Arabian Sport Horses: You Name It, They Can Do It

By Linda White

Arabian horses are unrivaled in beauty, but they bring a whole lot more than good looks to their partnership with mankind. We are continually discovering talents to add to the remarkable list of performance disciplines at which Arabians, Half-Arabians and Anglo-Arabians excel. More than a dozen years ago, “sport horse” was applied to a body of disciplines in which Arabians have long competed successfully; only the “sport horse” designation was new. What is a sport horse?

The term “sport horse” can apply to horses of any breed or combination of breeds, registered or unregistered. At open shows, owners of unregistered and mixed-breed sport horses are encouraged to provide breed information and parentage, if known, on the show’s entry blanks. Regardless of breed, the successful sport horse is athletic and built to last, with a willing nature and an eagerness to perform what is being asked of it.

Available performance categories in which Arabian, Half-Arabian and Anglo-Arabian sport horses may compete are dressage, working hunter, jumper, carriage pleasure driving, combined driving, eventing, competitive trail and endurance riding. Former Arabian race horses often have enviable second careers as sport horses. More and more purebred Arabians, Half-Arabians and Anglo-Arabians are shining brightly as sport horses in this increasingly popular division.

Purebred Arabian and Half-Arabian/Anglo-Arabian sport horses and sport horse prospects also compete in- hand as either “Hunter type” or Dressage type”. Classes are further divided, as they are at traditional, main ring Arabian shows, by age, gender, and handler’s status, e.g. classes designated “Open” (to anyone) or “Amateur to Handle” classes. As at other USEF-recognized shows, upon entering a class, every adult amateur competing must provide a card, valid for that year, that officially proclaims him or her an amateur.

The United States Equestrian Federation, or USEF, is the organization that governs most equine competitions, Arabian breed shows included, in the United States. The 2015 USEF Rule Book states that the Arabian sport horse division exists, “to encourage the breeding of Arabian and Half-Arabian/Anglo-Arabian horses suitable for dressage, working hunter, eventing, jumper, combined driving and competitive trail and endurance, and to provide an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of breeding programs. Form to function will be emphasized.”

Form-to-function is the weightiest category in a special scoring system now in place for judging Arabian sport horses. Another benefit is that the points Arabian sport horses earn with their placings at USEF-recognized open shows will count toward qualifying them to compete in Regional and national Arabian sport horse championship shows.

Arabian horses have always been billed as “The Versatile Arabian”, because Arabians can do almost anything you ask of them – and look good doing it. In the past, the single Arabian you took to a horse show could compete in almost every class.

“That’s what drew us to the breed in the first place,” Joanne Pennington explains. She and her husband, Bill have enjoyed their Arabians for more than 50 years. Bill Pennington founded the Arabian Sport Horse National Show. A past president of the Arabian Horse Association, he remains a member of the Arabian Sport Horse Show Commission.

“With sport horses, we’re not changing the makeup of the true Arabian,” Pennington begins. “Main ring classes have become very specialized, but there are no ‘designer’ horses in the sport horse disciplines. These classes takes us back: they’re closer to the original, true definition of the versatile Arabian.

“This is a happy place for many horses,” he continues. “We don’t ask them to do what they’re not capable of doing. Most amateurs show their horses to have fun; unlike some traditional shows, where there can be so much stress on horses, exhibitors, and trainers. We see happy sport horses, with ears forward, enjoying their work.”

While class “A” shows for Arabians have been sanctioned for close to a century, by 1998 the U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championship Show was drawing several thousand horses, and becoming unwieldy. A burgeoning national show for Arabian youth, initiated in 1993, relieved some of the numbers pressure, but it soon became clear that it was time for yet another, separate national event. This one would showcase the ever-increasing number of Arabian, Anglo-Arabian and Half-Arabian performance horses competing in classes that departed from traditional, main ring classes.

Bill Pennington was among the concerned owners, trainers and exhibitors who formed an ad hoc committee and went into action. Through their efforts, the U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Sport Horse Championship Show was born. This year, the 13th U.S. National Sport Horse Nationals will take place September 15-20, 2015 at the Gov. James B. Hunt, Jr. Horse Complex, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Sport Horse Nationals has become the fastest-growing national-level show in the Arabian horse world. Other breeds may tout their versatility, but no other breed association offers a show specifically for sport horses!

Today, Arabians compete in such a diversity of disciplines that there is bound to be something out there for folks of every age, interest and skill level. “The sport horse disciplines offer a wider variety of opportunities to show your horse economically.” says trainer Sarah Vas, who grew up in the Arabian horse business. “And smart, healthy, long-lasting Arabians and Half-Arabians give my owners longevity in this industry. The horse they start with is the horse they keep for years. I've worked with a lot of different breeds, in many disciplines. I'm in love with Arabians for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason has more to do with us than with them: Arabians put up with our inadequacies.” Laughing, she raises her eyebrows.

“Versatility, variety, and usability,” she adds. ”The Arabian sport horse division is full of homegrown, family-owned horses competing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the other breeds’ most prominent sport horses. The family-owned horse has an equal chance to win the prize, based on its ability, presentation, and performance. As was the case years ago - before we became so specialized - the same horse can handle a full schedule of in-hand and under saddle classes. The good sport horse is user-friendly, with a good brain, great bone and musculature, and a skeletal structure that will age well.”

Vas tends to turn out national-winning carriage driving horses. “Driving really suits the modern Arabian for many reasons,” she explains. “Today's owner doesn't seem to have as much time to ride. Couple that with the rider’s body’s lack of muscle memory, and you've got a pretty uncomfortable job for our horses. Driving gives them the freedom to enjoy their job without our interference, bobbling around up there in the saddle. Driving also often suits the older owner and his older horse. Overall, I've found driving to be a great addition to ‘most any horse's resume, and once they learn to drive, the majority of horses really enjoy it.

“How strong is the market for good sport horses?” she asks rhetorically. “The market is very strong right now. Sport horse breeders are being recognized for their good eye for an athlete who can learn, take care of its rider, and always rise to whatever is asked of it.”

“There is always a market for a good horse, regardless of discipline,” agrees Gregg Shafer. Shafer and his mother, Nancy have been breeding and exhibiting national champion main ring Arabians and Half-Arabians for many years. He adds, “We believe a horse should do what it is comfortable doing. To be successful, it should be good-minded and athletic, and have a general willingness to do its job.”

Further testament to the Arabian’s versatility, Allience (1985-2013), was a highly-regarded son of national champion stallion *Aladdinn and the *Bask daughter, A Love Song. Shafers bought Allience in 2003. He won seven national championships in three different performance divisions: park, English pleasure and formal driving. His offspring have gone on to win national championships in those three main ring disciplines, plus national championship honors in country English pleasure, hunter pleasure and dressage, to boot.

Shafers’ Half-Arabian mare, Ability, was sired by MHR Nobility, the 1988 and 1989 U.S. National Park Champion, who also had multiple U.S. and Canadian national championships or reserves to his credit. MHR Nobility returned to the show ring seven years later, to win the 1996 U.S. National Park Championship. Like her sire, his daughter Ability, now 13, returns to the winners’ circle year after year. She accumulates national and Regional championships in Half-Arabian hunter hack, jumping, and speed jumping. Earlier this year, she won both the jumping and speed jumping championships at the huge Scottsdale show with trainer Kristen Hardin.

“She understands her job,” explains Hardin, who also trains other breeds. “She is extremely talented, very competitive, and she knows that the goal is not to touch anything she jumps over. She loves her job!” Hardin also shows the mare in open competition, “against anybody who wants to jump as high as she does.” She shrugs.

That brings up another element that distinguishes Sport Horse Nationals from other national Arabian shows. Arabian Sport Horse Nationals hires credentialed open judges: that is, those whose knowledge and expertise lie in a broader spectrum of sport horse disciplines, which includes other breeds’ specialty classes and multi-breed competitions.

Angela White looks to the straight Egyptian gene pool for her sport horse candidates. Her mare, Nile Roze, is one of only a handful of straight Egyptian mares to earn the Legion of Honor title. Nile Roze also was awarded 2011 USEF Horse of the Year laurels in Arabian hunter pleasure and dressage.

“The straight Egyptians have proven to be phenomenal mounts,” says White. “In fact, I purchased the dam to one of my horses, to incorporate her into my straight Egyptian breeding program.” She acquired her first straight Egyptian Arabian more than 10 years ago, with no plans to get into breeding, but the first colt she raised was named 2014 East Coast Yearling Champion Sport Horse In Hand.

The Desiderio family became involved with Arabians in the 1950s, and began breeding for show quality, athletic, well-conformed Arabians for both performance and halter.

“Our goal today is to involve more people in showing and riding their own horses in multiple divisions at Arabian sport horse shows,” explains Ricci Desiderio. He owns and operates Tranquillity Farm with his wife, Stephanie, and their family. “In the past, main ring trainers showed 95 per cent of the horses, but at sport horse shows, that ratio is more like five per cent. Owners show the 95 per cent – of their own horses. We also develop very young riders, to maintain their interest in the breed throughout their riding careers.”

Tranquillity and their clients may have won more national championships in their chosen specialties: hunt seat equitation and working hunter, than any other Arabian operation. Stephanie Desiderio’s early life competing on the open hunter circuit has translated into their success in Arabian sport horse venues under open judges, as well as against other breeds.

“The market is very good for any horse that’s suitable for an amateur or a junior rider,” Ricci Desiderio continues, “and a safe, reliable horse that's right for a beginner is worth its weight in gold.” Arabian and Half-Arabian horses for sale.

Has the recognition and inclusion of Arabians as sport horses made a difference to the Arabian community overall, and to the breed? “The growth of the sport horse disciplines has accelerated participation, especially in the classes where competitors are judged individually,” Desiderio responds. “This encourages riders to set goals, and then be tangibly rewarded for their hard work. Promoting our horses to the general public, rather than just to people already involved with the breed, would invigorate the market.” He nods, thoughtful.

“We all need to develop more programs to help build public awareness of the Arabian sport horse and its versatility. Invite the public in and educate them! Let them experience how much fun these wonderful horses can be! And I believe that more media exposure of real people's accomplishments, in the real world with their Arabian-bred sport horses, would go a long way toward opening new markets.”