For sheer nobility, there is no breed on earth that can touch the Arabian, the aristocrat of aristocrats.
—The Treasury of Horses
WALTER D. OSBORNE and PATRICIA H. JOHNSON
This is an article from the Jan. 13, 1986 issue
If there is one animal perfectly suited to American tastes in the '80s—costly, elegant, ostentatious and imported—it is the Arabian horse. Looking for a steed of fiery temperament yet tractable? We've got the horse right here. Want a beast whose beauty, intelligence and versatility have dazzled heads of state for centuries? This stud's for you. In the market for a mount whose blood courses through the veins of virtually every breed of light horse extant: thoroughbreds, Morgans, hackneys, standardbreds, American saddle horses, quarter horses, Tennessee walkers and, strange as it seems, the wild mustangs of the West? The Arabian is the granddaddy of' em all.
But if exclusivity and trendsetting are your aim, whoa now, partner, you're a little late. The once exotic Arabian has gone forth and multiplied on these shores like yeasts in yogurt—a food which, like the horse, was endemic to the Middle East before fashionably gaining appeal in this part of the world. In the last four years more pureblooded Arabians have been entered in the Arabian Horse Registry in the U.S.—more than 100,000—than there had been between 1908, when the registry was opened, and 1973. Twenty-two years ago there were 20,000 Arabian horses prancing about the U.S.; today there are almost 300,000—an increase of some 1,400%. And the number of Americans owning a registered Arab has risen just as dramatically: from 11,191 in 1965 to 118,798 today.
How can you tell if a horse is an Arabian? Some identifying characteristics: Arabians tend to be smallish, averaging around 15 hands in height. Their faces are dished in profile and wide at the forehead, with diminutive, almost dainty, muzzles. Ears: pointed and close-set. Eyes: huge, pooling, expressive. Nostrils: large, the better to inhale the hot desert air. Neck: arched and long. Tail: carried high and with elegance. An Arabian's back is compact, its chest is full, its legs straight and somewhat refined, like a dancer's. Its coat: fine, soft and silky. The cumulative effect is a horse that leans more toward prettiness than brutishness, an animal one might expect to have been created not by evolution but by Disney.
Attractive as the Arabian is, the current state of madness surrounding the breed is founded on bucks rather than beauty. Madness? What other word can describe the auction of an unborn Arabian foal for $100,000—as happened last February at the annual Scotts-dale (Ariz.) Arabian sales—a creature that might have been born with three left feet and a horn protruding from its forehead? (That would have been a find.) Now $100,000 is not exactly hay, but it's still no more than an oat in the $44,445,300 bucket of transactions that took place over eight heady days at Scottsdale, where, in a series of 10 major sales, 243 Arabians changed hands. As recently as 1968 the top price paid at auction for an Arabian was $25,000. The record now stands at $3.2 million, which was shelled out for the Russian stallion Abdullahhh in 1984. Small potatoes compared with what top thoroughbreds go for, to be sure, but thoroughbred investments can be recouped on the track. Abdullahhh, like the vast majority of Arabian horses in this country, had never won a dime at the track. All the brute could do was breed, eat and look pretty.
When the mare NH Love Potion was auctioned for $2.55 million at Scottsdale in 1984, the announcer at the sale was Harry Cooper, the Don Pardo of the Arabian world. Cooper's function at these events is to spew out gooey superlatives—"She's special and she knows it" or "Her skin is so fine it's like membrane"—during the pauses in the bidding, which allow auctiongoers time to catch their breath or secure second mortgages. "When the bidding stood at $2.2 million for Love Potion," Cooper recalls, "the auctioneer asked me to say something. For the first time in my career I was speechless. I thought, 'My God, what on earth can I say to make someone out there bid $2.3 million for a horse?' "
"Arabian horse people like to buy things," says Barbara Shuler, who organizes one of Scottsdale's more prestigious auctions. "They're a very esthetically oriented lot."
The average price for top Arabians sold at Scottsdale has risen from some $30,000 in 1974 to $478,809 last year, and few expect the trend to change at the 1986 Scottsdale sales. The whole business has been compared, with reason, to the tulipmania that struck Holland in 1634, when speculation ran amok, with buyers splurging as much as $5,000 for a single bulb. Theoretically those investors, too, were an "esthetically oriented lot," which no doubt eased the pain when the tulip market came to a crashing, bankrupting halt in 1637.
The primary beneficiaries of Arabian-mania, and among the moving forces behind it, have been Dr. Eugene LaCroix and his family, the owners and proprietors of the Lasma Arabians farms in Scottsdale and Louisville. LaCroix, 69, a retired vascular surgeon, bought his first two Arabians back in 1944 to upgrade his cattle horses. At the time there were only some 3,000 purebred Arabians in the U.S. LaCroix paid $1,200 for a filly and $750 for a stallion, and from those humble beginnings has built an empire that is worth untold millions. "Arabians are tremendously versatile," says LaCroix. "You can use them for trail riding and cattle work; you can show them in all the different categories: halter. Western pleasure, English pleasure, park, pleasure driving, et cetera. You can ride them long distances, jump them, race them or just keep them in the backyard for the kids. They're the ideal family horse."
All true. Despite the reputation that Arabians have as high-spirited mounts, they are, if treated properly, light-mouthed and superb with children. The Bedouins, who originally bred the Arabian, stabled their horses either in or next to the master's tent and raised them on camel's milk, eggs, dates and barley flour.
It is a Bedouin belief that Allah created the horse out of a handful of south wind, which he scooped up, saying: "Thy name shall be Arabian, and virtue bound into the hair of thy forelock, and plunder on thy back. I have preferred thee above all beasts of burden inasmuch as I have made thy master thy friend."
The Bedouins were a warlike and nomadic people who selected their breeding stock on the basis of speed, handling and endurance. According to legend, every Arabian horse is a direct descendant of five mares owned by an Arab chief named Faras the Horseman. In 1635 B.C., Faras was traveling through the desert with his vast herd of horses, when suddenly, far below, a stream came into sight. The herd, which had been days without water, raced toward the stream at a gallop. To test them, Faras took out his horn and blew the call to arms. Five mares returned to the call, and it was these five that served as the foundation for the breed.
Whether the legend is true or not, there is little doubt that Arabians are the oldest selectively bred equines in the world. Relief carvings of Arab-type horses have been found on Assyrian and Egyptian tombs that are thousands of years old. King Solomon was said to have owned 1,000 of the beauties. And the Prophet Mohammed ordered his disciples to take good care of Arabians so the disciples could ride forth and spread his word. Since the Bedouins believed that a single drop of alien blood would hurt the Arabian breed, they went to bizarre lengths to insure the purity of the bloodline. A mare's owner would sew her shut with a needle and thread prior to raiding an enemy camp, just in case a foe's stallion sallied forth with fanciful ideas. To these warriors, the Arabian horse was not just an animal, but a gift from Allah—the Bedouin's wealth, his lifeblood and his legacy. "None but chiefs or individuals of great wealth possess [authentic Arabians]," wrote an Englishman, William Giffard Palgrave, in 1856. "Nor are they ever sold.... When I asked how then one could be acquired, 'By war, by legacy, or free gift' was the answer."
War was responsible for much of the early dissemination of Arabian blood. Between the eighth and 17th centuries Europe was invaded by hordes of Turks, Arabs and the like, who, when they were eventually driven back, left behind swaths of death and destruction and yogurt. Also Arabians. These became the foundation stock for the horses ridden by the Spanish conquistadores, who in turn introduced Arabian blood to the New World, where today it is pulsing through the veins of the scruffy but enduring mustangs of the American West. "But the Poles were the first Europeans to recognize the value of Arabian blood," says LaCroix, noting that the Polish government's breeding program dates back to 1506. "Since Poland has no natural boundaries, they needed a horse with the endurance, speed and handling of the Arabian for defense."
It was LaCroix who helped start the so-called "Polish Revolution" in the Arabian industry—"Polish Arabians are hot-hot," gushes one Colorado breeder—when he became one of the first Americans to foray behind the Iron Curtain in search of horseflesh. On his first trip to Poland in 1962, LaCroix brought back the 6-year-old stallion Bask, a long-necked, athletic Arabian, for which he paid less than $16,500. Bask, who was fresh off a Warsaw racetrack, was an immediate sensation in America, combining near-perfect conformation with athleticism to win prestigious performance and halter championships. Bask's offspring proved as exceptional as he was. By the early 1970s, LaCroix's Lasma Arabians was firmly established at the top of the Arabian industry in the U.S.
But what really led to the Arabian boom in this country was the flair with which Lasma marketed Bask's progeny. "We'd been to so many bum auctions where the horses were just standing around, not groomed properly," says LaCroix, "that we decided if the horse could move around freely, its natural beauty would be better appreciated."
At Lasma's first public auction at Scottsdale in 1971, LaCroix tried a number of ideas that his eldest son, Gene—a champion horseman himself—had dreamed up in the best tradition of P.T. Barnum. "We wanted the horses to look good, so we got a runway, which gave them room to move," the younger Gene, 38, recalls. "We wanted some pizzazz, so we added a band and gave each horse a special song. And we wanted everyone to have fun, so we had an open bar." Nothing like a stiff belt to bring out the natural beauty of an Arabian. But the LaCroix were on to something. Twenty-seven horses brought an average of $19,822 each at that initial sale, with the top mare, a Bask daughter, commanding $56,000.
Three years later the LaCroix held Lasma Sale II. Mike Nichols, the director, was the top bidder this time, buying Basquina, another Bask daughter, for $117,500, which was a benchmark in Scottsdale's alliance—some would say mésalliance—with Hollywood. Nichols held a sale of his own in Connecticut in 1976, and didn't hesitate to use his Broadway expertise. "Mike added some theatrical things to the sale we hadn't thought of," admits Dr. LaCroix.
Theatrical? Good gracious. Smoke machines, light shows and top-drawer entertainment soon became standard fare at big Arabian auctions. The likes of Bob Hope ("Where else can you sit around watching rich Americans buy Arabs?"), the Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr., David Brenner, the Pointer Sisters and Shirley MacLaine began appearing onstage with the horses, and in 1977—shades of Monty! Monty! Monty!—Lasma handed over a new Cadillac to the buyer whose bid put the auction over the million-dollar mark for the first time. What did any of this have to do with Arabians? Nothing. It had to do with promotion. The big names attracted big money. Auctiongoers began finding themselves cheek by jowl with celebrities—e.g., Stefanie Powers, Bo Derek, Merv Griffin, Kenny Rogers, Jane Fonda, Paul Simon, Meadowlark Lemon, Jackie Onassis, Armand Hammer and King Constantine of Greece.
Last February at the Keg Select sale in Scottsdale, Lasma constructed a stage set duplicating a section of Bourbon Street, then unveiled the evening's entertainment, Al Hirt and the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The band played for 45 minutes before giving way to a bevy of Arabians. The next day that whole set was torn down and replaced by a winter street scene straight out of 19th-century Poland, which served as a backdrop for the wildly successful Polish Ovation sale. Serving as direct sales agent for the Polish government, Lasma handled the auction of 19 Polish mares for $10.8 million, an average of $568,684 a head.
How can such prices be justified? It is a question that Arabian owners ask each other every day. Part of the answer lies in the tax advantages inherent in each transaction—"We're farming the tax code," confides one large breeder—and part of it in the Greater Fool Theory, as uttered by Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: "Who is the greater fool? The fool or the fool who follows him?"
The greatest fool of all is probably Uncle Sam, whose loophole-filled tax code allows Arabians, like milk cows, to be depreciated for their full value in three to five years, depending on their age. The expense of keeping Arabians can be written off dollar for dollar, and any profit from their resale is taxed, not as income, but as a capital gain, provided one has owned a horse for at least two years. Furthermore, each Arabian mare amounts to a production machine that is capable of giving birth to as many as five foals in the years it takes to depreciate her. "For unlike any other investment of its kind...gold, fine art, real estate, diamonds or stocks," reads the press release from Star World of Arabians, an offshoot of Lasma, "...The Arabian horse is a living creature that can reproduce in its own image...return affection and turn a profit." Let's see Merrill Lynch match that. Actually, the Wells Fargo Bank is willing to try. "Consult with our Arabian horse specialist..." reads Wells Fargo's ad in Arabian Horse World, a four-color monthly epic of Arabian profiteering that sometimes runs 600 pages per issue; it is the largest monthly magazine in the world. "The power, the grace, the beauty of your own Arabian horse is within your reach...with a Wells Fargo Home Equity Loan...."
"You can make money with Arabians, but you can't do it foolishly," cautions the beneficent Dr. LaCroix. "A $100,000 to $500,000 investment is minimum if one has any expectation of succeeding without luck."
One of the ways your Arabian investment can appreciate dramatically is if the little beauty garners a few horse-show blue ribbons, a fact of life that has led to some grooming excesses that have a lot of people—and horses—turning blue in the face. Boy George should doll himself up as nice as some of these Arabs. Before a show the grooming procedure might begin with a bath in Flex protein and balsam shampoo and conditioner. The mane and tail—especially white ones—are then dyed to remove unsightly bathroom stains. The hooves are scrubbed with S.O.S. to remove that nasty ground-in dirt, followed by a brisk once-over with sandpaper and steel wool and a coat of Absorbine Super Shine. Baby oil is rubbed over the diminutive muzzle to darken and shine it; Vaseline is applied to the mane to keep the hair just so. And finally, the entire body is sprayed with Grand Champion to give it that all-over glow. Tail not being carried elegantly? A dab of ginger where the sun never shines will cure that, and note how it puts some sparkle into those large, expressive eyes. And speaking of eyes, how about a little Maybelline to bring out the mystery of the East?
It gets worse. Back in the old days, when Arabians bedded down in Bedouin tents, a good steed was expected to be docile and friendly when it was not under saddle. The Bedouins considered nervousness in their horses a sign that danger was approaching. Not so in modern times, at least not in the eyes of the judges who hand out the ribbons at Arabian shows. If a horse is not on the very edge of exploding out of its halter, it is considered to be a deadhead. Consequently, handlers have been known to use everything from cocaine to fire extinguishers to enliven their charges before putting them into a ring. Once there, the handler dances about, cracking a whip like a lion tamer, yanking on the little darling's chain until every hair on its shiny coat is standing on end. Small wonder the Arabian has the reputation of being high-strung. "I'd rather clean stalls than show horses," says Linda Schultz, an Arabian breeder from Brownwood, Texas.
Her sentiment is shared by Arabian fanciers the world over. "The painting of horses? The grooming? I hate it," says Peter Scheerder, an Arabian breeder from Holland who attended the 1985 Scottsdale sales. "America started this thing, but now it is coming over to Europe. It's very sad."
Shellye Hayden, a breeder from Mansfield, Texas, was so enraged by what she saw happening around the big Arabian shows that in 1984 she started her own "natural" Arabian show in Burleson, Texas, to rave reviews. "Everybody knows drugs are used," Hayden says. "Everybody knows that ginger is used. The pressure on these trainers to win is so great that they'll try anything. We've heard of some who stand their horses in water before a show and [use electrical current to] shock them, or shake bags at them, or cover their stalls and whip them on the knees so that the marks won't show. In our show the horses are quiet. They are happy. They aren't lunging and biting and jerking. Arabians aren't like that. That's man-made. Whips are not allowed in our ring. There's a time and a place for a whip, but to use one just to make a horse flare its nostrils—well, that just isn't right. What's behind it? Greed. Investors who aren't horse people, who are in it for the money and wouldn't know if their horses are being treated right or not. All we're trying to do is save the horses."
Allah must be asleep in the heavens if he has let someone who has shocked a horse while it is standing in water live to see another dawn. But these are desperate acts by desperate people. "I believe that only three percent of Arabian breeders actually make money," says Christy Gibson, who trained the mare Heritage Desiree of Dynasty fame for the 1975 U.S. National Halter Championship. "The rest of us—hopefully we get other things out of it besides money. Whether you're a big breeder or a little breeder, 80 percent of your foals are going to be average or less than average. And average Arabians do not sell. It's finally gotten to the point where the supply has exceeded the demand. Arabians, except the very best ones, are no longer rare, and the Arabian industry has done a bad job developing secondary markets."
In fact, about 80% of Arabians sell for $5,000 or less. Some a lot less. "People can buy sound Arabians right now for $500," says Schultz. "The market is flat at the bottom."
Which is the good news to folks who want to enjoy the horse, not as an investment, but as a horse. "Maybe 10 percent of Arabians sell for good prices," says Miami real-estate developer and Arabian enthusiast Alec Courtelis, who has spearheaded a drive to make Arabian pari-mutuel racing a viable secondary market. "The other 90 percent are still great athletes. Racing is not just good for the Arabian industry, it is necessary for it to survive. The two-dollar bettor is a whole new source of income."
True, an Arabian can't run with a thoroughbred—it is more than 10 seconds slower over a mile—but in an all-Arabian field, will the bettor care? "People love to watch them," says Ruth Duncan of Ocala, Fla., who is actively involved in Arabian racing in the Sunshine State. "They can't believe it: this great field of color coming around the turn, tails up, heads up. Arabians look very flamboyant when they race. They try just as hard as the thoroughbreds, but with those short little legs, they don't get there as fast."
"Our biggest problem is the announcers," says Joe Gorajec, director of racing for the International Arabian Horse Association. "They can't pronounce some of those names." A quick flip through the pages of Arabian Horse World gives one an idea of the dilemma. And here they come: Wielki Szlem has Ru Melika Sabbah by a head. Daalda Fiolek's coming up strong. It's Mizan Taj Halim on the rail. Ru Melika Sabbah...Mizan Taj Halim...and out of nowhere the winner is...Abraxas Maarofic! The race would have to be three miles long just to identify the field.
Actually, the longer the better as far as the Arabian is concerned. When you cut through all the mascara and Vaseline, the silkiness of the coat and the delicate, expressive face, the Arabian horse is one of the world's toughest, most durable creatures. Do you think that Genghis Khan, George Washington, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant rode Arabians because they were pretty? Or Napoleon? (Well, maybe Napoleon.) Or President Ronald Reagan, for that matter, who owns four of the critters?
The one thing, besides looking like a movie star—the title role in The Black Stallion was played by an Arabian—that the breed does better than any other is to run long distances. Want to race fast or jump high? Get a thoroughbred. Want to trot like the dickens? A standardbred's for you. Looking showy is your fancy? How about an American saddle horse? Cutting cattle? Try a quarter horse. But if you want a horse that will run you till your fanny sizzles, the Arabian is the ticket.
"There's a special horse for every job," says Ruth Waltenspiel of Healdsburg, Calif., owner of four pure Arabians and two part-Arabs. "The Arabian's highest and best use originally was to gallop across the desert, rape, rob and plunder, then gallop back to get the boss to bed."
Waltenspiel is a former director of the American Endurance Ride Conference, an organization started in 1971 that now numbers more than 2,000 members and sanctioned some 533 races in 1985 at distances ranging from 25 to 150 miles. The vast majority of those races were won by Arabians. At last year's Tevis Cup, for example, a 100-mile super bowl of endurance rides that is raced over an old gold-miners' trail through the High Sierra of California, 17 of the top 20 finishers were Arabians and the remaining three were half-Arab. Mules, thoroughbreds, camels, mustangs, you name it—the Arabian will leave them in the dust.
"The Arabian you see in horse shows and auctions and the Arabian you see in endurance rides are no more alike than cheese and chalk," says Matthew Mackay-Smith, a veterinarian from Whitepost, Va., who both rides in and monitors endurance races. "Traveling long distances at relatively slow speeds is what the animal is biologically adapted to do. Arabians have a large heart size relative to their weight. Their feet and legs are very durable, fragile as they look. They have lots of slow-twitch muscle fibers and a high surface area relative to their mass, which means they are built more like a radiator than a boiler. They're designed to release heat."
You know that high, elegant way an Arabian carries its tail? Elegant, shmelegant. It's just another way of cooling the furnace.
"Whether a horse is pretty or not means absolutely nothing to me," says Waltenspiel, who has ridden her Arabians more than 10,000 miles since becoming involved in endurance riding in the 1960s. "I'm interested in a sound horse that is cheerful in its work. The motto of our sport is: To finish is to win. The whole thing is to bring both yourself and your horse in feeling good."
Feeling full of ginger, as the show folk like to say. It's an attitude that is somewhat closer to the Bedouin spirit that gave the Arabian its character than, say, a five-year depreciation and the sale of an unborn foal. "People call me up all the time and ask, 'What do you think of Arabians as an investment?' " says Waltenspiel, who buys her Arabians broken to ride for anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500. "I tell them, 'If any of those smart-talking guys gets you to put up your money, you'd better be prepared to lose it.' Investment? Sure, Arabians are a good investment. An investment in pleasure, good health, exercise and family fun.
"Maybe I've got my feet too solidly planted on the ground. I've been to the Scottsdale sales. I thought I was at a Mafia funeral. There's something so excessive about it. It misses the essence of the thing, which to me is you and your horse out there with the leaves and the wind, and the moon rising up through the trees, and the sound of the river and the smell of the trail."
The essence is in the riding. For better or worse, Arabian horses have been one of the trappings of wealth for a few thousand years, from Bedouin chieftains to Scottsdale's nouveau-riche oil moguls. That's not what gives the Arabian its nobility. The horse doesn't know if the rider on its back is a king or a commoner. But it knows if that person can ride.
The Englishman Palgrave described the feeling some 130 years ago: "I often mounted them at the invitation of their [Bedouin] owners and, without saddle, rein or stirrup, set them off at full gallop, wheeled them round, brought them up in mid-career at a dead halt, and that without the least difficulty.... The rider on their back really feels himself the man-half of a centaur, not a distinct being."
For anyone who cares to hop on, we've got the horse-half right here.