Here Come the Arabians

Numbers show that more and more horses of this breed are flocking to dressage.
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Numbers show that more and more horses of this breed are flocking to dressage.


Did you hear that? It’s the sound of a long-held stereotype shattering under the hooves of a desert horse. After decades of being consigned to mostly off-label-use in dressage, more Arabians are making their way down centerline and more of their owners are getting serious about pursuing the classical discipline.

Credit: Bob Tarr Mimi Stanley and her seven-eighths Arabian gelding, PR Captain Hook, competing Fourth Level at the 2012 Sport Horse Nationals, where they earned a top ten.

Credit: Bob Tarr Mimi Stanley and her seven-eighths Arabian gelding, PR Captain Hook, competing Fourth Level at the 2012 Sport Horse Nationals, where they earned a top ten.

According to USDF and USEF trend data examined by Jay Stevens at CenterlineScores.com, while overall participation in the sport contracted in recent years, notable growth has taken place in the Arabian breed. In an analysis entitled “Breed Classes: The Rise of the Arabian,” Stevens found that from 2009 to 2012, there were four times the number of tests and double the number of breed shows offering dressage classes compared to the previous four years. Noting that the trend continued through 2013, Stevens attributes two-thirds of this new volume to Arabians. 

Data from the Arabian Horse Association (AHA) supports the trend. In the last 15 years, the number of horses competing in USEF-recognized dressage classes at Arabian regional and national championships has more than doubled. 

“There is a sea change happening in the breed shows,” said Arabian sport-horse competitor Anne Zahradnik. “In the three regions where I have experience, the dressage classes are consistently bigger than the traditional Western and English pleasure classes.” Zahradnik, a USDF bronze medalist and former vice-chair of the Adult Amateur Dressage Initiative, reports wait lists for some dressage classes.

Arabians in the FEI Ring
According to classical theory, the basic tenets of lower-level dressage can yield benefits for nearly any breed or type of horse. But can Arabians really hack it at FEI levels? One glance at the hardware on Grand Prix rider Mimi Stanley’s show coat answers that question. Competing mostly at open shows, Stanley, 24, has earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals and her freestyle gold bar on Arabians. 

Stanley’s purebred Arabian gelding, EA Cygnus, was the second horse of any breed to earn a USDF Horse Performance Certificate at all nine levels of dressage—Training through Grand Prix—a feat requiring more than 90 qualifying scores. Before he passed away last December at age 23, Cygnus had completed 75 Grand Prix tests.

Stanley and her mother, Karla Stanley, breed and train Arabian sport horses, including Arabian crosses, in North Dakota. They believe Arabs with the correct conformation, movement and training can excel at FEI. The Stanleys cite the breed’s unique ability to quickly sequence the many transitions of the upper levels. The Arabian’s forward-thinking temperament yields energetic and expressive tests. The breed’s longevity provides an extended career span for horse and rider to master new skills together. And Arabians are smart; sometimes too smart.

“One of the biggest limitations of the Arabian sport horse is the trainer,” says Karla Stanley. Arabs’ intellect helps them retain lessons and learn quickly, but most do not respond well to a rider who drills exercises repeatedly. Arabian trainers report that as their horses go up the levels, they often learn new skills faster than their bodies can execute properly, so upper-level Arabians require careful conditioning. 

Donna Longacre, a USEF “R” judge in dressage and Arabian divisions, showed her own half-Arabian to Grand Prix. “The important part of the horse is behind the saddle,” she says. While praising the front-end motion and elegant arching neck of the Arabian, Longacre believes too many Arabians do not have the hindquarters the sport demands. “Years of breeding for the tabletop topline left the pelvis and hocks behind,” says Longacre. “It was counterproductive because they lost that strong back, loin and hindquarter connection.”

Another challenge for Arabians is a tendency to hold tension in their back, diminishing their stride, elasticity of movement and ability to lift the back. According to Longacre, “training them to be mentally relaxed and physically elastic is the key.” 

The Future
Despite these limitations, Longacre sees more Arabian breeders educating themselves about the demands of dressage. As a result, the quality of the horses is improving.

Nicki McGinnis, a USDF silver medalist and California-based Arabian sport-horse competitor in both open and breed shows agrees. “There was a time when the few Arabians competing in dressage went around the ring with their noses and tails in the air,” she says. “They are becoming much, much better.”

Arabian sport-horse breeders are exploring with a variety of crosses, often with warmbloods, to produce competitive dressage stock. One such prospect is Uphoria, an Arabian–KWPN cross by Iron Spring’s UB40. Owned and bred by Samantha Werner, Uphoria was the 2012 high score champion in the Young Horse show series, competing against warmbloods before international judges. A crowd favorite, he won the in-hand series finals in January 2013, with one judge suggesting the gelding could be a top contender to represent the United States in the FEI Young Horse dressage division. Standing over 16 hands at age 3, Uphoria will make his under-saddle show debut in Wellington, Florida, this year. 

McGinnis believes the Arabian–warmblood cross can be an ideal choice for a lot of riders. These sporthorses “move in a similar fashion to warmbloods, but they are a little bigger than Arabians, have more bone and are quiet-minded,” she says. In addition to being highly trainable and often more affordable than purebred warmbloods, they are easier for a smaller rider to maneuver. 

Numerous Arabian enthusiasts see the dressage trend continuing, pointing to more Arabian-crosses in open dressage and a trickle-down effect from the Arabian Sport Horse Nationals, the only national sport-horse show offered by a breed association. Many believe the progressive nature of the sport itself is a key source of the growing appeal. “Success has so many levels in dressage,” says Mimi Stanley. Instead of competing for a rank in traditional classes, riders receive a reason for each score, providing continued motivation for improvement. 

Longacre believes the trend extends beyond Arabians. “We are witnessing the evolution of dressage into almost every breed and riding style,” she says, citing the burgeoning interest in Western dressage as one example. “People want to get back to ethical training,” she says of the sport’s evolution. “They are looking for something that’s more a test of horsemanship and not just a beauty contest.” 

Sensing these shifts in the dressage landscape, Karla Stanley would like to see breed liaisons to the USEF/USDF judging programs to help familiarize judges with the breed. She is quick to point out that she does not see any overt breed bias in judging. The Stanleys believe that something as simple as viewing videos of champion dressage horses from a variety of breeds may help build the new judges’ basis of experience as the sport expands. 

Belonging in the Ring
McGinnis believes that idea has merit. “There are still a few judges who think Arabs have to prove themselves, but overall the stigma is diminishing,” she says. McGinnis reports that the Arabians who deserve to win usually do.

For her part, Mimi Stanley is excited to observe more purpose-bred Arabians excelling in dressage. Zahradnik sees these developments as signs that times have changed. “Quality horses being well-ridden is the best argument against breed bias.”