by Kristin Berkery
When I was a kid I was very familiar with the Godolphin Arabian, thanks to Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind. Ms. Henry took a lot of liberties with the story, but I’ll address that another time. It’s still one of my favorite children’s books and I think it’s a good way to spark a child’s interest in horse history.
Occasionally I would see the Godolphin Arabian referred to in history as the “Godolphin Barb,” so I assumed that Arabians and Barbs were similiar types of horses. This is actually far from the truth.
So what is the difference between an Arab and a Barb? And why is the Godolphin Arabian sometimes called a Barb?
Most people can quickly identify an Arabian by it’s more refined build, usually dished profile and wedge-shaped head, and high-set, flagging tail. It’s also consistently in the top five most popular breeds in the U.S., so it’s not hard to find an example. The Arabian originates from Mesopotamia along the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers just north of the Arabian Desert, where it began as an ancient Afro-Turkic horse that was specialized by Bedouin warriors. The Arabian became a horse that could run mostly straight, long distances over desert ground. According to Deb Bennett, PhD, in The Origin and Relationships of the Mustang, Barb, and Arabian Horse:
The Arabian mare Shaklana Fadjur with her 2010 foal by Fadjurs Prize. Photo by Kristin Berkery
The Arabs excelled at raiding and their horses are bred for this style of warfare: quickly swooping down upon the enemy, shooting with bow and arrow or (later) the rifle, or throwing the light lance and then racing away in retreat.
But the Barb is a different horse. Barbs tend to have a straight or slightly convex profile, a larger head, a heavier build, and rounded hindquarters with a lower-set tail. These traits were a result of crossing the historical Afro-Turkic horse with an ancient Draft subspecies from Iberia (which is Spain and part of France today). Barbs were used in North Africa for close combat, which required the horses to stop quickly and change direction to avoid slashing scimitar blades. These traits are still found in the Barb’s descendant, the Andalusian, which excels at bullfighting.
So if Arabians and Barbs are so different, why is the Godolphin Arabian sometimes called a Barb?
The Barb mare Zafira Al Saida. Photo by Alexander Kastler
The Godolphin Arabian’s origins are not known for certain, but it’s believed he was a gift from the first Bey of Tunis, or King of Tunisia, to the King of France in 1729. Because Tunisia is located in North Africa along the Barbary Coast, which was well-known for its Barb warrior horses, it was mistakenly believed that the Godolphin Arabian was a Barb — but he wasn’t. Descriptions of the Godolphin Arabian from the time indicate that he was about the size of an average modern Arabian (between 14.2 and 15 hands) with a light build, fiery temperament, and high set, flagging tail.
The Godolphin Arabian went on to sire a racing dynasty in England, but that’s another story.
While not as well-known to the public, the Barb has been as influential upon other horse breeds as the Arabian. Its descendants include the Andalusian and Lusitano, and through the historical Spanish Jennet, the Barb is ancestral to the South American Criollo, Paso horses, American mustang, and Quarter Horses and their related breeds.
Al-Husayn I ibn Ali at-Turki, the Bey of Tunis who probably gave the Godolphin Arabian to the King of France in 1729.
Barbs can be found in small numbers today in North Africa and throughout Europe, and variations of the breed also exist, like Arab-Barbs in Europe, Spanish Barbs (also called Spanish Mustangs) in the U.S., and very rare Abaco Barbs in the Bahamas. Some really beautiful photos of Arab-Barbs can be found at slawik.com.