Fig. 6. Reconstruction of 3
ancient eastern Mediteranian breeds
- Click image for
complete illustration -
Fig. 7. Point comparison of
Arab, Barb & Jennet
- Click image for
complete illustration -
...Crossing horse bloodlines has brought many
unexpected delights. Genetically,
this is in the very nature of
which makes possible at a cellular and molecular level
some interactions between genes that would not otherwise have arisen.
  Introduction - Part 2:
The Origin and Relationships of the Mustang,
Barb, and Arabian Horse

Written by Deb Bennett, Ph.D.
© 2004 by Deb Bennet, Ph.D.

Hybrid Vigor

Horse breeds are like wine: the pure vintage of a single kind of grape, beautifully grown and tended, is a thing of beauty. But some very fine wines are blends, and to ignore them would be to diminish the richness of the feast. By analogy, crossing horse bloodlines has brought many unexpected delights. Genetically, this is in the very nature of hybridization, which makes possible at a cellular and molecular level some interactions between genes that would not otherwise have arisen. The release of superior qualities by crossing horses of different subspecies, that originated in far-sundered parts of the world, is a phenomenon called by biologists “hybrid vigor” and by breeders a “good nick.”

As horse breeding evolved in different areas of the Old World, mankind was also perfecting another complex technology – shipbuilding and navigation. When people realized that horses could be loaded aboard boats, the possibilities for trade and conquest expanded mightily. For where roads were nonexistent or mountain ranges blocked the way, warriors could arrive with their mounts by boat like Agamemnon’s soldiers in The Iliad.

Already some 3,100 years ago, from home ports at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, mariners set out to explore unknown lands to the west. Loading their horses into open-hulled boats little larger than canoes, they set out for the “pillars of Hercules” – the Straits of Gibraltar that mark the boundary between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Making perhaps 50 miles a day, these seamen-trader-warriors crept westward along the coastline of North Africa, sailing or plying their oars by day, and hauling the boats up onto the beach at night. Thus by slow increments they at least reached Gibraltar and, still clinging to the shoreline, worked their way northward up the Atlantic coast of Iberia to the Galician headlands. From there they set off on daring over-water journeys to reach the peninsulas and islands which stood, for them, at the ends of the Earth: Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland.

To all these places they brought stallions of Afro-Turkic extraction (Fig. 6). These horses were not Arabians, for the Arabian, although it too derives from the Afro-Turkic subspecies, is exclusively the product of Bedouin taste and cultural values which came into being only after their conversion to Islam in the 7th century of the current era. The mariners who first established forts and trading colonies in Iberia, the British Isles, western France and Ireland lived before the time of Solomon, more than 1,700 years before Mohammed or the creation of the Arabian breed.

The mariners discovered when they arrived that the people of these northern and western lands had already domesticated the horse. But the type of horse native to this region was of the Draft subspecies (Fig. 3). A glance at Figs. 1 and 4 reveals great differences in the conformation and head shape of these geographically far-sundered types.

The ancient mariners brought stallions of Afro-Turkic extraction to places where they would never, in the course of nature, have gone. Yet when those stallions were permitted to cover the Draft mares, something wonderful happened. The foals which resulted were larger and sturdier than their sires, yet possessed of a hardihood and capability for endurance entirely unknown in their dams. Suddenly, for the first time, there burst forth among the offspring a whole spectrum of colors unknown in the East. Moreover, many of the foals, instead of being solid shades, came out splashed with jagged patches of white. And as if this were not enough, many of the foals showed a propensity for a rapid, ground-covering and comfortable “fast walk” gait. Here in the hinterlands there grew up a treasure that was ultimately to be of greater value than any of the other goods the eastern traders had put on their boats.

What the mariners unintentionally produced was the world’s first “outcrossed” horse lineage. The cluster of closely-related breeds that they created were the foundation of the modern Welsh and Breton ponies, and of several important but now-extinct breeds from the same region: the Irish Hobby, the Old Cornish, and the Galway of Scotland. And, of course, in Iberia the same cross formed the foundation of all modern Iberian breeds. In tracing the history of the American mustang, this must be our focus.

There is a long history in Iberia of people who came there, some to trade and some to conquer. But all alike continued to value the Iberian crossbred. Through colonies founded in the West by Anatolians and Phoenicians passed this hardy and adaptable strain, and through the hands of King Solomon’s traders who sailed from afar to visit the far western lands. Through the hands of Celts from the north the horses passed, and through the hands of their descendants the Celt-Iberians, who lived and kept their herds in palisaded hillforts. With the march of centuries, it passed through the hands of invading Carthaginians -- even of Hannibal himself. Through the rough hands of victorious Roman legions it passed, and through the kinder and more knowledgeable hands of Numidian cavalrymen, conscripted from North Africa by the thousands to serve in the Roman army.

The Origin of the Barb Horse of North Africa

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., through the passes of the Pyrenees there came northmen greedy for booty and land – Visigoths and Vikings. Sweeping southward through Iberia to Gibraltar, they built boats, loaded stolen Iberian horses, and took them by hundreds to North Africa. By this act, more significant than they could know, these most unlikely horse breeders began the “back cross” of the Iberian horse upon the herds of North Africa. These became the foundation of the Barbary Horse, or Barb (Fig. 7, 10, 11).

The Barb is important in this history, because within a few centuries of the Viking invasion of Morocco, there came to be large numbers of them. The Barb horse resembles the Iberian but, because of its higher percentage of Afro-Turkic blood, it is consistently lighter-bodied. It resembles the Arabian in having been selectively bred for endurance capability, with exceptionally sound, strong limbs and feet. Where the Barb and the Arabian most differ are in the front and the rear, for the Barb has always been bred for usefulness rather than beauty. Instead of the Arabian’s bulging forehead or “jibbah” and sometimes dished facial profile, the Barb’s head is straight or even slightly convex. Its muzzle is broader and its skull more substantial than the refined and dainty head of the Arabian (Figs. 10, 11).

Even more important are differences in the hindquarters. The Arabian is famous for its “flagging” tail, created by the unique construction of the pelvic and sacral bones which orients them more horizontally than in most other breeds, and which places the root of the tail comparatively high. The Barb by contrast retains from its Iberian ancestors the rounded haunches, sloping croup, and low tail-set of a horse built not as the Arabian is to race over flat ground, but to coil and spring. The hindquarters of the Barb are those of a horse that can easily perform the war maneuvers most valued in hand-to-hand combat. The Arabs excelled at raiding and their horses are bred for this style of warfare: quickly swooping down upon the enemy, shooting with bow and arrow or (later) the rifle, or throwing the light lance and then racing away in retreat. North African warriors preferred instead to close with the enemy, flashing scimitars whose curving blades were designed to slash the enemy without hurting the horse. They needed a mount that could cavort and wheel, and both the Barb and the horse of Iberia are built precisely for this.

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