Arabian Halter: The Eye of the Beholder

By Linda White

Khemosabi - great champion and<br>
sire - Photo by Polly Knoll
Khemosabi - great champion and
sire - Photo by Polly Knoll
Beauty is an ever-changing concept. For example, those clunky, slab-headed, tiny-eyed horses we see in ancient Sumerian bas-reliefs don’t begin to resemble today’s sleek, gorgeous Arabian horses. We find the florid, fleshy females in Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens’ (1577-1640) paintings far different from actress Audrey Hepburn’s sleek, black-and-white splendor at Ascot Racecourse, in My Fair Lady (1964). Fifty years later, our idea of “beautiful” seems to change with every click of the mouse.

The horse breeder’s task is to select and breed animals that are best suited, physically and temperamentally, to whatever physical (and mental) job the breeder has in mind. That is nothing new. Neither is judging breeds of horses by how pleasing to the eye they are, or how well they perform. There is one key element that separates horse judging from competitions like horse racing or steeplechasing. A horse race in any form is objective. The first horse to cross the finish line is the winner. Judging horses in hand or in performance under saddle or hitched to a wheeled vehicle, is subjective. The judge or judges choose the winner, based on their own opinions and preferences. In North America, horse shows date back to the earliest European settlers’ arrival. Over time, horse people recognized the need for a system of rules for their non-racing horse activities. A governing or regulatory body of some kind would be essential to enforcing those rules.

Since 1917, when Reginald Vanderbilt and a select group of his fellow horsemen gathered in New York City, brainstormed rules and guidelines specific to various breeds and disciplines, and incorporated the Association of American Horse Shows, the sport of showing horses has had an official, governing body. Several name changes followed. In 2003, a merger with the United States Equestrian Team resulted in United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) we have today. The official rule book has grown from a thin pamphlet into a heavy tome; rules and regulations for Arabian horses (AR) begin on page 540. The breed standard, class conduct and specifications, horses’ and exhibitors’ eligibility, and rules, regulations and penalties are spelled out in minute detail for every class, division and discipline. What are not spelled out, however, are the subjective aspects of presenting, showing and judging Arabians, Half-Arabians and Anglo-Arabians in halter or performance. Performance is a little easier, i.e., the horse either takes his right canter lead, or he doesn’t. He might throw a hissy when asked to stand quietly, or balk at a jump and pitch his rider into the shrubbery. The possibilities for judging and scoring halter horses depend on each judge’s personal preference for the horse he or she deems classier and more refined than the other horses in the class. Fortunately, the USEF conducts rigorous seminars, educational programs and qualification standards for official, USEF-recognized judges.

Nabiel - Photo Polly Knoll
Nabiel - Photo Polly Knoll
Ah, but to win, Arabian horses shown in hand must have more than just a shiny coat and a pretty face. To be successful in any company, halter horses must have a compelling, intangible attractiveness that makes them irresistible to whoever is standing in center ring with a clip-board. Fifty years’ involvement with Arabian horses has given Walter Mishek an educated eye for the best. Time after time, he unerringly selects Arabian halter prospects that will have the greatest appeal to judges, breeders, and the larger audience? Mishek also has something else: an uncanny eye for that indefinable je ne sais quoi that separates an excellent horse from a great one. What are his secrets?

“They’re not secrets,” the Minnesota horseman begins. “The principles of breeding great horses are twofold: vision and knowledge. Specific to vision, what do you, as a breeder, want to accomplish? Develop an eye for the artistic standards of our breed, and for the horse that are most appealing to you. All successful halter horses have the same basic attributes: Arabian type, quality and refinement, correct conformational structure and natural animation. What separates the best from the rest? Arabian type. Type has always been a prerequisite for breeding Arabians. How do you develop an eye for type? Go see the actual horses. There is a limit to what photographs can tell you.

“Learn about the pedigrees of the horse that appeal to you most. Great breeders, like John Rogers

Ibn Morafic - Photo Polly Knoll
Ibn Morafic - Photo Polly Knoll
and Daniel C. Gainey, had great vision. The horses Rogers bred looked much different from the horses Dan Gainey bred, but every horse each man bred was instantly identified it as a Rogers-bred or a Gainey-bred Arabian. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the pedigrees you like? The greatest individuals have positive traits and negative traits, and every horse those individuals produce should reflect those traits. A horse should look like the horses in its pedigree; that is, its phenotype, or physical appearance, should reflect its genotype.

“There is much discussion about coat color,” Mishek continues. “History has shown us that color follows genotype. Is this horse the same color as the great horses in its pedigree? If so, this horse is far more likely to reflect the most desirable qualities of its ancestry. For example, Khemosabi was one of the Arabian breed’s greatest modern sires; many of his offspring were national-winning halter horses. Khemosabi was bay, like the best horses in his pedigree. The bay Khemosabi offspring were, with a few exceptions, superior to his grey offspring. Khemosabi had a grey, full brother. As an individual and as a breeding horse, he never displayed the great qualities nor the potential inherent in that pedigree.

“People forget the virtue of patience,” says Mishek, echoing the sentiments of many breeders, ancient and modern. “Dan Gainey always said that in the breeding of Arabian horses, a lifetime is not enough. I would add to that, ‘…a lifetime is not quite enough.’ And that really is the case. We breed horses for tomorrow, not just for today. In nature, there are very few great stallions, because one stallion can sire many offspring. There are more great mares, because their ability to reproduce is far less. That way, a poor stallion with little to offer may breed many mares, some of them outstanding, but because of the mares’ limited reproductive capabilities, he won’t able to cover the world with his mediocrity. “

Ruminaja Ali - Polly Knoll photo
Ruminaja Ali - Polly Knoll photo
Mishek then points out breeding philosophies and practices every breeder has to make. “You must decide whether you are breeding for the market, or breeding for an ongoing breeding program that will produce that special horse,” he explains. “Are you making your breeding selections based on what is popular or heavily promoted, or on your own, educated vision of individual excellence? History has shown that if you breed for the market, rather than to perpetuate your vision, the majority of the time the resulting foal will not be your vision- nor will it be as marketable as you had hoped.

“The late Mike Villasenor always said, ‘It doesn’t matter how much you promote or train a horse. You’re still going to get what God intended. That is, regardless of their pedigree or popularity, only the truly great ones are the ones who will produce greatness.’

“You will never be a great breeder unless you are truly passionate, heart and soul, about creating the next generation or generations of great ones for the breeders who follow. A perfect example is Poland’s state stud farms and their breeding managers. The manager is there for a lifetime, so it is his vision, knowledge and education that are reflected in the horse we find at each stud.”

Naborr - Polly Knoll photo
Naborr - Polly Knoll photo
The Poles are passionate about breeding Arabian horses. As a result, some of the finest Arabian horses in the world, have been bred in Poland for centuries. Today, Poland has three state stud farms: Janow Podlaski is more than 200 years old; Michalow, the largest, was established in 1953; and Bialka, established in 1983, is the newest. The great individuals bred there and their descendants have gone on to enrich breeding programs, not only in the U.S. and Canada, but all over the world. Several dozen Polish imports, both stallions and mares, have achieved lasting show ring fame in performance; others, equally revered, have been successfully campaigned at halter, and named U.S. or/and Canadian National Champion Stallion or National Champion Mare. For Arabian aficionados, those horses’ names read like a Who’s Who roster.

“The show ring is a very important tool for breeders,” Mishek concedes. “The show ring is the one place to see and compare and enjoy a coming together of the results of educated breeding decisions. The show ring is a measuring stick, but it is only a tool. Over history, many of the greatest breeding horses were never shown, or were not outstanding show horses. This is why it is so important to have vision and knowledge. In addition, you need passion … and luck.” He shrugs. “You’ll need luck. In making breeding decisions, the number of genetic possibilities and combinations is endless. Luck definitely comes into play. Make the best, most educated choices you can … and say your prayers to God above.”

Also read: Arabian Horse Halter and Breeding Competition