While the camel is probably the animal most often associated with the Middle East, the Arabian horse runs a close second. The breeding of the Arabian, famed for its endurance, has undergone a resurgence in the UAE in recent decades and the country has numerous stud farms that house hundreds of the animals. Their significance stretches back centuries and they play a large role in Arab mythology, but their origins are shrouded in uncertainty.
According to tradition, to determine which of his horses were the most loyal, the Prophet Mohammed let 100 thirsty ones loose at an oasis, only to sound a war horn before they reached the watering hole. The five mares that returned to the Prophet are said to form the basis for the five strains of the Arabian. Some believe the animals developed in parts of present-day Yemen when the land was more fertile, while others think they come from the Fertile Crescent. There is fossil evidence that Arabians existed 5,000 years ago, but the paucity of pre-Islamic specimens has led some to speculate that the Bedouin bred the horses in large numbers only after learning horsemanship and breeding skills from the Persians when the latter converted to Islam.
What is not in doubt is that the Arabian's subsequent evolution was closely linked to its role as a companion to the Bedouin. Over the centuries, the animals were selected for breeding - and survived - because of their hardiness. Arabians can travel for three days without water and on little food. They are no match for camels when it comes to surviving in the sand dunes, but beat other equines hands down. The animals are also known for their bravery and carried many Arab warriors into battle, helping spread Islam through the Middle East and North Africa. Because they lived so closely with people - mares were often kept inside family tents - the horses were also bred for their gentle nature, which is still valued today.
"They are good for children to ride because they have a very good character," said Dr Ulrich Wernery, scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai. A small number, however, have a temperament that some consider too "hot" for children. Although Arabians tend to be smaller than Thoroughbreds - the British horses originally developed from native mares and Arabian stallions - they are slower over short distances, they are stronger pound-for-pound and generally can run for longer than other breeds.
There is considerable variation among Arabians, but generally they have a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres, which produce less force but can sustain aerobic activity for longer periods of time. Thoroughbreds usually have more of fast-twitch fibres than other breeds, which means they are good at sprinting, but cannot sustain activity for long periods. "Arabian horses are not bred as sprinters," said Dr Wernery, adding that they are commonly used for endurance races of 120km and 160km.
The physical beauty of the Arabian, as well as its range in battle - Arabians carried the Ottomans to Vienna in the 16th century led many European breeders to establish stocks of the horses, especially from the 18th century onward. Important bloodlines were created in Poland, England and Russia, and Arabian stallions and mares contributed to the development of the thoroughbred in England. Among the most important Arabian horse breeders were the aristocrats Wilfred and Lady Anne Blunt, who set up the Crabbet Arabian Stud in the south of England in the late 19th century.
In the past 30 to 40 years, the number of Arabian horses around the world has increased dramatically. Breeding programmes have focused on speed for shorter races, endurance or beauty, with particular bloodlines from different parts of the world used for each attribute. "This specialisation is a very modern thing that some of us do not feel comfortable with, but it is perhaps inevitable", said Deirdre Hyde, stud manager of Wrsan Stables near Shahama. For racing, French mixed with American, Polish or Russian bloodlines are often favoured.
In terms of beauty, breeders look for a nicely shaped head, a tail that is carried high and, in Miss Hyde's words, "a certain flamboyance. It is the show animals that command huge sums of money ? one horse recently sold for US$2 million. "We now have horses that are hundreds of times more beautiful than those of 25 years ago. The winners of 25 years ago would probably not get a place [in competitions] today," Ms Hyde said.
"The danger of selecting only for looks however is that it can be at the cost of performance and correct leg conformation." In the Middle East, breeding was traditionally concentrated in areas such as Syria, Iraq and Bahrain. The UAE, with its fierce climate, tended to have smaller numbers of Arabians, but in recent decades this has changed, thanks in large part to the late Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, who established a large stud farm.
"Sheikh Zayed was very keen that his people should re-establish roots with their heritage and that includes the Arabian horse," said Miss Hyde. Other members of the Al Nahyan and Al Maktoum families have also invested heavily in the sport, with some stud farms housing as many as 500 of the horses. Modern science plays a part in their breeding, with horses microchipped and DNA tested to confirm parentage. Selecting horses, however, is based on the skill of the breeder, rather than the genetic markers sometimes used in Thoroughbred breeding.
"Quite a lot has been done to establish DNA for characteristics [in Thoroughbreds], but not a lot of work with Arabian horses," Miss Hyde said. "We know by long experience what the families of horses are likely to produce and we study their breeding, show and race records." The use of frozen sperm is routine, so a single stallion can sire vast numbers of offspring. Embryo transfers, in which mares give birth to babies that are not their own, are also common. This allows a quality mare to "produce" several offspring a year.
"If you take embryos from her she can continue her performance career when another mare is carrying her babies," Miss Hyde said. "A mare's best reproductive time is between the ages of about six or seven and 14 or 15, which is also her best performance age. If you take embryos from her, you can reproduce her while she's still performing." @Email:email@example.com