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The head of the Arabian horse

The fanatically breeding Bedouin will basically pay attention to just one single and indeed the most important part of the horse: his head!

Carl Raswan

Rua El Bediya (Safeen/Marqueesa)

The German Carl Raswan is regarded a controversial authority on Arabian horses. After World War I he lived with the Bedouins of Arabia for years, mainly with the Rwala. He had a very important part in the last big import of desert-bred Arabian horses to the state owned studs of eastern Europe, bringing such influential sires as Kuhailan Zaid to Babolna and Koheilan Haifi, the sire of Ofir, to Poland. Raswan states in his book “Arabische Pferde”: “The fanatically Bedouin breeder will basically pay attention to just one single and indeed the most important part of a horse: his head.” Because he is speaking only about fanatics, we should set apart all questions about the truth of his statement and first turn to the Bedouin criteria of excellence as handed down by Raswan. He gives us eight features of the head by which a noble Arabian horse can be judged:

  • short gazelle-like head

  • high pronounced forehead (jibha)

  • nasal bone showing convex curve (afnas)

  • broad head between jowls with a curved throat (mitbah)

  • exceptional big eyes

  • wide and thin nostrils which can be dilated exceptionally wide

  • nostrils and lips form a triangle

  • lower lip shorter than upper lip.

Reem El Bediya (Mashour Halim/Rua El Bediya)

But not only Raswan, many other authors have stressed the importance of the head for judgement of the Arabian horse by Bedouin breeders. Major Upton, back in 1875, supports Raswan´s theory of a beautiful head and gives us a very detailed account on his “personal observation of the horse of the Anazah, which people by general consent are considered to have the best in Arabia. They will serve generally for the Arabian horse as a race, but in a marked and decided degree for the horses of the Anazah.” In describing the beauty of the Arabian horse he puts first character. Upton notices the “beautiful balance of power and symmetry displayed in his form, …, which causes him to be so beautiful, so perfect an animal. The head is very beautiful - not only pleasing to the eye in its graceful outline, but beautiful from its grand development of the sensorial organ, and the delicacy of such parts as are more subservient. …It is large above the eyes, small and short from the eyes to the muzzle. … The head of the horse of the Anazah especially tapers very much from the eyes to the muzzle, and the lower jaw does so equally or even in a greater degree to the under lip… The nostril, which is peculiarly long, not round, runs upwards towards the face, and is also set up outwards from the nose like the mouth of a pouch or a sack which has been tied. This is a very beautiful feature, and can hardly be appreciated than by sight; when it expands, it opens both upwards and outwards, and in profile is seen to extend beyond the outline of the nose, and when the animal is excited the head of this description appears to be made up of forehead, eyes, and nostrils. … It is the type however, of the head of the Arabian horse…. The muzzle is particularly fine; the lips long and thin (not fleshy); the upper lip well cut or chiselled; the lower lip small, well formed, compressed, and tense. … The ears are beautifully shaped, pointed, and well placed, and point inwards in a marked and peculiar manner, which is considered a point of great beauty, and a sign of high or pure breeding. … The Jibbah, or forehead, can scarcely be too large or too prominent to please an Arab. … The shape of the Jibbah in which the Arab delights, gives a large brain cavity, adds greatly to the beauty of the head, and gives an expression of great nobility; and thus in this point, as in others of the Keheilan, usefulness and beauty go hand in hand - in him the expressions are synonymous. The Jibbah, or forehead, is somewhat different in the horse and the mare. In the mare it is usually rounder and more decidedly prominent, often strikingly so, and descends in a graceful and easy line to the nasal bones. When a horse has such a forehead he is said by the Arabs to have a Jibbah. … These three features, Jibbah, Mitbeh, and ears of the above description, go along to form a perfect head.” 

Safeen (Ibn Safinaz/Abitibi Madeena) left, his daughter Rua El Bediya (/Marqueesa), and grand-daughter Rania El Bediya (Khuwey El Bediya/Rua El Bediya), middle.

The Anatomy of the Skull


The skeleton of the head is the skull. It contains the brain, the higher sensory organs (for seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting) and parts of the respiratory tract and digestive tract. The skull is composed of several bones. We can distinguish two larger compartments; the cranial cavity containing the brain and the nasal cavity with the nasal caves. The latter also form the skeletal roof of the mouth. The mandibular bone together with the bones forming the nasal cavity are called the facial part of the skull. The formation of the skull differs between species. All plant-eating mammals including the horse have a pronounced facial part containing the grinding teeth. Man on the other hand possesses the biggest cranial part containing his large brain. An x-ray was done by the author of the 17-year-old straight Egyptian stallion Montasar. X-rays mainly show bone structure (white color) and to a certain degree also soft tissue. In contrast, air is displayed in black. Instantly, you notice the difference between the white and bony structure of the cranial part as compared to the black and gray areas of the facial part of the skull. The black areas are the air-filled cavities, i.e. nasal cavity and its side-compartments (frontal cavity, maxillary cavity and others). The air-filled bones reduce the weight of the skull and also enlarge the surface to warm up the respiratory air. Furthermore we see that the pronounced forehead, the jibah, is caused by the enormous size of the frontal cavity. On the other hand, the much discussed concave profile of the head, the so-called dish, does not show up as a bony cavity but is caused by two pronounced structures: the jibah and the convex nasal bone (afnas). This is a very important fact. It clearly shows that by no means head profile like this one hinders air flow and it can therefore not be called degenerative. Interestingly Raswan did not use the word dish. And because of the x-ray findings that there is no dish, but jibah and afnas, it would be appropriate to use these Arabian words instead of the misleading word dish.


The Anatomy of the Skull:


Brain part:

  • Os occipitale (H)

  • Os parietale (SE)

  • Petrosum (ZS)

  • Os frontale (ST)

  • Os temporale (SL)

Facial part:

  • Os nasale (N)

  • Os lacrimale (T)

  • Os zygomaticum (J)

  • Maxilla (O)

  • Os incisivum (Z)

  • Mandibula (U)

Montasar (Madkour/Maymoonah):  photo and x-ray

With age, the head of the Arabian horse gains dryness and beauty. You will also notice that the jibha will enlarge with age. Many horses show a comparatively straight profile at the age of half a year to five years, but then the frontal cavity increases with age. But don´t we find the most pronounced forehead with new-born foals? If we compare new-born foals of different breeds, we see that they all show a more or less pronounced curvature of the forehead. This is true for the Arabian in particular, but also for pony breeds. And even those breeds with a convex nasal profile show this curvature, although the convexity prevails. However with Arabian foals we do not find the afnas, because the bridge of the nose is straight. The new-born foal - still drinking the mare´s milk - shows a relatively large cranial part of the skull. The head seems to look like a doll´s head. Behavioral science has coined the word “baby-pattern” for this picture of the new-born: instinct makes everyone love such a baby. With most breeds of horses this baby pattern can not be found in adult horses, but with the Arabian horse you find it. The selective measures of the breeders have been directed towards such heads with a big jibha - therefore such horses prevail today. In America the so-called “head hunter” describes the breeder who looks for heads such as these, instinctly following his sense of beauty and looking for baby pattern. But did the Bedouin warriors, who gave Raswan the eight features of the head, select their horses by beauty? This is not very likely, but may be true for the famous breeders of Egypt like Abbas Pasha. The Bedouin poets, on the other hand, did have a sense for beauty and made many poems on this subject, be it their women, or animals. 

Just born Reem El Bediya and her mother Rua El Bediya (left) and Majid El Bediya (GWS Mashari/Majidah El Bediya) with three days (right).

The Arabian horse is famous for its intelligence. Klynstra compares the size of the brain in different breeds. Arabian horses have 655 ml compared with 480 ml with Belgian Draft horses and 531 with Trakehner horses. Therefore the Arabian horses also possesses the largest cranial part of the skull, clearly indicated by the x-ray. Klynstra also points out the extreme size of the mandibula and jowl, with the mandibula getting very small towards the incisors. Between the jowls there should be a larger space, big enough for a man´s fit, and wide airways.


The large and fine nostrils can be dilated extremely wide. With loud snorting, the nostrils are totally opened with excitement. The agile part of the nostrils is called nasal trumpet or “false nose” (in German) or nasal diverticle. You only find it with equides. If it is totally opened, the upper edge of the nostril is higher than the nasal line, giving a sight which really recalls a trumpet: the drinkers of the winds, as poets have written.


Anatomic details are used for a morphological classification in judging horses, or one can look for functional items. Naturally both approaches cannot be separated absolutely, because morphology causes function. In the breeding of English Thoroughbreds, the only criterion of selection is speed, a solely functional approach. The typical thoroughbred with all its characteristic features is a race horse. Function implies a characteristic form: the horse´s speed is caused by the morphology of the hind quarters and the big shoulder. Similar, but not always that distinct, we find this union in other breeds of horses like the Icelandic horse or the Warmblood. With the Arabian we handle things differently on our shows. The critical viewer generally notices that type is judged according to beauty or the head´s profile - as if the typical feature of the Arabian horse were its beauty, a purely morphological criterion. If we look upon the original Arabian horse of the Bedouin from a functional point of view, we may see the following picture: an enduring and noble riding horse with an unique man-loving character. “In an unbelievably hard and unalterable environment, in which only the fittest survives, and in the utmost closeness with man, all the features of the Arabian that gained him renown were consolidated in uncounted generations: iron health, hardness, endurance, ability of fast regeneration, fertility, longevity, striking genetic power, gentleness, patience, obedience, attachment to his owner, suspicion against strangers, cleverness, courage, intrepidity” (Schiele). Beauty as a value of its own is thrust in the background here. 

The Arabian horse had a special status with the Bedouins. Countless stories and myths but also trustworthy reports are handed down to us. Schiele writes: “The Bedouins` attitude to their horses ranged between extremes. It spanned from the utmost tenderness, patience and love to pride and the taste of power and control to un-imaginable cruelty and hardness.” The dromedary - making it possible for the Bedouins to live in the desert - has a totally different character compared to the Arabian horse. It is less friendly towards man but on the contrary often stubborn and with an indifferent to negative attitude towards man. The horse on the other hand could only survive in the arid areas of Arabia under the care of man. The close community between Bedouin and his horse was mutual. Man nourished his horse on camel´s milk. The blind confidence of his mare of war meant a big deal of striking power for the Bedouin´s expeditions of war and booty. In the bitterly cold nights the horses warmed the tents of the Bedouins. Such a close relation between man and horse could not be found in any society of the world other than that of the nomads of Arabia. Small wonder Muslims have a religious duty to care for their horses. All these facts can only lead to one conclusion: The horse-breeding Bedouin placed the utmost importance to the nature and character of his horse. The horse was a friend and companion but not an animal of utility like goats and dromedaries. The breeding of horses in the desert was not a science as in the European occident where the exact requirements of certain points of conformation were of importance. No, the Bedouin bred horses intuitively, from an intimate relation to his mare. The Bedouins judged their horses from a totally different point of view than we Europeans do, i.e. not that much by morphologic points. In this context Raswan´s statement quoted at the beginning of this text can be viewed in a totally different light: “The fanatically breeding Bedouin will basically pay attention to just one single and indeed the most important part of the horse: his head!” The author wants to claim that Raswan was right stating this, but wrongly interpreting it with the eyes of an European to build up a catalogue of characteristic features that the Bedouins should never have used in this form! No question that Raswan gives a fitting description of the head of the Arabian horse, but it is only one version among many possible ones. There is evidence from the historical pictures and photographs but also of the variety of different heads you find in the Egyptian state stud of El Zahraa alone. No one should be astonished that the importance of character for the Bedouin breeder implies the particular beauty of the Arabian horse as a characteristic feature of the breed.

Rua El Bediya (above)  and her daughter Reem El Bediya.

What did the Bedouin breeder look for in the head of his horse? We will never know this exactly, the less so since it was not morphological features. But luckily the modern breeding of Arabian horses is totally in the tradition of the Bedouins in one point: even today the Arabian horse often lives in a very close contact to man. More than any other breed it seeks contact. They know how to speak to that human they are intimate with, in their own ways. Thus through the communication of the Arabian four-legged with the human two-legged, the head of the Arabian horse becomes the essential part of its body, because it reveals its essence. Let us learn to read in the noble faces of our horses just like the fanatical Bedouin breeders could! For this purpose we must live with our horses and win them as friends through our daily association with them. Let us make our breeding decisions from this closeness to god´s creatures, not only because of recent results in shows or any trends in the scene. We may find out how the following statement by Raswan will become reality in our own lives as breeders: “Fanatics can read in the head of the noble Arabians more than their good attributes: they read their history and origin.” …and also their future which lies in our hands with the coming generations of their descendants. (First published in Araber Journal.)


Beauty is, as we know, dependent on the eye of the observer. Every enthusiast of the Bedouin horse may have the picture of his ideal in mind, most often of a mare or a stallion that had impressed him extraordinarily. In Germany one stallion was responsible for the picture of an ideal Arab in a very special way and influenced a whole generation of breeders: Ghazal by Nazeer and Bukra. His aura even outlived his untimely death. WH Justice may be an ideal example of our days, a show and breeding stallion that takes your breath away. For the author Montasar (Madkour/Maymoonah) became such a horse from first sight. Of mares there come into his mind two very different representatives, Tamria II (Ansata Halim Shah/211 Zohair) from Babolna, later owned by Dr. Wettke, and his first own mare, Marqueesa (Ansata Amir Zaman/Maareesa) from the stud of the Seidlitz family. The ideal head of Raswan´s and Upton´s description is more often found in the Arabian horses of today than in the past, if judged from the historical photos of Arabian horses. Upton describes some outstanding individual horses among the Anazah and thereby explicitly mentions both horses with ideal heads and those without. The ideal and the general appearance of the breed differed, and, in the author´s opinion, there has never existed a uniform picture of the Arabian breed regarding the morphological form of the head. Still the head of the Arabian has its special attributes and can be distinguished from other breeds. But the seize of the forehead and the profile of the head are not by itself the criteria of excellence. The head is more than its profile or the seize of the jibha. As there is more than one type of Arabian head, one cannot give the ideal head for the breed, but only one´s own personal preferences. We all look for refinement and noblesse in the Arabian head. Three parts of the head, apart from the shape of its profile, seem most important in this aspect: eyes, ears and muzzle. And three attributes: dryness, balance of all parts, and expression. The last should be different for stallions and mares: masculinity for the first and femininity or motherly expression for the last. The head must also be seen in relation to the whole horse. We finish this excursion on the head with an observation from the veterinarian eye. We find, probably in consequence of selection for a more pronounced jibha, more and more horses with over-bite, i.e. a mandibula too short, so that the upper incisor teeth sometimes have only a part contact with the lower incisors, or even worse, none at all. This most often goes along with the same problem for the molar teeth. If there is no contact of the incisor teeth at all, this can be corrected through a complicated surgery, or a life long correction of the teeth, both incisors and molar, has to be done. As breeders we should not forget the at least part hereditary nature of this malformation. At this point we also should note that many Arabians contract their lower lip back and also their under-jaw when excited. This habit should not be confused with over-bite, but it enforces the small appearance of the lower lip. While relaxed, the lips will take another form, more hanging down. 

Let us finish this chapter on the beauty of the head with the words of Lady Wentworth reminding us: “Though a really bad head is a fatal defect, people must not be carried away by the idea that a beautiful head alone makes a good Arab. It is a hall mark of blood but may survive the complete degeneration of the rest of the animal, and however pure the blood a degenerative individual should not be used for breeding."


Two matriarchs at the Egyptian state stud El Zahraa in the 1950s and 60s: Bukra (Shaloul/Bint Sabah) left, and Maisa (Shahloul/Zareefa), photos Ekkehard Frielinghaus.



Another catchword in the Arabian breed is the word type and it is in our days closely related to the head of the Arabian horse. In reference to the book Genesis of the Bible the expression archetype was in wide use in former times, but is rarely used today. The archetype means the original, the “unaltered” specimen. Type is attested “supreme value” by Lady Wentworth, and she devotes a whole chapter of her book to it, but looses track in her detailed description of the ideal Arabian horse. Arabian horses are today advertised as having exotic type. Type for many breeders is the non plus ultra that they want to achieve in their breeding ambitions. On shows there is one very important category judged called type. In cases of two horses receiving equal points, the common rule is, that the one animal is placed first which has the better result in the category of type. Type is in every breeder´s mouth and mind. What does type mean in the breeding of the Arabian horse?


Type, so does it seem to the author, is mainly used synonymous with beauty or the form of the head and especially the size and prominence of the jibha. But what is type? Type as a model, like in automobiles, does not do justice to the living creatures of Arabian horses. If we go back in time to the classical Arabic poetry we find there already the ideal Arabian horse, expressed in the poetic verses of Imru ul-Qais and others. These were “aimed at a constructed ideal image: the type beyond the individual, the archetype beyond the type, and the symbol beyond the archetype” (Stetkevych). It is not easy to give a simple definition of type, and the author could not find any in his books on horses and Arabian horses.


Type is an ideal image, an image or reflection of something more than just an individual horse. Type may be described as a symbol for the whole race of Arabian horses. Type, or in another word, the essence of the Arabian horse, is more than the sum of all parts. It is the expression of a special quality where all parts work together to create a special effect in the spectator. There must take place an interaction between the object and the spectator. A “typey” horse touches you, a horse of ordinary type does not. Type is like something whole, complete. Nothing is missed, although a detail may be missing. Type also encompasses the whole expression of the living being, it may also be called aura, and includes much more than only a beautiful picture. Type encompasses not only beauty, but also character, strength and will for performance. Thus it always depends on the interest and the eye of the breeder or judge, or whoever looks at a horse, what his interpretation of type is. Beauty stands out in the Arabian horse, as it is a beautiful animal, and for many the epitome of a beautiful horse. Interestingly we find a sort of “universal consent” of many breeders of renown worldwide who strive for a similar ideal of the Arabian horse, already described by Upton in 1875 in his observations of the Anazah horses in northern Arabia (see above), and since repeated by many authorities of the breed. This beauty ideal of a so called classical Arabian, may it be of western origin or not, includes the following aspects: Large and expressive eyes, pointed and base narrow ears, a fine muzzle and large nostril


NK Nadeer (NK Hafid Jamil/NK Nadirah), left, head sire of Dr. Nagel´s Katharinenhof and Rabdan Alawsaj (Jellaby Sultan/Rabda Salha) at Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al Khalifah in Bahrain. Two rather different Arabian stallions, a modern Straight Egyptian type and an old style Bedouin horse.

Large and expressive eyes, pointed and base narrow ears, a fine muzzle and large nostrils, long lips, a pronounced jibah, a fine mitbah (throat), arched neck, a tail carried high, and a look at me attitude. Absolutely the same aspects that Upton gave already in 1875. Lady Wentworth lists “three chief points valued above all - the head, curve of the neck and high carriage of tail”, and cites a poem by Abu Zeyd, showing the antiquity of those attributes of the Arabian horse:


The grey mare the renowned in the world there is none like her…

Spare is her head and lean.

Her ears pricked close together …

Her neck curved like a palm branch,

Her forehead a lamp lighted, …


An ideal of beauty, that the author has also seen in Warmblood horses in Germany, except, maybe, for the pronounced forehead and the extreme high carriage of the tail. But let us remember that this sort of “type” is only one out of many different expressions that all belong to the Arabian breed. Because of the historical diversity of the Arabian breed, there is more than one variation of type of the Arabian horse. Raswan´s three types, Kuhailan, Saqlawi and Muniqui, are a sort of simplification, but can be used as a guiding line in categorization (see later). Finally, type must always consider the sex of the horse, as a stallion should express his type somehow different than a mare. Feminine expression and masculinity differ. The beauty of a broodmare and the beauty of a sire have many aspects in common, but still should be clearly distinguished. The trend of the last decades to favor stallions with a sort of feminine expression of the Saqlawi type of Raswan, setting aside the bold and masculine appearance of the Kuhailan type, needs some counterbalance. Hardness and stamina, will to perform and also the man-loving character of the Arabian should not be forgotten when judging an Arabian horse regarding its type.


Asfour Al Waab (Barraq Al Alia/Sara Al Jazira), left and Adham Saqr (Imperial Madori/Ameera Saqr), two Straight Egyptian show and breeding stallions.

Tail Carriage and arched Neck


The Arabian horse can be discerned from other breeds already form a large distance. That is partly due to his overall picture of nobility and to his fine head, but maybe the most remarkable trait is the tail that is carried high (Glubb). The ideal is an arch-like tail carriage that is always seen when the horse moves or shows excitement. There are also some Arabians that do not carry their tail high, and also some which carry it to the side. Some Arabians will flex their tails that much that it touches the croup when they are very excited or run free. An observation Upton already made in 1875 with the Anazeh. It is interesting to note that also horses of different breeds carry their tails, but the author has never seen one doing it the same extreme way the Arabian sometimes do. A tail carried high is an indication for the high spirit of the horse, for its excitement, or in stallions, their pride. Tail carriage is inherited, as is its straightness or flexion to the side. The latter may also be due to some problems in the back. In dressage competition the high tail carriage is not seen with favor as it is regarded indicative for tension in the horse by the judges. But in the Arabian horse the tail carriage is one of the most important characteristics of the breed and hopefully the judges in dressage competition will learn to forgive it, when they will see more Arabians in competition. Glubb, as well as Wentworth and many others, have a third observation and characteristic to offer: the arched neck. This also is, like the tail carried high, a result of the temperament of the horse, but also requires some anatomical foundations. Another observation can be made: Many Arabians run with their noses high and a certain amount of under-neck. For a riding horse this is not ideal, as the back cannot rise to carry the weight of the rider. Those horses have to be trained to let their heads come down. This aspect may also be considered a typical Arabian characteristic, but if not corrected will disqualify such a horse to be a smooth riding horse. The three main characteristics of the Arabian breed discussed so far, head, tail-carriage and neck-carriage, do not make a complete horse. The Arabian horse is first of all a riding horse and we will look on the points that are required for this purpose in the veterinary section of the science chapter. 


Two full brothers: Khuwey El Bediya (left) and Ghazal El Bediya (Montasar/Marqueesa), photos Friederike Wilm.

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