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

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.