What is…

What is a Cracker Horse?

by Kristin Berkery

One of the rarest of all the North American breeds descended from the historical Spanish jennet, the Florida Cracker Horse has survived thanks to the dedicated efforts of a small group of cattle ranchers.

Northern Florida was once an agriculturally rich area with some of the biggest cattle ranches in the country. When the word “cowboy” comes up, most of us think of the type found in Texas and other western states — men who round up livestock on big, muscled Quarter Horses and use lariats to catch and handle cattle.

What is the difference between an Arab and a Barb?

by Kristin Berkery

King of the Wind book cover

King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry

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, which I addressed in another article. 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?

The Arabian mare Shaklana Fadjur with her 2010 foal by Fadjurs Prize. Photo by Kristin Berkery

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 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.

The Barb mare Zafira Al Saida. Photo by Alexander Kastler

So if Arabians and Barbs are so different, why is the Godolphin Arabian sometimes called a Barb?

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.

Al-Husayn I ibn Ali at-Turki, the Bey of Tunis who probably gave the Godolphin Arabian to the King of France in 1729.

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.

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.

What is a quadriga?

by Kristin Berkery

The ancient Triumphal Quadriga displayed inside the museum of St. Mark's Basilica.

Chariot racing is believed to be the first Olympic sport in ancient Rome, as well as the only sport in the original Olympiad that was not performed in the nude. To simplify control for the driver, only two-horse chariots, called bigas, were used in battle. However, chariots featuring more than two horses were often found in competition.

One of the most common teams used in ancient chariot racing was the quadriga, or four-horse chariot. The quadriga is often found in artwork on vases, friezes (bas relief sculptures on the fronts of ancient buildings), and as statues adorning bridges or arches. Ancient Romans believed the sun was the god Apollo driving a quadriga across the sky each day.

The oldest surviving quadriga, the Triumphal Quadriga, stood at the Hippodrome of Constantinople and may be around 1,700 years old. Although it’s called a quadriga, it does not include a chariot and driver. It was moved to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice in the 13th century, where it remained until Napoleon ordered that it be sent to Paris to stand at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel near the Louvre for about 15 years.


The Brandenburg Gate quadriga in Berlin. The Iron Cross near the top is a symbol of Prussian rule. Image by א (Aleph) from the Wikimedia Commons

After Napoleon’s defeat it was returned to St. Mark’s Basilica until the 1980s, when air pollution was taking its toll on the ancient sculpture. The original Triumphal Quadriga was moved inside the basilica museum and replaced outside by an exact copy.

Many other quadrigas can be found around the world, most of which are based on the Triumphal Quadriga. One of the most famous is on the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which Napoleon also took to Paris around the same time as the Triumphal Quadriga. The Brandenburg quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s defeat where it became a symbol of Prussian rule and later the Nazi political machine. Newly renovated, the Brandenburg quadriga can still be seen in its original location.

When the Triumphal Quadriga was returned to Venice in 1815, it was replaced atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel by another similar quadriga with a chariot driven by the angel of peace and flanked by two winged victories.

The quadriga atop the Wellington Arch in London. Photo by ChrisO in the Wikimedia Commons

The Wellington Arch in London is topped by the largest bronze sculpture in Europe, a quadriga created in 1912. It depicts the angel of peace descending into the chariot of war and the horses are being lead by a young boy who was modeled after the son of Lord Michelham, a wealthy philanthropist who funded the sculpture. (Lord Michelham was also famous for having bred the great racing broodmare Plucky Liege, who is said to be found in the pedigree of every great racehorse.)

There is also a quadriga on the front of the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia; atop the Grand Army Plaza in New York City; above the entrance of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul; and two quadrigas appear on the Wayne County Building in Detroit, Michigan.

The Buddy Bear Quadriga in Berlin. Photo by Dorisrieck

Quadrigas don’t always feature horses. In particular, Germans seem to like using other animals in their chariot statues. The quadriga on the top of the opera house in Dresden features panthers; the Quadriga of the Siegestor in Munich has lions, and the Buddy Bear Quadriga in western Berlin has, you guessed it, bears pulling a chariot driven by another bear.

Below is a video with a pictorial history of the Triumphal Quadriga, also known as the Horses of St. Mark’s.

What is a jennet?

by Kristin Berkery

Cassandra, Paso Fino mare

Cassandra del Indio, a Paso Fino mare bred by Casa de Carrico. She exhibits many of the jennet traits. Reprinted from Conquerors by Deb Bennett, PhD.

I’m not talking about a jenny, a female donkey, but a jennet — a type of horse that is the foundation of many modern breeds.

The jennet, pronounced “JEN-it,” was the result of crossing Barbs, or Barbary horses from Morocco, with Iberian stock in Andalucía, Spain. Islamic Berbers conquered a portion of Spain beginning in the 8th century AD until the 11th century AD, and they brought many of their native Barb horses with them.

Deb Bennett, PhD, describes the jennet in Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship:

“Generally built a bit close to the ground, they possessed a wide breast with forelimbs set fairly close together. The chest was deep, surmounted by a shapely, muscular neck. The tail was set fairly low on a rounded and sloping croup. The mane and tail were thick and slightly wavy. The short head, topped by small, stemless ears, was wedge-shaped, much broader through the forehead than the muzzle. Its profile could be straight or slightly convex. It often presented undulating nasal bones… Originally, however, the head was not long and narrow, nor was the facial profile strongly arched like a ram’s — or like a Warmblood’s.”

An Argentine Criollo mare with strong jennet type. Photo by Luciodec from the Wikimedia Commons

The term “jennet” is derived from the Spanish phrase à la jineta, which refers to the “balanced seat” style of riding where the rider bends his knees and the ankles are below the hips. This style permits the horse to round its back and coil its loins for more collected and agile movements.

(The other style of riding developed in Spain centuries ago is “à la brida,” where the rider sits stiffly on the horse with the legs straight and the feet braced against the stirrups. A similar style of riding is often found in modern English pleasure, park, and gaited horse classes at shows. This style tends to hollow the horse’s back and lift the neck, making proper collection difficult.)

At the time the jennet-type horse was developed in the 1500s, posting at the trot had not yet been invented. (It would come later in the mid-1700s.) Horsemen wanted a comfortable riding experience so they sought gaited horses that “ambled” instead of trotted. As a result, many jennets were gaited horses, later known as “caballos de paso.” They were able to do a running walk that was smooth over great distances, leaving the rider less tired and sore after a long day of riding.

Spanish haute école horse

Cerbero, a painting of a Spanish haute école horse by J.G. von Hamilton.

With the development of haute école (later to become dressage) in the 16th century, “ambling” or gaited horses were phased out of European breeding. Jennets were crossed with other types of non-gaited horses, like the Warmblood and the Thoroughbred, to produce taller and heavier horses for royalty. Fewer horses were exported to the Americas by this time because the New World had plenty of them already. Consequently, the jennet in the Americas developed into a different type of horse and the New World became the only place amblers could be found consistently.

The jennet is the foundation of the Andalusian and Lusitano, but those breeds are not purely jennet in type. The Andalusian was the product of Warmblood-Thoroughbred-jennet breeding like its cousins the Friesian and the Lipizzan. All these breeds are taller with finer legs than the historical jennet, and those individuals with Roman (convex) profiles owe the trait to Draft infusions.

Lady Conaway's Spanish Jennet by John Wootton, probably painted in the early 1700s.

The modern breeds that most resemble the original jennet were developed in the Americas: The South American Criollo, the paso breeds (the Paso Fino from the Caribbean and the Peruvian Paso), and the Brazilian Mangalarga and its relative, the Campolina. These breeds are not exact replicas of the jennet because they also have lines to modern Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Saddlebreds.

A new breed registry, the Spanish Jennet Horse Society, is attempting to recreate the gaited jennets sometimes portrayed in history as having Appaloosa patterns or pinto markings. The organization registers two types of these gaited, colored jennet-type horses: Atigrado, or horses that are at least 50% Paso blood with Appaloosa markings; and Pintado, or purebred Paso horses with pinto markings.

View a modern Spanish Jennet Horse demonstrating an ambling gait below.

What is a tapetum lucidum?

by Kristin Berkery

Closeup of a pony


The equine eye is an amazing structure that works in concert with the brain to take the many elements being viewed, like detail, distance, and color, and construct a complete image. The horse is particularly interesting for its wide field of vision and ability to see in the dark better than humans. Because the horse is a prey animal and its vision is a big factor in its behavior, it’s important for those who work with horses to have a basic understanding of the equine eye.

The horse has the largest eye of all land mammals and a nearly 360-degree field of vision, thanks to the placement of its eyes on the sides of its head. This feature is common to prey animals as it allows them to watch for danger from all sides, and the horse’s long head helps it to be on the lookout even while grazing.

Its main blind spots are a small area directly behind it and directly in front of its nose. This affects the horse’s performance under saddle in a couple of ways: A jumper can’t see the jump directly in front of it when it takes off, so it must rely on the last image it saw before jumping; and walking backwards is not a natural thing for horses, even though backing for the judge is usually required at shows.

Horses have a rectangular “streak” on their retinas with a high concentration of ganglion cells that allow them to focus on an object. Anything viewed above or below this area tends to be much less clear, so horses will often move their heads up and down to view an object clearly. That’s why a horse may suddenly spook at an object on the trail that’s been there all along: While walking, the horse’s bobbing head can suddenly focus on an object and the details become clear to the horse… in a way that surprises it.


Eyeshine in a mare and foal, which is the result of camera flash reflection off the tapetum lucidum.

So what is a tapetum lucidum? Horses, dogs, and many nocturnal animals including cats and raccoons have a layer of tissue directly behind the retina called the tapetum lucidum that reflects visible light back through the retina, making more light visible to the animal. The horse can see better in the dark than we can, but the image tends to be grainy. The tapetum lucidum is also the structure that causes eyeshine, or the iridescent eye effect that animals sometimes have in photographs.

But can horses see color? The answer is yes, but there’s more to the story. There are two types of photoreceptor cells in the eye, cones and rods, that convert light into signals the brain can assemble into an image. Cones perceive color, so any animal with cones can see at least some color. (Rods are very light sensitive but cannot perceive color, which explains why it’s impossible to see color in very low light.) Horses are dichromats, which, like many other mammals, means they have two kinds of cones that perceive some, but not all, color. In clinical studies on horses taught to pick colors they can see, scientists learned that horses can see red and blue but not green, and orange and yellow probably look like variations of the color red.

In studies, horses have shown that they have the ability to see stereoscopically — in other words, they’re able to use both eyes in concert to perceive depth. But the placement of the eyes on the sides of the head limits them to a 60-degree view where they can use both eyes to focus on an object. Horses probably consider other factors when trying to judge distance, such as shadows and perspective (i.e. knowing that an object farther away will appear smaller).

To learn more about equine vision, as well as their evolution and behavior, check out The Nature of Horses by Stephen Budiansky.

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