Joe Cassel (Casa Cassel Arabians, Tyler, Texas) of the ever-inquiring� mind has recently asked his friends and fellow breeders the simple question, "What do you think of when you say "Arabian horse"? Here's a letter Joe got from veteran breeders Mike and Sue Fort, of Eagle Crest Arabians at Omaha, Nebraska. The Forts response strongly suggests intense beginning-of-the-year assessment for all of us.
Some time back, you asked me, "What do you think of when you say "Arabian horse"? I had to ponder that question for a bit, but now I'm ready to answer. My background is a little different than most of the people you have asked this question, I presume, in that I have never not been involved with the Arabian horse. As a child I went through the stage where I thought the Arabian breed was certainly the best, just because that was what the family owned. I grew out of that stage and have come to appreciate many fine breeds of horses, and have owned several of them. I enjoy all these horses and when asked by other Arabian enthusiasts why I would ride a non-Arabian, I simply say that I'm always proud to throw my leg over a good horse regardless of the breed.
Having said this, why then do I always keep Arabians? Today, at the feed store, a fellow (an older man, now retired) saw the Arabian logo on my truck and struck up a conversation. He and his wife used to own Arabians, he told me, but now raise Shetland ponies. I told him that I bet the ponies brought them lots of enjoyment and he agreed, but, he said, they kept two of their Arabians because "Arabian horses are good for a man's soul", if you know what I mean. What a profound statement. He and his wife had had Arabian horses all their lives and made a business of them in good times, but when the Arabian market became unsound, they could no longer justify the expense of raising them to sell and went to a more profitable business with the ponies. Sound familiar? Well, look around the country and you see a lot of owners switching to a more profitable breed, but keeping one or two Arabians for pleasure. The man's response was bittersweet for me - happy that he and his wife enjoyed their ponies but also sad, because I knew this fellow (a complete stranger) had just conveyed to me his heartfelt feelings of love for the Arabian horse. He had known the true enchantment Arabians bring to their owners, yet was distancing himself from our breed.
It's true that there are as many reasons for owning a horse as there are people who own them, but it is different for people like you and me who consider ourselves breeders. The horse-breeding business - no matter what breed, no matter how much logic, science, technology, discipline, or money is applied to it - all boils down to the breeder's vision of what that breed should be, and true vision is a matter of the heart. If it were just a matter of the brain we would't have been chasing the vision for 35-plus years, now would we?
Let me tell you what I think of when I say "Arabian horse". I see the large, gentle, dark eyes of my old Babson-bred black stallion I grew up with. When you looked into his eyes you realized you were peering into the lives of countless generations of people who have admired these horses, horses with much of the history of the world written on their backs. How lucky was I at age 12 to experience a horse just like the ones that captured the hearts and souls of people such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, George Washington (and the imported Ranger, Lindsay's Arabian), Ulysses S. Grant (and the imported *Leopard). General George C. Patton certainly must have struck a chord of the heart to have taken the time to liberate the Lipizzaners and Arabians (including the stallions *Witez II and *Lotnik ) at the end of World War II. Then, President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan's Catalina Muzraf and Gwalionko, and even now in our world of high-tech precision warfare, we read of the Afghanistan Northern Alliance and our own special forces writing history from the backs of our tough little desert warhorses. Look deeper into world history, and you will find references and images of our horses in the first recorded history, always viewed with admiration and respect.
You can talk about the qualities and characteristics of Arabian horses that set them apart from other breeds, but these discussions are always generic and academic in nature. The real qualities of the Arabian horse have no verbal description, they have to be experienced. When you are in the presence of a truly exceptional Arabian performance horse, you see and hear the whole spectrum of emotional accolades from those in attendance. Are they genuine, or have we just been programmed to respond this way?
Well, I don't know how it is for others, but when I think of some of the horses I have seen and experienced in the past 35-plus years, I know it is genuine for me when I see greatness. For those who would doubt the sincerity of those who cheer for the greatness we see, I would challenge them to try to stand by unaffected by spectacles we have witnessed and experienced, like watching Sheila Varian and Ronteza at the world championship working cow horse competition fall in their work, only to see the little mare pick herself up in one smooth motion and never lose her cow, winning the competition against all breeds and bringing down the house in the process. Watching Paul Polk show the 16-year-old Fadjur to 1968 U.S. National Reserve Champion Stallion, with more charisma, energy, and class than many horses half his age. Watching Howie Kale pridefully present *Muscat to the world at the IAHA Arabian Horse Fair and go beyond his own athletic abilities as a handler as he ran with this striking red stallion, only to go end-over-end at the exit ramp, very nearly injuring himself. But it was all right, because not only was Howie numbed by the performance of his stallion, so was everyone else. Watching Bob Hart Sr. in a formal driving class. They were all great and all food for the soul.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I got to see some of the finest English and park competitions going, with the Abu Farwa/ Gazi influence through the beautifully fluid cadenced motion they sired, then later the Polish influence through Tornado, *Aramus, and Gdansk. And who could sit unaffected in the presence of Ron Palelek and the Comet son *Meczet, imported to the United States right off the racetracks of Poland to the park showrings of America? The phenomenal motion of this horse would bring the audience to a deafening roar of appreciation. And just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any better (seeing the obvious bond of this rider and horse), Ron would often, after the competition, remove the saddle and bridle, turn the stallion loose and simply play with him. This is where the real performance began, and with it was born the liberty class.
When I think of halter classes, I remember huge classes of weanlings and yearlings as breeders wanted to show off their youngsters. I also remember the lovely mare *Dornaba winning U.S. and Canadian U.S. National Champion Mare titles; U.S. National Champion Stallions Radamason and Raffon; the *Witez II sons, Cairo and Bolero and Bolero�s son Zarabo who showed us that our horses could be both halter- pretty and performance-bred. I also remember a couple of gangly two-year-olds (Khemosabi and Bey Shah) that went on to contribute greatly.
I had to laugh the other day because one of my friends had been impressed by a young aspiring horse trainer who came home from a national event, saying he knew just everybody. Well, that's fine, I guess. I've never been that good at remembering names. I know some of the people who owned or handled these horses, but I couldn't have cared less who owned them, then or now. It wasn't about the owners, it was about these great horses, and I remember each and every one of the above-mentioned horses and hundreds more, for these were the inspiration of my youth, horses that helped me set the guidelines that would someday allow my wife and me to own and breed horses of equal greatness. But to what end? We have, as do you, greatness standing in our stables and pastures, many of whom have had their day, producing many more that have never been off the property for lack of interest in a dead or dying market.
Experiencing the Arabian horse as a spectator can be very inspiring, but it only scratches the surface of what's there to be experienced. As an owner, you soon find out that once you've stopped paying the trainer to bond with your horses and take the time to do your own bonding, and once you understand that in your horses minds they don't belong to you - you belong to them - and that they will take care of you as long as you do not betray the trust that has been earned, then you begin to understand the affinity these wonderful horses have for their caregivers. That no matter what you are doing with your Arabian - be it lining up on a cow to rope, cut, or work; getting over one more hill on an endurance race; going for the wire on the racetrack; reversing on the rail; going for the park trot; heading for that 30-foot slide in the reining class; or moving softly, quietly, and easily in western, trail, or dressage competition - you begin to appreciate that when you ask Arabians for 100 percent, they give 110 percent and are always eager to learn new games, the real secret to their versatility.
I know these things because my little Babson-bred stallion and I did all this and won at all this and more in the 22 years of his life. Arabian horses are known for their beauty - this is no secret - for they are indeed very beautiful, but to share a bond of great magnitude with that one special horse is the true secret to the treasure of knowing Arabians. You can't describe the bonding, but we all recognize it when we see it: Sheila and Ronteza, Paul and Fadjur, Ron and *Meczet, Howie and *Muscat, and many, many others. They figured among the equine heroes of my youth and from them grew the passion I have for the Arabian breed.
From that passion, shared by my wife, we became breeders, keepers of the treasure, so to speak, so that others might one day look into the deep black eyes of their Arabian horse and see what we have seen and know what we have known. Those someones will also be able to experience holding days-old foals in their arms, nurturing and caring for them and watching them become National winners. Or have the chance to bond with their Arabians in the way that countless generations before them have come to know what it is to have a best friend. In this, I know we are brothers bound by the common denominator that is our Arabian horses. We breed them, watch them grow, and send them on their way to create their own destinies. Some become great, some don't, but each becomes special to someone at some time in their lives. That's the heritage of the Arabian breed and that's what keeps the breed alive and vigorous.
I'm troubled by some of the directions in which our organizations have taken us as breeders in the process of helping to create and maintain an environment conducive to marketing our horses. There is talk now of combining the Arabian Horse Registry of America and the International Arabian Horse Association. I have no opinion on this possibility at this time. I can only say that it took some of the great legal minds of our time that have been in control of these organizations to get us in the mess we're in now: egos bouncing off one another like BBs in a boxcar; posturing for more power, money, and notoriety; nonstop feuding and always trying to up the cost of owning, showing, or performing. All this with little incentive for competing under the auspices of the Breeders Sweepstakes program. A true incentive program should make a place for the accomplishments of every Arabian horse, in whatever discipline, and for their owners and their breeders, much like the American Quarter Horse Association does. I would not support anything short of this.
We need to repackage the image of our breed in this country as a family horse, an amateur horse, and companion for life, not as a professional's horse or a breed for only the most privileged in our society. Certainly there is that element, but the vision and the passion that people hold for these horses knows no boundaries of society. Every Arabian horse enthusiast needs to be able to share in the dream. I see promotion for other breeds, such as the American Quarter Horse's America's Breed, Appaloosas Get Spotted, and the Morgans, The Thinking Man's Horse. These are all good breeds and, more important, their registries are keeping these breeds before potential consumers and are creating a marketing environment that says: You too can be the proud owner of one these wonderful horses, and here is what we will do to support your enthusiasm. For example, you race your horses, and the Arabians earn the respect of the racing enthusiast. And for the thousands of people who come to watch these horses race, perhaps there is a handful of borderline new horse owners, just needing a little encouragement to buy in.
As a breed, we show our horses, but honestly I don't know who we are showing our horses to. Grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, I guess, but no one ever asks the question, Who are we showing our horses to? I live near a sizable city in the Midwest where there are thousands of horse lovers that probably will never own a horse, but nonetheless would pay good money to see the spectacle of an Arabian horse show if only they knew about it. Of those thousands, perhaps 50 or 100 would be Arabian horse owners if only our message was out there in clear and certain terms: Here is a horse anyone can enjoy and cherish, bring on as a member of the family, and come to know what you and I already know, the certainty that the Arabian horse is good for the soul of man�.
Joe, thank you for asking me the question. I know this is a lengthy answer, and more than I have said in years but, as you Texas folks say, "It needed sayin".
Mike and Sue Fort
Eagle Crest Arabians, Omaha, Nebrask