Outside the Tent:
The Desert Arabian in North America

By Bruce M. Johnson

The stock of purebred Arabian horses and the much smaller group of Desert Arabians has declined precipitously during the past 25 years. Bruce Johnson presented the troubling story at the Institute’s 2005 Symposium on Preservation. This article, previously published as “Looking Outside the Preservation Tent” in “Al Khaima” vol. 2, no. 2 has been updated with statistics as of March 2010. The story is even more alarming.

Copyright the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse. All rights reserved.

The goal of this article is to provide a statistical representation of the facts and trends swirling outside the preservation breeders’ “tent.” For many preservationist breeders, the time and focus spent in research, breeding, and developing an expertise within their selected progress has come at the expense of withdrawing from the Arabian horse industry. Understanding how preservation breeders and groups are affected by the trends and events outside the preservation movement can provide insight to the current opportunities and potential dangers.

This article will present some of the background to those preservationists who may not be familiar around the merger of two separate and occasionally hostile organizations and the resulting efforts to rebuild a demand for the Arabian horse. The statistics on which the following conclusions are based have been obtained from the Arabian Horse Association (AHA).

The Problem

Most Arabian horse enthusiasts are familiar with the declining registrations after the boom years of Arabian breeding came to a halt as a result of the tax law changes of 1986. Completed purebred registrations dropped from 30,004 (includes registrations for horses over two years old) in 1986 to 7,780 in 2004. That is a decline of 74 percent. [Registrations for 2009 are likely to be below 6,000.]

Figure 1 graphically portrays the decline of foals produced as a result of those declining registrations. As the pool of registered purebred foals shrinks, a smaller number of genetic replacements are being born to continue the lines.

The impact of the reduced registration numbers can be seen in our show rings. According to AHA statistics, the average age of the performance horses shown at Youth Nationals is approaching 20. The average age of performance horses shown at the U.S. Nationals is over 12. And the key fact is that the large number of mares born during the boom years of the 1980s has passed or is approaching 20 years of age, past their best production period.

The impact of the declining registrations can be seen in Figure 2, which divides the horses based on the dates of birth into five-year blocks. The data includes the horses registered by the end of 2004, but some totals may be increased marginally as a function of registrations completed during AHA’s amnesty program to register older horses. This program ended March 31, 2005, and some registrations are still being closed as missing data and DNA samples are obtained.

In Figure 2, the horses have been divided into blocks based on their year of birth. Note the significant decline in the numbers of horses in each block. This important concept is also simple; the number of horses in each block of horses aged 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, and 20 and older cannot increase, other than the marginal numbers of any late registrations mentioned earlier.

For example, the number of foals born and registered for the year 1996 will fall in the 11-15-year-old block. Those numbers cannot be increased. The number of breedable horses can only decrease as horses die prematurely or are exported. These numbers are reduced further when considering the number of stallions that have been gelded.

If one examines the chart and visualizes the passing of several years, each block of breedable horses will move to the right. Since block sizes cannot be increased, each block moving steadily to the right becomes smaller. Using an arbitrary value of 20 years old to denote the end of a mare’s breeding life, as time passes there will be fewer mares and stallions available to increase the population back to healthy levels.

Without a dramatic increase in foals produced, the end results could be the reduction of breedable horses to the point at which the breed cannot survive.

How did this condition come about? Why did our number of registrations fall so dramatically, especially in a period (late 1980s and 1990s) when the country was enjoying a significant period of prosperity? The answers are as many and as varied as the numbers of breeders but area not a subject for this article.

The Reaction

Both the Arabian Horse Registry of American (AHRA) and the International Arabian Horse Association (IAHA) had held investigatory talks on merging their organizations for many years. However, despite the work of the leaders of both organizations at the time, merger efforts did not move beyond exploratory talks.

The continuing drop in purebred Arabian registrations and a view of a bleak future caused by the industry’s condition finally caused industry leaders to demand in late 2001 that the two organizations make a wholehearted effort to merge. Through incredible amounts of time and effort by Board members from both AHRA and IAHA, a new organization was created. The Arabian Horse Association was born in March 2003 with AHRA staff members moving from the Westminster, Colorado, offices into the old IAHA building in Aurora, Colorado.

Both IAHA and AHRA were dissolved. Ownership of the Purebred Arabian database passed to the new Purebred Arabian Trust (PAT) which leased it to AHA. The merger agreement funnels money received from Purebred registrations into marketing and development efforts to increase the demand for Purebred, Half- and Anglo-Arabian horses. The merger agreement also resulted in a new election process for the new organization’s officers, which commenced a the 2004 HA convention.

As in most merger agreements, there are still organizational challenges. The Arabian Horse Association’s principal product is information. The Association’s core business is built around how it receives, processes, correlates, and displays information. As a core business tool, the organization needs a fully integrated data-handling package and current computer hardware.

However, there are two older computer systems competing for the time and attention of the limited information technology (I/T) staff. The former AHRA Purebred registration system has been modified to accept Half- and Anglo-Arabian records. The system, while fast, accurate, and loaded with artificial intelligence to eliminate errors, is old and has reached the end of its useful life. IAHA’s system, while newer, is hobbled by an inability for most staff users to easily retrieve, sort, filter, and present information in a useful format. There are currently to separate Web sites that serve as the principle vehicle for most members/customers to do business with AHA. However, these sites do not talk well to each other as users move from one feature to another. Both sites must be redesigned and rewritten into one integrated package.

The Numerical Impacts

Desert Arabian horses are having a larger impact statistically when compared across the entire breed. Most preservationist breeders were not motivated by the same concepts as those who drove the prices to astronomical levels in the mid-1980s. Consequently, preservationists as a whole were not hurt when the prices plummeted. In fact, the reduced prices across the industry allowed many breeders to improve the quality of their breeding stock or even start entirely new programs. Statistics show that the number of horses bred by preservationists remained fairly steady while breeding of all Arabian horses fell sharply over the past 20 years. [For this article, Desert Arabians include horses with AHA registrations that are marked in DataSource as “Al Khamsa” and/or “Straight Egyptian.”]

Figure 3 provides a graph of Al Khamsa foals produced from 1981 through 2003. There was an increase during the boom years to about 1,350 horses produced annually. When the overall production dropped, AK births remained constant at or just above 1,000 horses per year until 2003. There may be additions to the last ears if breeders still register horses over two years or age.

Figure 4 details the percentage of Al Khamsa foals as a percentage of the total number of foals registered by year. This further illustrates the increasing impact that the breeders of those lines (including Straight Egyptian) are having on the breed as a whole.

Opportunities

Despite the reduction in the overall total of horses registered, there are several factors which will have a direct influence on the demand for the Desert Arabian horse. As the show horses continue to age, they will reach a point at which they can no longer perform at the Class A, Regional and National level. The number of entries at Regional and National shows has continued to increase throughout the period of declining registrations. With fewer horses available, those trainers and exhibitors wanting to compete will have to come to look and purchase more Desert Arabian horses. Additionally, the fastest-growing competitive disciplines include Endurance, Dressage, and Sport Horse, which is where the Desert Arabians are the most competitive.

The Arabian Horse Association has realized the need to create demand for both today’s horses and those to be bred in the future. The Marketing, Development and Promotional Committee (MDP) spent a significant amount of time and effort in developing and implementing a strategic plan to increase demand for the Arabian horse. The efforts of this committee and AHA staff have already contributed to markedly higher demand for the Arabian horse. One measureable result has been a fourfold increase in the number of hits on AHA’s Web site for new people inquiring about buying an Arabian horse.

Many new Arabian owners and first-time buyers want to ride for pleasure and want to use pleasurable horses to accomplish this goal. This desire also aligns with the characteristic disposition of the Desert Arabian horse.

The Danger Ahead

While the previous paragraphs and graphs may paint a seemingly rosy picture developing for the demand for Desert Arabian horses, there are some dangers lurking in the background. The genetic diversity in the Pyramid Straight Egyptian horses and the Desert Arabians of non-SE pedigrees is shrinking. Figure 5 details the percentage of Straight Egyptians of the total number of Desert Arabian foals born year between 1981 and 2004. While an average bouncing around 90 percent over the past 10 years may not seem alarming, when coupled with the reduced number of overall registrations, a different picture emerges.

Figure 6 provides a visual display of the absolute number of Al Khamsa foals born to non-Straight Egyptian bloodlines between 1981 and 2003. Note that the number of theses foals for the last five years has hovered between 50 and 75. These bloodlines include the Davenport, Blue Star, Babson-Turfa and Combined Source foals among others.

The number of Pyramid Straight Egyptian foals being produced over the years means that the group is well sustained. However, the marked drop in number of Al Khamsa, non-Straight Egyptian foals indicates that we are at the brink of losing the ability to maintain those bloodlines as genetic sources for future generations.

And if we don’t, who will?

Since this article was prepared in 2005, the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse has initiated a study to determine the genetic diversity remaining in the Straight Egyptian gene pool and in other heritage groups. Read more about this “Conservation  Assessment and Management Program” (CAMP).