Exhibit in Kentucky displays Arabian horse heritage with pieces from Colorado | TheFencePost.com

Exhibit in Kentucky displays Arabian horse heritage with pieces from Colorado

Carolyn White

In June 2009, Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington proudly opened an exhibit devoted solely to the Arabian.

Built onto the International Museum of the Horse (an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution) the $10 million, 8000 square-foot wing contains life-sized statues, in addition to paintings and other artifacts.

Named the Al Marah Arabian Horse Gallery, it is the largest expansion ever made to the museum. Displays and interactive videos take visitors on a journey from the breed's Middle Eastern beginnings through modern times. What's unique about this collection, however, is that much of it originated in Colorado.

From 1984 to 2001, the Arabian Horse Trust Museum in Westminster, Colo., also showcased the beauty, endurance and heritage of this unique animal. During the years after the museum closed, valuable artwork, lithographs, sculptures, Bedouin saddles and other memorabilia from early breeders remained sealed in vaults.

But on Nov. 4, 2007, a meeting was held at the trust and the decision was made to archive and ship everything from Colorado to Kentucky. Now the items are available for horse lovers from around the world to enjoy, since approximately 800,000 people pass through the park each year.

Some of the most valued items, according to Bill Cooke, director of the International Museum of the Horse at Kentucky Horse Park, came from the library of breeder Homer Davenport.

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"He was the first person to make significant importation of Arabians," he said.

A political cartoonist, "in 1906, Davenport brought back 26 horses directly from the desert. The photos of them were put into a book. It's really pretty special. His horses were the gold standard for developing the breed in America."

According to legend, in the 17th century B.C., a Sheikh named Salaman had travelled many days across the desert without water. It is said that when he finally found some, "he turned his herd loose to drink. But before the horses reached water, the sheikh blew his war horn, summoning the mares to battle. Only five returned without drinking, putting their loyalty above their own needs."

Those mares became foundation stock, producing the different strains known today. A gentle, intelligent, loyal mare was so highly prized by Bedouins that she was often sheltered in the tent at night. Her keen hearing was a warning of danger. She carried her master into battle, over long distances between water holes and to the hunt. Often, she survived on little but barley chaff, dates and camel's milk.

The Bedouins needed a special horse that could survive the harshness of the desert and run easily over sand.

One of the most unusual things about Arabians is the extra-large windpipe. The skin is dark, which helps protect them from desert sun exposure, and the body is compact because the spine has fewer vertebrae than in other horses. This gives the hindquarters extra propelling power. With its smooth, light-footed gaits, the Arabian literally appears to skim the ground. A purebred can be recognized immediately for its outer characteristics. The neck is arched, the tail is carried high and the forehead is wide. The ears are small, the cheekbones are pronounced and the large eyes often appear to be ringed with dark liner. But the tapered, delicate muzzle is the most telling sign of this breed. It has been said that an Arabian can drink out of a teacup.

Because the Bedouins believed that all horses should roam free, theirs were trained to return home at the shake of a bell. They were treated like family pets and rarely sold. Instead, the most supreme sacrifice a Bedouin could make was to give one away as a gift.

The Arabian started to spread throughout Europe primarily by trade. In 1893, 45 were shipped to America by the Turkish government and put on display at the World's Fair in Chicago. Unfortunately, some were destroyed in a fire. Later, financial problems necessitated the sale of the remaining horses in order to pay for their handlers to return to Syria. These stallions and mares became breeding stock and by 1908, the first U.S. registry had been established. Today this versatile breed is especially popular with sidesaddle, endurance, trail and dressage riders. They are also wonderful stock and family horses.

At Kentucky Horse Park, a life-sized statue of *Bask++, one of the greatest worldwide sires, stands in the lobby near the Big Barn. (A + after the name indicates the horse was imported. The ++ shows he received the Legion of Merit Award.) Born in 1956 at the Janow Podlaski State Stud in Poland, he was shipped to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1963 where he stood at Lasma Arabians.

As a show horse, he earned the U.S. title of National Champion Stallion in addition to many other honors.

Bask was buried in the Champions Cemetery at Kentucky Horse Park after his death in 1979. Also buried there is one of his many sons, Bask Elect, who also won many championships, most after he was blinded in a freak accident.

The Arabian exhibit at Al Marah pays tribute to those, and many other, foundation mares and stallions in an especially wonderful way. Walking into it feels like actually stepping into the desert. In the entryway, a life-sized stallion, head raised high, stands alongside his proud owner. Stone-cut walls surround them. Middle Eastern music and whinnies emit from hidden speakers. Inside, colorful tent rugs, saddle pads, and paintings catch the eye.

And everywhere you look, there are items that came from Westminster, Colo. ❖

More info

Kentucky Horse Park is located at 4039 Iron Works Parkway in Lexington, Kentucky. There is a clean and well-kept campground about a half mile away. For more information call (859) 233-4303 or visit the website at kyhorsepark.com

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