They Drink the Wind

Famed for their “floating-on-air” gaits, Arabian horses run in 100-mile races and ask for more

"True to the legends of her breed, Beaulina does not seem to be floating on air so much as incarnating its currents and curves," writes Jennifer Lee Carrell about her first experiences riding an Arabian horse. "This, I think, is what it is to ride Pegasus, or to be a centaur; for a few moments I, too, am drinking the wind."

Arabians look as different from other horses as fairy-tale princes and princesses look from peasants. They hold their tails high and arch their necks in swanlike curves. Their heads are finely chiseled and their faces dished; widely spaced cheekbones, sometimes called jowls, sweep into a muzzle said to be delicate enough to drink from a teacup. For all its aristocratic beauty, however, the breed's form has pragmatic roots. The arched throat and the widely spaced cheekbones make room for a large, loosely slung windpipe. The hold of the head and neck, often humanized as "proud," tilts the whole apparatus at a prime angle for easy air exchange: they really are, as legend says, "drinkers of the wind."

Admirers have been crafting legends for centuries about the Arabian, which is thought to be the oldest recognized breed. All Thoroughbreds, in fact, trace their lineage back to three stallions, all or part Arabian, that were brought out of the desert and shipped to England in the 17th and 18th centuries. But it was the desert that turned the Arabian into the unparalleled endurance runner it is today. In the traditional Bedouin world, a single purebred mare could be worth an entire herd of camels—but the horses were also part of a hard-working, hard-fighting nomad family. For months, they might be fed on nothing but camel's milk and crushed dates, enduring forced marches over burning, barren landscapes, only to be asked to summon the courage and energy to race into battle. "The greatest breeder of all time was a guy named Survival of the Fittest," says Ruth McCormick Tankersley, owner of Al-Marah Arabians, one of the world's largest individually owned Arabian horse farms.

At Al-Marah, located in the desert of Tucson, Arizona, halfway around the globe from the sands of Arabia, author Jennifer Lee Carrell learns in a single afternoon what makes Arabians different from all other horses: "There is a clean rush of air in my face, and beneath me, the mare's smooth, undulating rise and fall might as well be the beating of huge shining wings skimming low over the sea."

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