Is it an oxymoron? Not for a passionate and growing community of cowgirls who find the intelligence, spirit and stamina of Arabian horses perfectly matches their own equestrian ambitions, especially when blended with classic cow horse bloodlines.

(Above photo credit: Susan Kordish)

What’s so great about Arabian horses? There are as many answers to that question as there are Arabian owners. For me, the answer lies with a horse I rode in my twenties named Captain Arab (pronounced to sound like the ship’s captain in Moby Dick).

On the ranch where I worked, we had about 65 horses; a mixed bag that included Quarter horses, Paint horses, Appaloosas, and two gray Arabians. At about 14.2 hands at the shoulder (that’s to say, 4 feet, 8-inches), Captain was surely the smallest horse on the ranch. He was so short, in fact, that it was an easy trick to grab the saddle horn and swing up onto his back without touching the stirrup.

But for what he lacked in height, Captain made up for in heart. First, he was startlingly fast. He didn’t always beat the fleet Quarter horses in a race but he didn’t give up much ground to them either.

When I had to ride out and gather the horses at dawn, Captain was my favorite mount. First, he worked in perfect concert with my herding dog Onda in gathering the horses and driving them to the corral. Sometimes a horse would get loose and head back for the green grass or hide out in the woods. When this happened, I’d turn Captain in the direction of the stray. Then, I’d grab hold of the horn as though my life depended on it. Which it did.

As soon as I relaxed the reins, Captain would be off like he was shot out of a cannon. Just as he would pull even with the startled horse, he’d flick his head to the side and lean into its shoulder, forcing it to turn back toward the herd. The first time he did this I nearly hit the dashboard. So I learned to lean back, brace my boots in the stirrups and be ready.

Like most Arabians, Captain possessed agility, speed, a will to work, plus stamina. (He’d often go 12 hours on the trail and never complain). There was also that special “it” factor I’d call personality. Unlike the other horses who, it seemed, could take me or leave me, Captain felt like a close friend. Talking about Arabs with a number of professional horsewoman, they all mentioned this feeling of closeness that transcends species.

“The relationship with these horses is extremely personal,” said Amy Wilms, who trains performance horses in Scottsdale, Arizona. “They’re just great companions. They have the biggest hearts and will do anything for you.”

How did the Arabian horse develop its exceptional characteristics and personality? Climate and culture played significant roles in shaping the breed. The Bedouin, nomadic people of the Arabian peninsula, began using the native horses of the Middle East close to 4,000 years ago. To suit the arid desert where grass and water were scarce, they needed light, thrifty horses that could subsist on scant provisions; it’s said that in the absence of grass and water, the Bedouin would give their horses camel’s milk and dates.

Bedouins often covered long distances, traveling for days on end under the hot sun. To stay cool in the extreme desert heat, their horses developed thin skins that placed blood vessels nearer the surface. The Bedouin’s horses not only needed great endurance, they also had to be fleet of hoof, as warfare with competing tribes was common. These circumstances tended to favor horses with deep chests, large, flaring nostrils, and an oversized windpipe that made it easier to breathe freely. Even the rounded dome of the Arab’s forehead helped to expand breathing capacity.

Harsh conditions and constant warfare weeded out any weakness in the Bedouin horses. But they did not make the horses surly or unruly. In fact, the Bedouins often took their best mares into their tents to shelter them from sandstorms, predators and raids. Therefore, the horses had to be gentle and sensitive to humans. The Bedouins only allowed those with naturally pleasant dispositions to breed. Even today, Arabs are one of the few breeds whose stallions can be exhibited by children.

In fact, the Arab’s smallish height, short back and compact body make them a natural choice for children and teenage riders. Trainer Amy Wilms and her husband, Jeffrey, are nationally-renowned performance horse trainers who specialize in Arabian and Half-Arabian horses. Since 1991, Amy has worked with youth riders who have excelled in disciplines that include cutting, reining, working cow horse and trail competition. Many have won Arabian Horse Association National Championships and gone on to be successful intercollegiate horse show competitors or professional horsemen and women.

Some of my earliest students now have children who ride with me,” says Amy, a brunette whose features suggest the actress Demi Moore.  Although she works with a number of different breeds, Amy holds a special fondness for Arabians. Her affection dates back to her college days in the early 1990s.

At the time, Jeffrey Wilms was already an established trainer in Phoenix who specialized in Arabians. He came to Amy, an avid rider and a student at Arizona State University, to borrow an English saddle. She agreed to loan him one in trade for western riding lessons. The exchange led to her buying an Anglo-Arabian horse named Le Roi Soleil – the Sun King. She fell in lifelong love with both Jeffrey and with Arabian horses. Though she works with numerous breeds, it’s the Arabs which she most enjoys.

“I have Quarter horses and mules, plus there are some Saddlebreds in the barn. But I find the Arabians have so much heart and are so willing to work for the individual. I think they love to show as much as their owners do,” she said.

Perhaps you noticed the words “half-Arabian” and “Anglo Arabian” earlier in this story. One interesting aspect of the Arabian is that a person can register and compete on a horse that’s not a purebred, something that most breed organizations don’t allow. So long as one of the parents is an Arabian, the Arabian Horse Association will allow them to be registered in the half-Arabian registry and to compete.

It’s therefore common to outcross with other breeds, creating a sort of “designer horse” tailored to a particular discipline. In Amy’s case, she often finds that crossing an Arab with a Quarter horse results in offspring well-suited to the demands of western performance disciplines such as cutting, reining and working cow horse contests.

“Crossing with the Quarter horse results in fantastic reiners and cutters and it adds a level of strength that Arabs don’t have. If you look at cutting, for instance, I don’t have a purebred Arabian who can get down in the dirt like a Quarter horse,” she noted. But take one look at her cutting cows on her half-Arab, half Quarter horse Shiny Buttons+, and you can see a horse get so low to the ground that you wonder how it can possibly keep its balance.

Other common crosses include breeding an Arabian to a Saddlebred to get a superior English pleasure horse or carriage horse, or crossing an Arabian with a Thoroughbred for speed and size. The latter cross is known as an “Anglo-Arabian,” and they are especially common in the English discipline of eventing, which combines jumping with cross country and dressage.

Recognized as its own breed, the Anglo-Arabian must possess no less than 12.5 percent Arabian “blood” (parentage) to be recognized. The best examples of the breed retain the refinement, temperament and good bone structure of the Arabian while gaining some of the speed and jumping ability of the taller and longer Thoroughbred. The Anglo-Arab has its own separate registry within the Arabian Horse Association.

tilizing the Arabian horse to refine and improve other horse breeds is a longstanding practice. Of today’s light horse breeds, nearly all contain Arabian ancestry somewhere in the past. Thoroughbreds, in particular, owe their heritage to Arabians, as they can all be traced back to three stallions imported into England from the Middle East in the late-17th and early-18th Centuries. Those were the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. Since Quarter horses owe much of their heritage to Thoroughbreds, it can be said that they, too,are indebted to the ancient Middle Eastern breed.

Modern Arabians and Half-Arabs can be found in nearly every competitive venue, from the race track to the hunt course to the western cutting horse arena. But where they truly excel is in the field of endurance riding.

Heather Reynolds is an elite international endurance rider from Los Gatos, California. She and her husband, Jeremy, own and operate Reynolds Racing, which recently located to Florida. Over the course of her 27-year-career, Heather has racked up more than 19,000 competitive miles, competed on more than 70 horses, and represented the United States Equestrian Team at the world championship level on four different occasions.

This past year, Heather finished first in the Tevis Cup, the granddaddy of all 100-mile endurance rides and still considered to be the most prestigious event of its kind. It marked her second victory there and her husband also has two Tevis Cups to his credit. In 2014, she rode to victory aboard French Open, an Arabian gelding owned by her close friend Hillary Bachmann.

The win continued a longstanding tradition of domination by the Arabian breed at the Tevis Cup, widely regarded as the most difficult distance race in the world. In the 60-year history of the competition, all but two of the races have been won by Arabians or Arab crosses. (The exceptions: a Thoroughbred cross named Buffalo Bill in 1959 and a Mustang named Marko B in 1960).

“If you want to go into endurance riding, the Arabian is the only way to go,” says Reynolds. Asked why this was so, she gave a number of reasons.

“I’d say it’s because of their heritage, the way that they were bred for the desert. The sound horses were bred and the ones that weren’t were not. So, they stay sound…out of necessity.”

She also says that they tend to have leaner muscle structure than other breeds, such as the bulky Quarter horse, and this adds to the Arab’s ability to cool down quickly. A large heart, large airway and efficient cardio-vascular system also allows the Arabian to recover quickly from exertion, an important quality in a competition in which the horse’s health is carefully monitored by veterinarians. A horse that is slow to recover is also slow to get back on course,if they’re able to return at all.

But one doesn’t need to compete at the elite international level or ride a grueling 100-mile course to fully appreciate and enjoy the Arabian horse. The Arabian Horse Association sanctions a huge variety of horse show classes and disciplines to suit its membership and encourage participation at any level, from youth and novice riders to highly-skilled amateurs and professionals.

California trainer Kathy Bast has clients who run the gamut from national title holders to local riders who never intend to compete. She is the owner of Sunrise Farms Performance Horses, located in the hills just to the west of San Diego. Over her 25-year career she has won multiple national and regional championships and top-ten finishes in trail, western pleasure riding and (English) hunter pleasure. Her students have excelled in these areas as well as horse show classes that include showmanship, horsemanship, show hack (a form of English riding) and halter horse exhibiting.

It’s that versatility plus a desire within the horses to constantly learn new things that gets Kathy going every morning. She doesn’t know if she’d feel the same way working with the more popular Quarter horse breed.

“I love a good Quarter horse. A good horse is a good horse and I have had my share of great rides on them. But I would have to say that if I worked with them everyday, I would get bored with the training.

“Arabs challenge me to think and to be one step ahead. They’re never finished with training. They’re bright, and like bright people, they get bored with routine. That means I have to find creative ways to improve, to keep them fresh. And that keeps me excited about my job,” she said.

Competitive by nature, Bast is proud to say that her clients and her kids, Ryan, 18, and Connor, 12, have racked up in excess of 50 national championships and reserve championships in the Arabian Horse Association. She can’t even begin to calculate how many top-10 finishes they’ve compiled.

“We seem to go all the way, or we go home,” she said. “When I go to show, I go to win. I’m okay with not winning, but I want to win. And most of my clients feel that way too.”

But on certain days, she says, she really just likes to relax and join clients on a trail ride.

“Arabs give a lot. They’re great to compete on. But we enjoy them just as much as a trail horse,” she said. “I love just riding them on the trail and I have clients who take their horses camping with their friends and families.”

“And one more thing. These horses last a long time. Some live into their 30s. So, when you get that bond, it’s gonna last for a very, very long time.”

Think of that: A love and a bond that endures. That’s not something that’s easy to come by these days. But it’s one more good reason – perhaps the best reason – why Arabian horses are so special.