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The homeland of the Barb horse is that of the Moors, that is, northwestern Africa. Regarding the origin of this breed, there are several theories. It is most likely that it derived directly from an indigenous wild horse, which had its habitat ranging over most of the Iberian Peninsula and into northwestern Africa. The breed could also have been started during the period when the Roman Empire encompassed the whole area, as the Romans reportedly took Iberian horses to Northwest Africa.
The migration of primeval horses from North America to Asia took place in several waves via the Bering Strait, including several forms of wild horses. One form that ended up in Iberia evidently had the characteristics we still find in the Iberian and in the Barb horse.
Back then there would have been a landbridge instead of the channel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean that became known as the Strait of Gibraltar. Thus, the Iberian horse and the Barb have a common ancestor and have been kissing cousins from the word go, so to speak.
This wild horse subspecies was adapted to a warm, but dry climate. Of course other forms of wild horses migrated through Eurasia, which is of no relevance in this context.
THE MOORS DID NOT BRING THE BARB TO IBERIA
We need to discard though the idea that the Moors, in invading and occupying Iberia, had brought over loads of Barb horses to cross on the horses they found in Iberia, because even the Muslim chroniclers recorded that the horses of the Spaniards were bigger and better and more numerous than their own, and that they then settled to breeding Spanish horses. This doesn’t mean that the occasional Barb horse may not have been shipped to Iberia, but the often proclaimed huge influence of Barbs on the Iberian horse is a myth.
There was one Barb horse whose story made it through history in Spain, a stallion named Guzm’n after one of his owners. He reportedly was a very good individual and may have had some influence on the Spanish horse. However, as we have seen, the Barb horse was a similar horse to the Iberian horse, anyway.
NOT THE IBERIAN HORSE
Breeders of Barb horses often have a tendency to claim for the Barb everything the Iberian horse got famous for. It was first and foremost the Iberian horse, not the Barb, that became famous the world over, that was the prize at royal European courts and beyond. It was usually called “Spanish horse”, because Spain and Portugal were largely viewed as one, and the horse breeding efforts in both countries were indeed of one and the same nature.
The Duke of Newcastle at one time wrote: “I have seen Spanish horses, and have had them in my own possession, which were proper to be painted after, or fit for a King to mount on a public occasion; for they are not so tender as the Barbs, nor so ill-shaped as the Neapolitans, but in between these two” (the Neapolitans were an Italian breed developed with lots of Spanish blood, which inherited some coarseness and an ill disposition from their native Italian ancestors).
NOT A RELATIVE OF THE ARABIAN
Another misconception -- repeated in many books and articles -- is that the Barb horse was a relative of the Arabian horse, or even an offshoot of the Arabian horse. The Barb is fundamentally different from the Arabian -- or rather, it was, because for generations now, Arabian stallions have been crossed on Barb mares, so that the type has been dramatically changed towards that of the Arabian. It was during the French rule in that part of Africa when the heavy infusion of Arab blood was initiated. With all that Arabian blood now in the Barb breed, one cannot help but note that there is a relatedness by now.
Nowadays, a true Barb is hard to find, even in those countries that originally were the Barb horse’s homelands.
It is known that what is now Saudi Arabia was horseless for many years after the horse was first domesticated, so even the Arabian horse was not indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula.
The first Arabian horses were found in Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, centuries prior to the formation of Saudi Arabia as a country. Later, when Arabs invaded Iran, droves of horses were taken to the Arabian Peninsula for breeding.
Experts on Barb horses maintain that the only more or less pure Barb horses left are to be found in Cameroon, in the possession of certain tribes that found refuge there a long time ago for political reasons. The horses there look very similar to the primitive Iberian horse, the Sorraia. They are not uniform in color, yet if they were grulla or dun, they would be indistinguishable from the Sorraia.
As the Barb horse is now bred in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, one may speak of the Algerian Barb, the Moroccan Barb, the Tunisian Barb, the Libyan Barb.
CONFORMATION DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE BARB AND THE ARABIAN
At one time in history, the influence of a subspecies believed to have been the ancestor of Arabian-type horses reached as far west as Tunesia, but in what is known as Morrocco and Mauritania, the original Barb horse was bred and ridden -- a quite different type, taller and more suitable for bridled-up riding.
The true Barb horse does not resemble the Arabian in conformation or disposition. It has a convex (“ram”) head, where the Arabian has a concave, or dished, profile.
The Barb has a longer back than the Arabian, and a sloping croup, with an according tail set, while the Arabian is known for his rather horizontal croup and high tail set.
The Barb horse has the ability for collected movements like the Iberian, while the Arabian is built for flat, strong-out running.
The Barb horse is known to possess swiftness, incredible endurance, and surefootedness, enabling him to gallop headlong up and down steep ravines that would give most other breeds pause. It is prized for its speed over short distances, and its loyalty and docile attitude. It comes in pretty much all colors.
With all the Arab blood in today’s Barbs, Iberian/Barb horse conformation traits can be found in the breed as well as those of the Arabian, sometimes leaning more one way, sometimes the other. If the infusion of Arab blood is kept up in the future, the Barb will sooner or later cease to exist, and become another strain of Arabians.
THE GODOLPHIN BARB
The Barb horse contributed its blood mightily to the English Thoroughbred, because one Barb stallion became one of the three foundation sires, a founder of one of the three male lines all Thoroughbreds go back to. This stallion was the Godolphin Barb. Here again, the typical confusion with the Arabian horse is to be noted, as this stallion first became known as the Godolphin Arabian, then later, when some enlightened horse experts realized that there was a difference, the name was changed to Godolphin Barb.
THERE IS NO SUCH ANIMAL AS A SPANISH BARB
Americans often refer to a “Spanish Barb” -- there never was a breed by that name; it’s an American invention, or possibly a British one.
Phylogenetically, the Barb horse’s origin has been determined to be the same as the Iberian horse’s. The method employed here is mitochondrial DNA sequencing, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed on only through the maternal line. Therefore, it was possible to determine the Barb horse’s origin, because the infusion of Arabian blood was done by breeding Arab stallions to Barb mares; thus the mtDNA of the founder population was passed on and remained unaltered.
Whether any given horse traces back to the original, prehistoric Barb population can therefore be determined by way of mtDNA tests.
SAVING THE BREED?
The World Organization of the Barb Horse was founded in Algeria in 1987 to promote and preserve the breed. At the same time, it is sanctioning the outcrossing with Arabians, ultimately breeding the Barb horse out of existence.
Breeders dedicated to the true Barb horse may still find individuals with mostly Barb characteristics, and a selective breeding effort for these characteristics could reconstitute this breed. The characteristics are basically those of the original Iberian horse. The Barb, by comparison, would be such a horse, but adapted to an arid mountainous country, possessing extra endurance, extra surefootedness and soundness. This goes to show that whoever wants to really reestablish this breed should be able to provide such an environment. One cannot breed real Barb horses on marshland.
Today’s Barbs usually show considerable Arab influence. Barb in traditional garb.
Article copyright HorseShowCentral.com Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos copyright Oelke or Oelke Archive.
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For information regarding the Sorraia horse, the Vale de Zebro Wild Horse Refuge, and the Sorraia Mustang - visit www.sorraia.org
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