by Kristin Berkery
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 Arabs excelledat 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 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.