Arabian Sport Horse Association, Inc.

 

History of the Arabian:

The use of the horse in sport evolved out of its use in warfare. The term "sport horse" has come into wide usage among horsemen, however, only since the end of World War II. Before then, horses tended to be described by their function: i.e. cavalry charger; racehorse; hunter; or polo pony. After the demise of cavalries, the military tests for horses were broken down into separate disciplines. These were eventing or combined training (the original military contests), dressage, jumping and endurance. Horses competing in these, plus hunting, combined driving, racing and polo all gradually came to be called sport horses, although the latter two are not usually described as such today.

In age and function the Arab is one of the oldest sport horse breeds. Because the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Middle Eastern deserts—the nursery of the Arab breed—used camels for draft and basic transportation, the Arabian horse’s only reason for existence was as the ultimate light cavalry charger.

It is possible to argue persuasively that until this century the Arab was the most rigorously culled domestic horse breed in the world. To survive the harsh, dangerous living conditions in the desert, the Bedouins required horses possessing certain qualities.

Tractability was absolutely essential. An untrainable mare was little use to a mounted warrior, although a few mares with difficult temperaments were kept by individual owners because of exceptional ability. However, horses were commonly led from camels during travel, and they were usually tethered/shackled beside their owners’ tents at night to prevent theft. They were regularly handled by women and children, and were even brought into the tents for shelter on occasion, so a dangerous horse could not be tolerated.

Horses needed to be thrifty, willing and able to eat whatever their owners fed them, because rations were often short and available forage unpalatable to horses. When water-—rarely plentiful-—was unavailable, horses had to drink camel’s milk, like their owners, or die.

All horses must be sound, since the Bedouins traveled almost constantly in search of forage for their animals. Carl Raswan, who lived with Bedouins for months at a time, estimated that a foal might walk as much as 3000 miles in the first year of its life. Although camels were capable of carrying very young foals, any horse that could not keep up when the camp moved was most often left to die. Several writers have repeated stories told to them of new foals or wounded mares abandoned out of necessity straggling into the night’s camp hours later and thus cheating death by their courage. But for each of these, there were undoubtedly many others that died of thirst or wounds.

Excess or undesirable horses (which would include any that did not measure up) were sold to traders on the fringes of the deserts. This included most stallions. Bedouins did not habitually geld horses, customarily (although there were exceptions) rode only mares in battle and believed that an accidental mating to an inferior stallion contaminated a mare permanently. This means that none of her later foals would be considered purebred. In addition, it was considered immoral to charge a stud fee, and stallions were normally attended around the clock by slaves, so they were a constant bother and expense. Selling them created income, and giving the cream of the colts to dignitaries in towns not only bought good will, but also left them still available to service a tribe’s mares when their migrations brought them back to that area.

For these pragmatic and religious reasons, Arabians were gleaned continually by their owners and their environment. In a complete reversal from Western European practices, mares were tested far more severely than stallions, and only the best survived with the tribes long enough to be trained as chargers and to breed on. This ensured that even the Bedouin culls were very tough cookies!

Therefore, from the time of the Crusades until the middle of the 20th Century, Arabian horses were sought after in the Western hemisphere as cavalry chargers, sport horses and improvement bloodstock for other breeds. They were valued by horsemen for their tremendous stamina, soundness, efficient ground-covering way of going, exceptional weight-carrying capability, trainability, beauty and zest for life—all highly inheritable traits. Like anything of value that is rare, they were also valued for their scarcity.

Early American breeders followed the European lead, using Arabians as improvement stock for developing American breeds and, eventually, preserving a pure gene pool for continuing use. Several early American breeders worked diligently to convince the U.S. Army of the value of the Arab for cavalry use. Before the cavalry units of the Army were dismantled after World War II, a respectable number of Arabian stallions stood around the country for the Remount, and the Army spent several years administering an Arab horse-breeding program at W.K. Kellogg’s stud in Pomona, California, now part of Cal Poly.

However, as the number of Arabian horses increased in the United States, the number of Arabian breed shows also multiplied, and most owners gradually stopped showing in open, all-breed competition. When most owners stopped showing in all-breed competition, most other horsemen forgot about or were never exposed to the Arab breed, so began to doubt the truth of its legendary abilities.

Some breeders worked to keep Arabians artificially pony-sized (14.2 hands or under) in the sincere belief that a classical Arabian must not exceed 15 hands. However, there is considerable evidence that many desertbreds were small not because of their genetic makeup but due to stunting caused by insufficient nutrition at all stages of growth. Size diversity of nearly two hands—from 13.2 to 15.1—was common to the Arab breed a century ago. There were a few taller horses with unquestionable parentage even then. This is not to say that it would be desirable to strive for a race of 16-plus hand Arabians, merely that good Arabians have historically come in all sizes up to 16 hands.

From the early 1970’s on, the saddleseat style of showing, with its requisite high and flashy way of going, was increasingly valued more than other riding and driving disciplines. Emphasis began to be placed more on height and length of neck than on balanced overall structure in quest of a horse that fit the ideal image of saddleseat showing patterned after the original saddleseat horse, the American Saddlebred. Arabians began to be molded by training and breeding to elevate the forehand as high as possible, and whatever natural action they possessed was pushed to extremes. Since many trainers were more interested in quick results than in long-term soundness, few of these horses exhibited the true collection needed for this kind of action and few of them lasted many years in the show ring.

Within a relatively short period of time—a score of years—the peerless reputation of the breed was badly tarnished. The majority of horsemen stopped thinking of the Arab as a sport horse breed, except for distance riding. It was hardly rare for judges to show prejudice against them when owners did show them in open hunter, jumper or dressage shows, or in combined training or combined driving events. Often, instructors in these fields discouraged their students from buying Arabians. Many were reluctant even to instruct Arabian horse owners or train their horses. This left owners who competed their Arabians in sporting disciplines isolated, with very little support or recognition for their efforts.

 

Formation of the ASHAI:

This was the situation that prompted the formation of the Virginia Arabian Sport Horse Association (VASHA), now known as the Arabian Sport Horse Association, Inc., or ASHAI (ah-shy). The idea surfaced in 1985 when Pamela Turner of Shibui Ni Farm, Suffolk, Virginia, and her trainer, Robert Shuping, discussed a need for an organization to promote the use of Arabian horses in sporting disciplines and to counter the negative ideas and misconceptions that had become prevalent among horsemen in general.

Pamela, who is British, grew up riding Thoroughbreds, English and Irish hunters, so she came into the American Arabian horse community as a mature horsewoman trained in the classical tradition. Knowing the Arab’s history, she was astonished to find that the breed was primarily being promoted in the United States as a halter and saddleseat three-gaited horse. After talking to many other owners and breeders, she realized that although many people agreed that the Arab should still be aggressively promoted as a sport horse, they felt powerless to change the status quo individually.

On May 26, 1985, a small group of people met to form the VASHA. They were: Pamela Turner, acting president; Kirk Bigelow, acting secretary; Pat and Pete Irish; Pat Hoover; Deborah Nadell; and Joan Guiod. During the next few meetings that summer, attendance increased to include Pamela’s husband, Thomas, Keg Berlin, Katherine Mines, François Lemaire de Ruffieu, Susan Branche, and Don and Bobbie Cericola. These were heady, exciting times with plans and discussions mainly aimed towards local meetings, events and clinics.

After an event held at Shibui Ni Farm was publicized in "The Chronicle of the Horse", inquiries began to come in from other states. It was quickly evident that interest in the new association was widespread outside Virginia, with nonresidents wanting to join. After some hesitation, VASHA dropped "Virginia" from its name and chose to broaden the scope and publicity of the Arabian Sport Horse Association (ASHAI) nationwide. This brought rewards and many complications.

Laws of incorporation were drawn up to give the ASHAI legal status in the commonwealth of Virginia as a non-profit organization. A charter and by-laws were written. Officers and board members were selected; all the founding members were designated Charter Members. The founding members decided to hold charter memberships open—upon payment of all previous years’ dues—until May, 1989, to give all early members a chance to share in the formation of the ASHAI. Many of the 74 Charter Members stayed active in the association for more than a decade, and some are still active.

Because the founders did not want dues to be excessive, the budget was necessarily modest; therefore they accepted that developing the association and spreading the word about it would be a slow, patient process. Since it went national so soon in its development, it was hoped that early growth would not outstrip the ability to service members.

PROGRESS

Early victories of the association included membership in the United States Dressage Federation’s (USDF) All-Breeds Council and publication of information about ASHAI in magazines like "The Chronicle of the Horse", which had stopped printing anything about Arabians. These magazines began to print information about Arabian sport horses. The ASHAI also persuaded the Virginia Beach Horse Shows Association (VBHSA) to add Arabian Sport Horse hunter divisions to its shows on a trial basis. During 1988 these classes were consistently filled. In 1991, the ASHAI began encouraging members to have their local shows offering sport horse classes "sanctioned" by the association.

As the founders predicted, interest in the ASHAI continued to be strong, and the association continued to grow. By May, 1989, there were members in nearly every state, plus several in other countries. Although the original national charter predicted state/regional chapters, given the nature of the association that has evolved, they may never develop. Although the ASHAI’s modest budget and small, all-volunteer staff are the major factors holding it back, word-of-mouth and other publicity continue to bring in new inquiries.

Since one of the major premises behind the ASHAI’s formation is that many American horsemen had not (or have not even today) been exposed to enough Arabian horses to be able to separate the facts from the misconceptions about the breed, education is one of its strongest objectives. Accordingly, in early years, to address the problems that some hunter, dressage and other judges had in viewing Arabians as sport horses, rules and judging guidelines were drawn up for them for judging All-Arabian sport horse shows. This included a sport horse in-hand score sheet used for a couple of years in the late 1980’s that proved to be ahead of its time. Other educational projects were undertaken with varying degrees of success. Publicity of the association has always concentrated on showing that modern Arabians still possess the historical qualities that earned the breed worldwide fame.

AWARDS PROGRAMS

From the first year, the ASHAI recorded Lifetime Achievement points for each registered horse, and Year End Awards have been presented to high-point horses since 1987. Current Year End categories are: Arabian Ambassador (with points earned only in all breed competition); Breeding/Model; Combined Training (Eventing); Distance Riding (Competitive Trail and Endurance, added in 1992); Dressage; Driving (inactive); Equitation (hunter or dressage); Hunter; Hunter Pleasure; Meritorious Dam or Sire; and Open Jumper. The Senrab Cup High Point Award, added in 1990, was later expanded into the Arabian Ambassador category to recognize more horses, with the prestigious Cup still going to the Champion. The ASHAI/*Sidon GASB Memorial Trophy for the Meritorious Dam Champion was added in 1994.

The ASHAI sponsors USDF All Breeds Awards for participating members. In addition, since 1991 the Arrowhead Hildago Memorial Trophy has been awarded to the ASHAI-registered horse chosen as the United States Combined Training Association (USCTA) Arabian Horse of the Year. Horses must be competing at Preliminary or higher to be eligible for this award.

Categories have been adjusted as warranted by member participation. Although purebred Arabians, Half-Arabians, Anglo-Arabians and Shagyas have competed on an equal footing for awards, the intention was to split awards categories whenever the number of registered horses participating in the program grew large enough. To date, purebreds have earned the majority of all awards, showing that all Arab-bred horses can compete together on an equal footing. That the Arab-bred horse can compete successfully in any company has always been one of the ASHAI’s strongest tenants.

COMMUNICATIONS

The ASHAI conducted its first vote of the membership in 1991 in conjunction with its third annual membership survey. The quarterly newsletter has grown from the first few photocopied pages sent out by president Pamela Turner, to 16-34 pages of news, articles, photos, letters and classified ads. Copies of each issue are sent to the permanent archives of the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Library at Cal Poly in Pomona, California, the Arabian Horse Trust at the Arabian Horse Center in Westminster (a Denver suburb), Colorado, and the Arabian Horse Owners Foundation (AHOF) in Tucson, Arizona. Press releases are regularly sent to approximately a dozen major Arabian and sport horse publications.

Rules of the association are set out in "The Collected ASHAI Notes," which comprises an outline of all fees, forms of communication with members, points schedules for awards programs, and miscellaneous information important to members.

SPONSORS

The awards programs have traditionally been funded from membership dues and fees collected each year and carried over from the previous year. Individual members have generously sponsored specific year-end categories and various special awards. The late Austine Hearst, a Charter Member, was an early Patron who supplied vital moral and financial support in the association’s early years. Since 1999, an anonymous sponsor has funded awards for juniors competing in dressage. Over the years, increasing numbers of Sustaining and Sponsoring members have added to the available funds.

Markel, Inc., was the ASHAI’s first corporate sponsor, giving the association a grant in 1992, which made possible the presentation of wool coolers to most of the champions in our award categories. Since 1993, Markel has sponsored jackets to be presented to the trainers (professional or amateur) of the champions. Their continuing support has allowed a relatively small association to consistently give high-quality awards to members.

TODAY AND THE FUTURE

To date, the ASHAI has recorded its 710th member (including farm and family memberships) and has registered 778 purebreds, partbreds, Anglo-Arabians and Shagyas for eligibility for awards programs. As with any young organization, there have been setbacks.

One of the biggest problems has been that, in most cases, members live too far apart to make regular meetings possible. Another major obstacle has been the difficulty of developing and operating a national association with no permanent, paid staff members. Maintaining a healthy, active board and sufficient committees to take care of important association business has always been a huge challenge.

In December, 2000, these problems came to a head, with two of the very small number of key board/staff members spending time in the hospital and others living too far away to maintain vital day-to-day activities at the Main Office in Virginia. All options were considered and discussed. Ultimately, due to the lack of reliable volunteers and the failure to recruit sufficient additional volunteers in a timely manner, board/staff members reluctantly decided to finish off the 2000 business of determining awards winners and sending off prizes, then cease active association business for 2001. The Board is actively seeking new volunteers to rebuild the association’s foundations and develop a strategy to perhaps enable the ASHAI to come back stronger and more effective than ever.

The ASHAI has striven to develop the flexibility to change course as necessary without losing sight of its ultimate goal. This goal is, and shall remain, to actively encourage and promote the sporting capabilities of the purebred and Arab-bred horse. The ASHAI will always seek to accomplish this goal without replacing or undermining any other Arab horse organization.

 

Revised July 2001

Kat D. Walden

Historian, Charter Member