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Handling Arabians

From: Arnie

Dear Jessica, I have to add my voice to the chorus of thanks for your amazing work and equally amazing generosity. Our family is very excited about your new telephone consultation service, and I have promised my oldest daughter a "HORSE-SENSE PHONE CALL" for her birthday.

We have had Quarter Horses for many years, but we've recently inherited (literally) a horse from a friend (long story, I won't bore you with the circumstances, but let's just say that this horse was a surprise, but he will have a home with us for life), and the incoming horse is an Arabian gelding, eight years old. We are a little worried about how we are going to handle him, how he will fit in with the Quarter Horses, and so on. Since all of our experience has been with Quarter Horses, and we've never really had any contact with Arabians (didn't want to, after going to a couple Scottsdale shows, many years back!), we're not really sure how to handle this horse when he gets here. Obviously we can't talk to our friend about his horse, since if he were still alive we wouldn't be getting the horse. Can you please give us a quick summary of what we should expect and what we should do? My impression of Arabians has always been somewhat negative, since all the ones I've seen have been flightly and silly, heads in the air, eyes rolling, shying and leaping and having fits about everything. I realize that I've only seen the show horses, but are they really any different? I think our late friend used his horse for trail rides and some reining, if that helps any.

Thanks again, and don't get me wrong, just because I'm not happy to be getting an Arabian doesn't mean he won't have a good home. We take good care of our horses and we have plenty of room even if he needs a pasture of his own. I want him to be happy here, I just need to know how we can handle him so that we can achieve that and keep everyone safe.


Hi Arnie! I don't think you have to worry - your opinion of Arabians, as you said, is based on what you saw at a couple of big shows. When horses are kept, not just in barns but also in the dark so that they will be energetic, nervous, and wild-eyed in the show ring, the horses usually cooperate with the plan. It doesn't mean that Arabians are naturally nervous and wild-eyed - what you saw was not a true or fair picture of the breed. Show horses can give the wrong impression - if you've ever seen a "Big Lick" class at a Tennessee Walking Horse show, you know that the painful squatting and frantic leg-flinging of these horses bears NO resemblance to their natural gaits, and that if you take away the pain and weights and unbalanced feet, what's left is a wonderful, kind, smooth, gentle, willing horse. If you want to see the best Tennessee Walking Horses, get as far as you can from the show ring, and look at the horses being used for pleasure and on trails. If you want to see the best Arabians, get out of the show ring and look at working horses - endurance horses, trail horses, cutting horses, reining horses, dressage horses... Arabians, like most other breeds, can do it all. Put those show horses out of your head - if this horse has been a riding horse, and not just a riding horse but a trail and reining horse, then what you're getting is a trail horse and sometime reining horse that just happens to be an Arabian.

There are a few things you'll want to take into account.

Body style: Your new horse is likely to carry his head and neck - and tail - higher than your Quarter Horses carry theirs. That's a matter of conformation, not flightiness, and it's completely normal, although it may seem strange to you at first. He'll work well and comfortably in his own comfort zone, and trying to get such a horse to carry itself exactly like a QH would be unfair.

Tack: I hope that your new horse's saddle and bridle are coming with him. If they aren't, try to borrow them long enough to take them to a tack shop and look for their duplicates or equivalents. Otherwise, you're going to be involved in a tack-fitting adventure. The saddles and bridles and bits that fit your QHs beautifully may not fit your Arabian at all. He is likely to require a saddle with a wider tree (look for Western saddles with "Arabian bars") and shorter skirts. A very long and/or long-skirted Western saddle will be uncomfortable for most Arabians, interfering with their shoulders and hips. Such a saddle can cause poor movement and bucking - don't risk it. Most Arabians can be comfortable in saddles with shorter, more rounded skirts (e.g. barrel-racing saddles), but don't forget to buy one that's made on an Arabian-width tree.

Bridles can be a problem, too. Your Arabian is likely to need a shorter headstall, and if the ones you own aren't sufficiently adjustable, you'll need to buy a new one for him.

The bits you use on your QHs probably won't suit your Arabian, either. You probably already know that Arabians tend to have mouths that are shorter from side to side, and often take bits that measure well under 5". There's more to bitting than that first measurement, although it does matter! The diameter of the mouthpiece is also a consideration. Thicker is not necessarily kinder, especially when a horse has a small mouth. A bit of medium or slightly less than medium thickness is usually suitable for an Arabian.

If you ride two-handed, using a snaffle, stay away from single-joint mouthpieces. I suggest that you purchase either a mullen-mouth snaffle (solid, curved mouthpiece) or a French-link snaffle (two joints connected by a peanut-shaped center link). If you ride one-handed, off contact, using a curb, I suggest that you buy a short-shanked curb that has a solid mouthpiece and either a low or a medium port. Don't buy a curb that has long shanks, a long purchase, or a jointed mouthpiece - no matter what the salesman calls it.

In my experience, most Arabians have small mouths, low palates, and thick tongues, which means that they will be most comfortable in bits that sit quietly in their mouths without putting too much pressure on the tongue AND without squeezing the lower jaw or poking into the palate.

If your Arabian flings his head around and fidgets when he's wearing his bridle or when you are using the reins, have his mouth checked and take a close look at his bit and how it fits his mouth. Don't accept this as "Arabian behaviour", because it isn't, even though many people think of it that way. Like most other horse behaviours, this one is a REACTION. Much of the head-tossing and eye-rolling behaviour that some people associate with Arabians comes down to a simple matter of a sensitive horse wearing a bit that fits badly and causes pain. When such people are convinced to make the switch to a well-chosen bit that fits the horse's mouth and suits the horse's mouth, the head-tossing and eye-rolling can disappear overnight.

Feed: Your new horse should not be halter-style QH obese (but then neither should any QH!). Be aware that Arabians are typically easy keepers, so unless you have a very ambitious schedule in mind for this horse, he will probably do very well on good hay, salt, and water. Pay attention to his attitude; it will tell you a lot about how well you are feeding him. Although some Arabians can, like Quarter Horses, become very fat if they are overfed, many do NOT show an increase in roundness, because they take all of the excess feed and convert it to excess energy instead of stored fat. An Arabian walking down the trail is one thing. An Arabian tap-dancing all day and all night because it's being overfed is quite another thing! As the cowboys say, "Some horses just can't stand prosperity." Be wary of overfeeding your Arabian - he may become far too bouncy for your comfort - or his own.

Those are the main things that you'll need to consider. Aside from those, just use your own good sense. Realize that the horse's expectations will be based on its previous training and handling, just as your horses' expectations are based on the way you and your family have handled and trained them. Your horses expect to be fed, groomed, patted, ridden, turned out, brought in, etc. They expect kindness and courtesy, slow movements and soft voices and considerate handling - and they expect those things because YOU and your family have taught them that this is what humans do, and this is what horses can expect from humans. Your new horse may have different expectations, so be clear, calm, and totally consistent with him until he has "learned the ropes" at his new home.

Take your time with the new horse, and treat him very quietly and calmly. Talking to him about everything you are doing with him may help quite a lot. I won't promise that he'll understand every word, but he will certainly understand the tone of voice, and if you are talking out loud while you groom or tack up or fill the water buckets, your movements will be more deliberate, and that in itself will be reassuring for the horse.

If a fast movement on your part creates a flurry of activity, slow down - and speak reassuringly to the horse. Don't just tell yourself "He's an Arabian, they're spooky and silly" - you'll be wrong, you'll be misinterpreting the horse's reaction, and you'll also be accepting as "normal" and "typical" something that is nothing more or less than a sensitive animal REACTING to something that you did.

Have fun with your new horse. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised when you get to know him. Arabians are wonderful animals. ;-)


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