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Arabian and Half-Arabian Reining Horses

Written by Stephanie Duquette on .

mister maserati 1.130
Mister Maserati and Randy Paul (Rein Dance Equine Photo)
The issue of breed bias is not easily sidestepped where Arabians are concerned, so let’s face it head-on. In performance horse circles, AQHA- and APHA-registered horses reign – and rein – supreme. The endurance, spirit and noble tail carriage of an Arabian, highly prized by the ancient Bedouins, are more likely to be met with disparaging remarks if the breed is mentioned in the company of some conventionally minded reiners, cutters and cow horse types.

But the secret is out: Arabian and Half-Arabian reiners run at some serious futurity money. In 2005, the Arabian Reining Horse Association (ARHA), an affiliate of the National Reining Horse Association, began offering a futurity each February in Scottsdale, Ariz., for 4- and 5-year-olds. It’s a sweet payout, with a total of $130,000 added money – $50,000 in the purebred and $80,000 in the Half-Arabian futurity.

As a result, more breeders are focused on raising Arabians and Half-Arabians specifically for reining, and some of the top riders in the NRHA have warmed up to the notion of showing them.

“I think it’s word of mouth. It’s kind of spread that, hey, you’re not going to get some disease if you ride an Arab,” smiled Matt Mills, an NRHA Top 20 Open rider. “For so long – I’m guilty of it too – you looked at that Arab breed and said, ‘oh, those horses aren’t worth the time to put into it.’ You felt like they were the outcasts, so to speak. But take a look at that half-Arab futurity and what it pays! It’s kind of hard to laugh at that.”

Another NRHA Top 20 professional, Brian Welman, Hastings, Minn., has been laughing all the way to the bank. His winnings at the ARHA Futurity from 2006 through 2009 total $131,346.

“I love going to Scottsdale, for one, because it’s a break for me to get out of the winter up here in Minnesota,” Welman said. “It’s been good to me. I’ve won a lot of money there.”

Welman has been the ARHA Arabian Futurity Open Champion for three years in a row, winning his first title in 2007 on Minding Ps And Qs (Hesa Zee x Sarabask), owned by Richard Ames. Then, in 2008, he won both the Arabian and Half-Arabian Futurity titles for Ames, claiming the purebred championship on Fyre In The Skye, a full sister to Minding Ps And Qs; and taking the Half-Arabian prize on TR Texas T (Ima Dun Kid x Portena), sired by a son of Hollywood Dun It. Welman came back again this year with Fyre In The Skye, still futurity-eligible as a 5-year-old, to win a second consecutive Arabian Futurity title.

“The [Arabian reiners] I’ve had, knock on wood, seem to be pretty nice horses. They can stop and turn, and do all the stuff,” Welman said. “The competition in the purebred class is getting better.”

However, that wasn’t always the case, according to many who have been involved with Arabian reining since the early days. Robb Walther, Sherwood, Ore., was one of the founders of the ARHA. He’s also an amateur competitor and owner of several top-notch Arabian and Half-Arabian show horses, including the 2009 half-Arabian Futurity Champion, Tucks For Bucks (Zee Mega Bucks x Tucker E Chex). Shown by John O’Hara, Tucks For Bucks won the $36,000 Championship check by marking a 219.5 in a runoff with Tracer Gilson and Sugarplum Starlight (Plum Masterful x Sonjia). The runoff broke their first-place finals tie of 218.5.

“This year, the half Arab reining futurity that our horse won, could have legitimately been won by any of the 10 horses in the finals. When that futurity first started five years ago, there were three or four really good ones, and then it was kind of everybody else. Today, it was 10 good horses in the finals. Any one of them could have won, and that’s a direct result of us bringing NRHA into it,” Walther said.

Raising the bar
Approximately 10 years ago, frustrated by the desire for more prize money and tougher competition, Walther got involved in the effort to establish the ARHA.

“I felt like [Arabian reining] needed to become better, more legitimate. The competition needed to be better, we needed to grow the sport, and that’s where I became involved with the NRHA,” he explained.

Armed with a formal business plan and plenty of enthusiasm, Walther flew from Oregon to Oklahoma City to meet with NRHA Executive Director Dan Wall.

“At that time, he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. But he laid out some things we needed to do as a starting point,” Walther recalled.

Ultimately, the fledgling ARHA group secured its affiliate status. It was a crucial development. As an NRHA affiliate, every run at an ARHA event must be marked by an NRHA judge, according to NRHA rules, and the ARHA futurity operates under a five-judge system. The standards –and expectations – had officially been elevated.

“It brought a feeling of legitimacy. We weren’t just something separate. My thing is, reining is reining, no matter what the breed,” Walther explained. “We are never going to get better as a breed in reining if we use a lower standard. What NRHA brought to the Arabs was, it gave us that standard to go to, to show us what we need to do.”

The NRHA-approved status automatically enhanced the appeal of the Arabian and Half-Arabian futurities at Scottsdale. Established in 1955, the Scottsdale show is the Arabian world’s signature event, drawing approximately 2,400 horses and legions of spectators from both inside and outside the horse industry. The newfound ARHA was immediately set up for success.

“The club itself has grown a lot. We’re either the first- or second-largest club in the Arabian Horse Association. Last year, we had over 300 members,” said Eleanor Hamilton, ARHA President and owner of Hesa Zee (Xenophonn x Something Special), sire of multiple reining champions, including the winners of the 2007, 2008 and 2009 ARHA Purebred Futurity Open.

With the NRHA’s blessing, a growing number of willing competitors and an enormous stage at Scottsdale for their event, the ARHA was poised to explode in popularity – and the one missing ingredient was about to be added.

Show ’em the money
Enter Tom Redmond, who defies easy description. With a down-to-earth manner and quick, slightly zany wit, he deflects a question about his age by claiming to be “somewhere between 35 and a Wal-Mart greeter,” then willingly reveals in the same breath that he’s 76. He has nine children over two marriages – the oldest is 51 and the youngest are 3-year-old triplet girls, adopted from China as infants. He also has 18 grandchildren.

Redmond grew up in the Arabian show horse world and has raised horses for 40 years. In business, he’s enjoyed success with shampoo, as owner of the Aussie hair products company from 1980 to 1998. He now promotes two new lines: Onesta, found in salons, and Renpure, sold in retail stores. Redmond’s Wolf Springs Ranch, with properties in Colorado, California and Arizona, raises Arabian and Half-Arabian reining horses.

Redmond and his family maintain a strong connection to the Arabian industry. Redmond still competes in reining, and granddaughters Anna, Eva and Stephanie have lengthy show resumes. Even the triplets have embarked on their show careers, competing in lead-line class. Painfully aware that Arabian reining was viewed as “a stepchild to the whole industry,” Redmond set out to elevate its status by supporting the ARHA Futurity.

“The only way to attract attention, really, was money. So I put $50,000 into the Futurity for the Half-Arab and $25,000 into the Futurity for the purebred,” Redmond explained. He also recruited two more key sponsors: fellow Arabian enthusiasts Richard Ames and Joe Betten.

Added Walther, “we have to give a lot of the credit to Tom Redmond. He put a lot of money into it; committed a lot, [along with] Dick Ames and Joe Betten. Those three put up the majority of the money … that’s what kick-started it.”

The first ARHA futurity in 2005 was for Half-Arabians only. The $40,000 Championship check went to Scottsdale trainer Crystal McNutt-Brock, riding Diamonds A Shining (Like A Diamond [PT] x Hadiya Supreme), owned by Betten, one of the event’s major supporters.

Now, lured by the possibility of bigger paychecks, trainers who used to stay strictly within the boundaries of the NRHA show pen are branching out into Arabians.

“The money draws more competition – fantastic. The more open trainers we get to come and compete with us – fantastic, because it gets us all to try and be better, which has happened. When you look at our horses 20 or 30 years ago, they don’t perform anything like they’re performing now,” noted Debbie Compilli, Danville, Calif., a former trainer and competitor with decades of history with Arabian reiners, cutters and cow horses. “We’ve always tried to get our horses to behave like the Quarter Horses because that’s what we wanted them to do. That’s what our goal has been. I think with all of these other influences, we’re getting closer. The tougher the competition, it makes everybody else have to ride up to that.”

While Redmond doesn’t expect Arabian and Half-Arabian reining horses to ever be as competitive as Quarter Horses on the NRHA level, he appreciates reiners of any breed and remains committed to the Arabian world.

“I love Arabians. They’re a different horse than the Quarter Horse. I love the Quarter Horses too. I love both breeds. But I grew up in the Arab industry. All my friends are there. If I go to a Quarter Horse show, I really don’t know that many people. It’s just not my background, my backyard,” he explained.

Because Arabians lag so far behind Quarter Horses as far as specialized reining bloodlines, Mills agrees with Redmond’s assessment that Arabians won’t attain equal success at the NRHA level, at least in the immediate future.

“I think it’s going to be hard for that to happen. There’s one or two Arabs out there right now that in an open class or a derby-type class, could be competitive at an NRHA event,” Mills said. “It’s going to be extremely hard to duplicate what we’ve got in the Quarter Horse world because those things are so finely tuned, we’ve been breeding them so long. But [Arabians] are catching up.”

While the traditional rear chassis of an Arabian is ideal for cantering tirelessly over long distances, it’s not the best for squatting down in a sliding stop or in front of a cow. Because form follows function, many successful Arabian reiners have a more rounded hindquarter and lower hock-set, compared with the flat croup and long rear cannons more typical of the breed.

“A lot of my purebred [Arabian] reiners, if I just show somebody some pictures, or they see one standing in the stall, they’ll say they didn’t even know it was a purebred. [They are] a little stockier, stouter, I try to find the ones that look more Quarter Horse-y than Arabian,” Welman explained.

Breeding Arabian reiners
A legend about the genesis of the Arabian breed describes how the prophet Mohammed turned his herd of thirsty horses loose in the desert. As they galloped toward an oasis, he sounded his war horn, commanding the parched horses to come back before they reached the water. Out of the whole group, only five mares obeyed, and they became the foundation for the Arabian breed’s five original bloodlines.

The ancient Arabian fulfilled several duties: war horse, basic mode of transportation, indicator of material wealth, cherished companion. The strict, selective breeding practices of the Bedouin tribes showed their unwavering dedication to the purity of their horses’ pedigrees. The result: a modern horse which very closely resembles its desert ancestors.

Though its basic characteristics remain unchanged – beautiful head, short back, arched neck, spirit and stamina – today’s Arabian is specialized for success in different disciplines: halter, pleasure, endurance and, increasingly, reining.

Redmond noted that when he made the ARHA Futurity richer, more people wanted to play. But it wasn’t always easy to find a competitive Arabian or Half-Arabian reining prospect.

“In the Quarter Horse industry, which is so far ahead of us, they have a lot of people who breed reiners. But in the Arab industry, you don’t have a lot,” he observed.

In the past, an Arabian was likely end up in a reining program by default, because it wasn’t good at anything else.

“Arabian reiners used to be, predominantly, Western horses they couldn’t get to go slow,” Walther said.

Now, in the quest for championships, breeders are deliberately, and successfully, crossing Arabians with some of the best reining bloodlines in the Quarter Horse world.

“I’ve got half-Arabs by Gunner and Custom Crome,” Welman said. “There was a Wimpys Little Step that was shown in the half-Arab futurity this year. There have been a lot of [Hollywood] Dun It half-Arabs that have been really nice horses.”

Experienced breeders like ARHA President Eleanor Hamilton insist that it requires careful matchmaking to produce a champion.

“In the beginning, people felt that if they had an Arab mare and bred to a Quarter Horse stud, they were in the winner’s circle, but it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “As far as the Half-Arabian reiners, you have all the Quarter Horse bloodlines that are known reining bloodlines to cross with. On the Arab side, that’s all just being developed.”

Some long-established programs such as Varian Arabians in Arroyo Grande, Calif., and Al-Marah Arabian Horses in Tucson, Ariz., have been producing Western performance winners for years. Another notable, consistently producing bloodline comes from the Polish-bred Xenophonn (Bolero x Fairviews Kamal), the sire of Hamilton’s Arabian stallion, Hesa Zee.

The Doc Bar of Arabians
Foaled in 1972, Xenophonn was a six-time national champion and reserve champion Arabian cutting horse. He is the leading sire of performance Arabians. More than 25 of his offspring have been national champions, and since 1982, 87 of his foals have earned a combined 5,137 points at Arabian Horse Association shows in nearly every discipline – primarily cutting, cow horse and reining. Tom Miller of Miller Arabians, Red Bluff, Calif., owned, trained and showed Xenophonn for most of his life.

“The history [of Xenophonn] kind of speaks for itself. His registered name was Xenophonn, but we called him ‘Zee.’ All of the foals had the ‘Zee’ in the name,” Miller said.

More than once in his show career, the chromed-out bay with the killer cow sense was mistaken for a Quarter Horse, and stamped his offspring with the same look.

“He was built a whole lot like a Quarter Horse. A lot of his foals, we showed open and Arab. They’d say, ‘that’s not an Arab, that’s a Doc Bar!’ They kind of worked the style and looked the part. They [cutting judges] sure didn’t look down on [Xenophonn] in the sense, he worked the style they were looking for,” Miller said.

Xenophonn’s Polish Arabian bloodlines are well known for producing physically talented horses that excel in performance. Unlike many Arabians, Xenophonn naturally worked low to the ground.

“A lot of Arabs are pretty upright and they don’t know how to drop down. He had more of that, the drop down in front, than a lot of Arabs have,” confirmed Compilli, who has seen Xenophonn in action. “The Polish base seems to be, across the board, the most athletic part of the Arabian breed. The Polish are a very strong physical horse, probably a little more muscly than the other strains, a little more physically built for this kind of work.”

Trainer Russ Brown was the first to introduce Xenophonn horses to the world of reining. Brown operates Diamond B Training Stables in Newberg, Ore., with his wife, Mary Jane, a respected Arabian pleasure horse trainer, judge and past ARHA president.

Brown bought Hesa Zee from the Millers, trained him as a reiner and showed him to the 1993 Scottsdale Open Championship, 1995 Canadian Reserve National Championship and 1995 U.S. Top 10 in reining. At the height of his career, “Hesa” caught the eye of Hamilton’s trainer, Rod Matthiesen, who thought the stallion would be a suitable amateur show horse and breeding stallion for her. Hamilton purchased the stallion from Brown 14 years ago, at the Canadian Nationals. Besides using Hesa Zee as a cornerstone of her breeding program, Hamilton continued to show him herself in reining, and the pair also achieved a National Top 5 in Amateur Western Pleasure.

“Brian Welman has won the purebred Futurity three years in a row. All three winners are sired by my stallion,” Hamilton said. “We’ve been very, very fortunate to have one that could win himself, and produce those that can win.”

The Browns stand another stallion, Muscati (Muscat x Bint Jurneeka), owned by Mary Jane Brown and her mother, Jane Schroeder. Muscati is a half-brother to MHR Muscateal (Muscat x MHR Princess Bask), trained and shown to multiple reining championships by NRHA Futurity Open Champion John Slack.

Muscati’s first offspring to succeed in reining is a 2000 gelding named Mister Maserati, nicknamed “Monkey” for his busy, playful personality. He is owned by Hemet, Calif., veterinarian Lois Hild and her daughter, Julia. In 2008, Monkey was the top earner in the Arabian Horse Association (AHA) Sweepstakes, a program similar to the AQHA Incentive Fund, earning money for his owners and his breeder, Jane Schroeder. Monkey carried Julia to several prestigious Amateur reining titles, and continues to make a mark in Open competition under the guidance of trainer Tanya Jenkins, an NRHA Top 20 rider, multiple NRHA Futurity Open finalist and NRHA Futurity Intermediate Open Champion.

“Monkey is a truly exceptional Arabian,” Jenkins said. “He’s better-minded than a lot of Quarter Horses.”

Added Hild: “I think Julia said it best. She said, ‘he’s just a happy horse!’ He has a fantastic attitude, and he’s never grumpy.”

Jenkins and Monkey have been undefeated in Arabian Open reining since February 2008, winning all go-rounds and all finals at Scottsdale, the U.S. Nationals and several other prestigious breed competitions. Since he’s won nearly every major title in reining, Monkey is now branching out into Arabian cow horse competition. He made his show debut at Scottsdale this year, with limited schooling on cattle. In the saddle was Jenkins’ friend, NRHA Futurity Open Champion and Million Dollar Rider Randy Paul. The pair won the go-round and ended up fourth in the working cow horse finals.

“When Randy agreed to show him, it was pretty special,” said Jenkins, who introduced Monkey to cattle for the first time at Paul’s place, before the Scottsdale show. “He was surprised that the horse had that much cow within a short time, as I was. I didn’t think he would catch on to it that quick, but he did.”

At the 2009 Arabian U.S. Nationals, Oct. 23-31 in Tulsa, Okla., Jenkins and Monkey will compete in reining and working cow horse.

“We’re hoping to add another national title to his long list!” she said.

Adjusting the program
Trainers agree that teaching the reining maneuvers to an Arabian requires a different approach than teaching them to a Quarter Horse.

“It takes a lot of patience. A lot of people, with the Arabians, they don’t take that time to really show them how to do things,” Jenkins observed. “I just feel that a lot of the Quarter Horse trainers, they think, ‘Arabians, eeeww!’ I think there’s a lot of talent in the Arabians, a lot of money to be won, but to me, you’ve got to have the right person matched with the right horse.”

The breed futurity is geared toward 4- and 5-year-olds because Arabians are slower to develop, both physically and mentally, than their Quarter Horse counterparts. Although an Arabian may take longer to get going, they typically enjoy more useful years.

“They live longer. Everything is longer than the Quarter Horses,” said Eleanor Hamilton. Her stallion, Hesa Zee, is living proof: still rideable, healthy and fertile at age 21.

“I think it would be a mistake to try to push an Arab to show as a 3-year-old,” declared Mills. “You have to go slow with these guys. Most of them don’t take a lot of pressure very well. You have to make sure they really understand what you’re asking them to do. Training-wise, it’s been fun challenge for me. I think that my training style kind of fits these Arabs. I don’t really try to force anything on the horse. I really prefer if the horse understands what its job is,” he said.

Arabians are universally described as very sensitive. Sherry Wayne, a Greenville, S.C., non pro, has extensive history with both Quarter Horse and Arabian reiners. She showed Arabians for 20 years and was one of the first riders to succeed with them in NRHA competition.

“The Arabians, overall, are a lot lighter. Some of the Quarter Horses I’ve been on, you’ve got to use rock grinders or whatever to get them to do it. Almost all the [Arabian] horses I show, I didn’t even need spurs. They’re real responsive off your leg. The Arabs I had were extremely that way, and they learn really, really fast,” Wayne said.

Better all the time
The stopping photos of Wayne’s stallion over the course of his show career tell a story of evolving styles.

“If you look at my 1989 pictures, versus the length of time that I showed Tspark, in the original pictures the horses’ heads were up and they were a little stiff in the front. Then, we got where they had more and more rounded backs. His style evolved as we figured out how to make the horses do all this better,” she explained.

Attitudes are changing in a similar way. The stereotypes of high-headed, high-tailed, flighty horses are giving way to the reality – Arabians and Half-Arabians bred for talent and disposition, and able to plus the reining maneuvers under the most critical of NRHA judges.

“The quality of the horseflesh is getting better and better. We’re seeing the result of people breeding Arabs to be just reining horses. Especially in the half-Arab realm, we’re seeing that get better and better,” Walther said. “I don’t think we’ve arrived; I think we’re at the beginning of the process, and it’s going to keep getting better.”