Genetic study of Arabian horses challenges some common beliefs

Arabian horse by Samantha Brooks, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of animal sciences.

by Cornell University | June 2020

A study involving Arabian horses from 12 countries found that some populations maintained a larger degree of genetic diversity and that the breed did not contribute genetically to the modern-day Thoroughbred, contrary to popular thought.

An international team of scientists was led by the University of Florida’s Samantha Brooks, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of animal sciences; Cornell University’s Doug Antczak, the Dorothy Havemeyer McConville Professor of Equine Medicine at the Baker Institute for Animal Health; and Andy Clark, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor in Cornell’s department of molecular biology and genetics.

“The Arabian horse has a special mystique due to the long recorded history of the breed. Arabian horse breeders, in particular, know their horse’s bloodlines many generations back.” — Samantha Brooks

The group collected and examined DNA samples from 378 Arabian horses from Qatar, Iran, UAE, Poland, USA, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark and Canada. The research, published June 16 in the journal Scientific Reports, was conducted over an 8-year period, beginning in 2014 before Brooks made the move from Cornell to UF. The process was a lot of effort, she said, in part due to traveling to collect the Arabians’ blood and hair samples, as well as natural delays in working with international colleagues to collect and ship other samples.

The samples were anonymized for data analysis purposes, except to note the horse’s location and categorizing them as endurance competition, flat course racing or show horses. The data set was also expanded using information from past studies on other breeds, which included Thoroughbreds, Persian Arabian, Turkemen and Straight Egyptians.

“The Arabian horse has a special mystique due to the long recorded history of the breed,” Brooks said. “Arabian horse breeders, in particular, know their horse’s bloodlines many generations back. What we found was that in the area where this breed originates—likely the near East region, but we don’t know exactly—there’s a healthy level of diversity. This is particularly evident in populations from Bahrain and Syria, which suggests these are some pretty old populations.”


The horse is prized for characteristics like heat tolerance and endurance, as well as its unique appearance, with a dish-shaped facial profile, wide-set eyes, an arched neck and a high tail carriage. It has been exported from its ancestral homeland for centuries, with some modern lineages drawn strictly from these smaller genetic pools, giving the breed a reputation for inbred disorders. While this was true for some groups they tested, Brooks noted, they also found remarkable diversity when considering the breed as a whole.

Brooks contrasted the discovery of more diverse populations with the samples they received from racing Arabians. Another longstanding myth says that the Arabian contributed genetically to the modern Thoroughbred, but the racing Arabians’ DNA told a different story.

What we found in these samples was not that much Arabian ancestry was part of the Thoroughbred line, but the opposite: that Thoroughbred DNA exists in most of the modern racing Arabian lines.” — Samantha Brooks

“What we found in these samples was not that much Arabian ancestry was part of the Thoroughbred line, but the opposite: that Thoroughbred DNA exists in most of the modern racing Arabian lines, indicating a more recent interbreeding within this group,” Brooks said. “I can’t speculate on the how or why, but this is clearly the story the DNA is telling us.”

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FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: Arabian horse by Samantha Brooks, UF/IFAS Assistant Professor of Animal Sciences, University of Florida.

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Horses and their impact on culture ancient and modern

Cave Painting of a Horse. Click to Enlarge.

Guest Post by JENNY SHARP

Cave Painting of a Horse
Cave Painting of a Horse. Click to Enlarge.
Since the dawning of time there has existed a unique bond between man and horse. As soon as man was able, he tamed the horse and that relationship began. As with dogs, it is perhaps these primitive, mutually beneficial connections between men and animals that have sustained the bond between them. For centuries the horse has allowed man to hunt, defend himself, travel and increase food production through the use of the plough. Where would we be as a species without the horse? Years behind.

The Bond Between Man and Horse

These days you will need to study the best cash isa rates in order to be able to plan financially for horse ownership. Cars are far cheaper to run. Horses have not at the centre of our culture since the invention of the internal combustion engine. We no longer rely on them in the same way, and yet this connection is still there. This bond is particularly well recognised in a rescue situation, which suggests there may be a primitive memory of mutual aid hidden deep within the collective consciousness of man. Cave paintings of horses have been found as long ago as 2500 BC, and depictions of the horse, and pride in them, has not stopped since. The aristocracy would often have their portraits painted standing or seated on their favourite horse, as a sign of prestige. Owners of prized Arabian horses took them into their own homes to protect them.

Horses in Our Consciousness

This association between horses and men is more immediate in our consciousness than one might think. Although they are no longer our vehicles, or our engines, we still see them around us in a helping capacity. Police horses have one such role, and there is no precious little sympathy for rioters or hooligans who attack them. They are considered untouchable. Their innocence and bravery is admired. There is a tenderness towards the horse then, in our collective consciousness. A respect. Wherever people encounter horses today, the animal has the capacity to provoke emotion, usually either respect, or affection. It is hard to have negative emotions about horses. There is something gentle about them that just transcends that sort of emotion.

Horses Honoured

Words that are associated with horses would usually include ‘nobility’, since they have been associated with royalty and the aristocracy for centuries, in all cultures. The well bred would always be adept riders, able to hunt all day if necessary. Kings and Queens throughout British history have been great horse lovers – Queen Elizabeth is a keen horsewoman, as are all her family. Princess Anne competed in the Olympics and Princes Charles, William and Harry all play polo to a high standard. They were introduced to horses from almost before they could walk. This association between nobility and the horse can be seen in other cultures, too.

Painting of the Darley Arabian
Painting of the Darley Arabian. Click to Enlarge.

In the Arabian peninsular the horse was bred specifically and competitively as a status symbol, prized for it’s endurance, and close relationship with its owner. The legend goes that Muhammad chose the five best mares to breed from by taking a herd of them on a long journey, until they were exhausted and thirsty. He then let them go near to an oasis, but before they reached it, desperate to drink the water, he called them back. The five mares who returned to him were celebrated as the most faithful, and became his favourite and only breeding stock. They were called The Five, or Al Khamsa. Whether this is a myth or the truth, some claim that every Arabian horse is descended from one of these five mares, the most loyal and noble of them all. A pure bred Arabian horse from the best stock can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars today.

A Deep Bond of Trust

Nichole Graham and Astro
Nicole Graham comforts Astro while he is given an injection to calm him to aid his rescue. Image courtesy Newspix/Rex Feature. Click to Enlarge

There was national joy when Astro the horse was rescued from the quick sand on a beach in the UK recently. The pictures were immensely moving. What touched many people was the relationship between the Australian owner, Nicole Graham and her elderly horse. She refused to leave, and stayed with him as he sank deeper and deeper, putting her own life in danger. She held his head, and he rested against her, exhausted, but comforted by her presence. It was only when he had been sedated that a tractor could finally pull the horse from the quick sand, with minutes to spare before the incoming tide drowned him. The event was striking because of the closeness between horse and owner was revealed, so publicly. Perhaps it is a closeness that is usually hidden, and private. Whatever the reason, the rescue made the headlines, and foregrounded the deep feelings between horses and their owners.

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Patrick Swayze Scholarship established by Arabian Horse Group (US)

Cross-posted from The Horse

Gray Quote A scholarship in honor of Patrick Swayze and his wife Lisa Niemi has been established by the Arabian Horse Foundation (AHF), based in Denver, Colo. Swayze and Niemi have had close ties to the Arabian horse breed and owned Arabian horses for many years. The Foundation is the charitable arm of the Arabian Horse Association (AHA), also based in Denver.

“The establishment of the Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi Scholarship was a natural fit for the foundation and the association,” said AHF President Larry Kinneer, who made the announcement before approximately 400 delegates and alternates. “Establishment of the scholarship creates a lasting testimony to their careers in dancing, theatre, and movies, love of the Arabian breed, and contributions over the years to AHA youth programs.”

“Several years ago, Patrick Swayze had a beautiful poster produced picturing him with his champion Arabian stallion, Tammen,” Kinneer said. “The poster was sold and continues to be sold with profits going to youth programming for AHA.”

The posters are available through the AHA, 303/696-4500. Read full story >>

Tribute to Patrick Swayze from ArabHorse

At the link below is a beautiful tribute to the late Patrick Swayze composed by Beth Hunziker for subscribers of the ArabHorse newsletter.

Mr Swayze’s relationship with his horses demonstrates what is possible when mutual love and respect are at the core of the dynamic between human and equine. In the instance of Mr Swayze’s partnership with his beloved horse, Tammen, it is more than that. It is an example of the coming together of two spirits, manifesting itself in the physical.

ArabHorse September 2009 Newsletter