ulcers and degenerative joint disease.

Care and Management

Barb horses require attentive care and management to ensure their well-being and longevity.

Regular veterinary check-ups are essential to identify health issues early. Work with your veterinarian to develop a preventative wellness program with annual vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams.

Spanish Barbs generally have good-quality feet, but still need regular farrier care from a qualified professional to maintain hoof balance. While many stay sound barefoot, Barbs with heavy workloads or hoof problems may need extra protection from shoes.

The Barb horse’s thick mane and coat can quickly tangle without regular brushing. Daily grooming not only keeps your horses’s coat shiny and healthy, but also provides a bonding opportunity and gives handlers a chance to check for skin conditions or injuries.

While the breed is known for its adaptability to different environments, these horses thrive when living outside in conditions that mimic their native habitat. Make sure your horse has access to safe shelter and suitable companions to promote the expression of social behaviours.

If your Barb horse lives inside, provide adequate daily turnout to support their health and well-being. Turnout gives horses an opportunity for free exercise and social interaction, while also decreasing the risk of OCD in young horses. [8]

Spanish Barbs are athletic horses that do well with regular exercise. Work with your trainer and veterinarian to develop a conditioning program that keeps your horse sound and healthy.

Barb Horse Nutrition

Nutrition significantly impacts the health and performance of your Barb horse. Feeding a balanced diet is essential to preventing metabolic concerns and ensuring your Barb horse receives nutrients required to support muscle development, hoof health, immune function and a shiny coat.

Weight Maintenance

Like other breeds originating from regions with sparse vegetation, Barb horses are susceptible to metabolic disorders and weight gain if not provided with appropriate nutrition.

Most Barb horses are easy keepers, which means they have little difficulty maintaining body condition and are prone to obesity. Overweight horses face a range of health issues, from joint stress to heat stress. Horses that become overweight easily because of metabolic syndrome are prone to laminitis.

Regular body condition scoring provides a clear indication of your horse’s nutritional status. On the Henneke 9-point scale, a body condition score of 5 is ideal. Adjust your Barb horse’s diet based on their condition, activity level, age, and health status to ensure they maintain an ideal weight.

Unexplained weight loss, particularly if it is associated with muscle wastage and reduced stamina, could indicate an underlying health issue, such as gastric ulcers. Contact your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your horse’s weight.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 1000 lb (450 kg) Barb horse with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 200 g (2 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 106%
Protein (% of Req) 128%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%


While forage provides adequate energy and protein for most horses, a hay-only diet will be lacking in several key nutrients. Supplementing the diet with essential vitamins and minerals is key to preventing nutrient deficiencies.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a concentrated vitamin and mineral supplement that also provides essential amino acids, digestive enzymes and yeast to support overall health in Barb horses.

Feeding your horse Omneity ensures they get the nutrients required to maintain hoof health, immune function and a healthy metabolism. Furthermore, Omneity is formulated without any added grains or sugars, making it appropriate for easy keepers, such as Barb horses.

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A forage-based diet mimics the natural grazing habits of wild horses, promoting optimal digestive health for your Spanish Barb. Most horses need 2% of their body weight in forage daily, equivalent to 20 pounds (9 kg) of hay per day for an average 1000-pound Barb horse.

Medium-quality, low-starch, low-sugar grass hay is recommended for easy-keeper breeds. High quality hay, such as alfalfa, should be reserved for Spanish Barbs with increased calorie demands due to training or competition.[11]

Although providing your horse with free-choice forage can prevent behavioural issues and support gut health, Barb horses may consume too many calories with unrestricted forage access. Consider using a slow feeder or grazing muzzle to regulate forage intake. [11]

Full-time turnout on fresh grass pasture may not be appropriate for this breed, especially during the spring when grass is particularly lush. Excess starch and sugar intake from grass can contribute to pasture-associated laminitis in horses with insulin resistance. [9]

If your horse is overweight, turnout on a dry lot with hay is a good way to maximize turnout time while limiting pasture access.

Feeding Recommendations

Barb horses in rigorous training are often fed commercial grain-based feeds to provide extra energy. However, the high levels of sugar and starch in these feeds are often unnecessary and increase the risk of metabolic disorders and gut problems.

If you feed a commercial concentrate, split the daily ration into multiple small meals to reduce the risk of gastric upset. Consider replacing grain with soaked hay pellets fiber-based alternatives, such as beet pulp.

If your Barb horse is in heavy work, feed fat supplements to provide cool energy, which is safer and more metabolically efficient. [10]

All Barb horses need constant access fresh, clean water to avoid complications related to dehydration. Providing your horse with free-choice plain loose salt also encourages thirst.

Many horses do not get enough sodium in their diet. Adding 1 – 2 ounces of plain salt in their daily ration can help meet sodium requirements and is more effective than providing a salt lick or block.

Nutritional Supplements

When planning a feeding program for your Barb horse, it’s important to start with a balanced diet to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Once your horse’s diet is balanced, you can consider other supplements to address any specific health needs they might have.

  • W-3 Oil by Mad Barn is an omega-3 fatty acid supplement enriched with DHA and natural vitamin E. This palatable fat supplement provides cool energy for exercising horses, supports joint health and maintains healthy regulation of inflammation.
  • Visceral+ is a comprehensive gut supplement that supports stomach and hindgut health in performance horses. Visceral+ is formulated with probiotics, yeast, herbs, minerals, and amino acids that help maintain the intestinal barrier and support the immune system.
  • MSM is a natural source of sulfur that helps maintain healthy connective tissue and cartilage.
  • Vitamin E is essential for neurological health, muscle function, the immune system, and post-exercise care in horses. Deficiencies in this antioxidant vitamin can contribute to the development of neurological disorders in growing Spanish Barbs.

Consult an equine nutritionist if you have any questions before changing your horse’s feeding program.

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