“You can always tell an Arabian horse,” says Carolyn McDonald, who watches beneath a paloverde tree as four chocolate brown Arabians spin their young riders, Western-style, around her Scottsdale corral. “I’ve trained horses for about 20 years,” she says. “Arabians . . . just stand out.
They’re high-spirited. There’s a presence to them. You see a bunch of horses, the Arabian will want to stand out.” She chuckles. “They’re showoffs.”
Arabians have plenty to show off. Compact and thickly muscled, they tuck their chiseled, chess-piece heads and sail their student riders around the oval at Cactus Rose Ranch with barely a tremor. McDonald is preparing 15 riders for the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show, which starts today. And the horses? “They’re gamers,” she says. “They already know it’s crunch time.”
This year, the Arabian horse show will draw 2,000 horses and thousands of equine enthusiasts to the stables and grandstands of WestWorld. Riders will engage in more than 600 competitive events. Shoppers will stroll the cuisine court and the exhibit booths, where vendors hawk Western wear, jewelry, fine art and equestrian trinkets. The 11-day show invites experts to savor, and newcomers to appreciate, the world’s most storied and versatile breed of horse.
“Eyes up, now,” McDonald calls. “Check his hooves, and then bring him around.” The children draw up regally as they stand beside their mounts. One by one, these 8- and 10-year-olds walk their Arabians toward a pair of orange cones. They’re practicing for the showmanship competition, where riders demonstrate dexterity and flair in horse handling. “High-spirited” may seem like a code word for “moody and difficult horse,” but each horse patiently follows its young handler’s lead, turning, pivoting, trotting away at the click of a tongue.
“Arabians are easy to teach. They can do almost anything,” McDonald says, “and you see how comfortable they are with children.”
Their intelligence and versatility explains the horse show’s broad slate of competitive events. “There’s jumping and riding: Western style and English pleasure,” McDonald says. Western emphasizes a smooth, fluid gait, while English pleasure harkens back to the lords and ladies of yesteryear, when a showy, highstepping steed proclaimed its owner’s social class. “There’s also reining, cutting and driving — the skills horses use working cattle — and the costume competitions.”
The horses will compete more than three dozen competitive categories. “If you’re new to horses, the first Friday and Saturday evenings, when they have the Western riding, English pleasure riding and the costume competitions give you a real show quality,” she says.
McKenna Marshall of Scottsdale, 12, and her mount, La Paz V, are draped under brocaded cloth as they walk the corral in rehearsal for the costume competition. “A little faster, McKenna!” McDonald calls. As she brings the horse to a canter, the wind billows the folds of jeweled fabric and the tiny tasseled rows, and the pair appear to fly.
It recalls the pedigree of a horse that was the pride of Bedouin tribes on the Saudi sands more than 2,500 years ago. Their reputation for strength, endurance and intelligence has made them cherished around the world. “They’re commonly regarded as the oldest breed of horse,” says Taryl Pearson, executive director of the Arabian Horse Association of America. “Thoroughbred and quarter horses all descend from Arabians.”
The Scottsdale show seems almost a recent development by comparison. But the event — which began with 50 horses at the Arizona Biltmore — celebrates its 51st year as a staple of Scottsdale’s culture a focal point for horse lovers everywhere. “It’s the first major show of the year, and buyers come from all over the world to buy breeding stock,” Pearson says.
But the show still offers a lot for those who just love horses. “We’re very spectatorfriendly,” she says. “People can come for just one or two days, see an array of different competitions and experience the beauty and diversity of this breed.”
McDonald has no doubts that her four-legged showoffs at Cactus Rose Ranch will give the grandstands a lot to see. “They feel the extra work we’ve been putting in, and they know something big is coming up,” she says. “When we back that trailer up, to take them over to WestWorld, they’ll be excited to go.”
Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show
When: Today through Feb. 26.
Where: WestWorld, 16601 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale
Cost: $10 at Ticketmaster, (480) 784-4444. Kids 12 and younger free.
Information: (480) 515-1500 or www.scottsdaleshow.com.