Developed on the Barbary Coast of North Africa, the Barb is a desert horse with great hardiness and stamina. Due to the amount of cross-breeding, it is difficult to find a purebred Barb today. The Barb generally possesses a fiery temperament and an atypical sport-horse conformation, but nevertheless has had an incredible impact on today's modern breeds.
There is considerable controversy over whether the Barb and Arabian horses share a common ancestor or if the Arabian was a predecessor of the Barb. It is possible that a native horse of the region was influenced by the crossing of multiple "oriental" breeds, including the Arabian horse, Turkmenian or Akhal-Teke, Caspian horse, with Iberian horses brought back from Europe by the Moorish invaders after they conquered southern Spain. Today there are several varieties of Barb, including the Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian.
When imported to Europe, they were sometimes mistaken for Arabians, even though they have distinctly different characteristics, in part because their handlers were northern African Islam who spoke Arabic. The Godolphin Arabian, which was one of the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed, was actually an Arabian stallion, but, due to his Moroccan origins, was sometimes called the Godolphin Barb.
The Barb is now bred primarily in Morocco, Algeria, Spain and southern France, although, due to difficult economic times in its homeland, the number of pure-bred Barbs is decreasing. The World Organization of the Barb Horse, founded in Algeria in 1987, was formed to promote and preserve the breed. However, due to political situations, it is difficult to say how much of an increase in numbers or purity the breed will have.
Although it is unlikely that the breed's true origins will ever be revealed, what is certain is that the Barb has had more influence on the development of equine breeds throughout the world than any other horse except the Arabian horse.
As with the Arab horse, it was the spread of Islam which led to the forerunners of today's Barbs reaching Europe from the early 8th century onwards (the first Muslim army, 7,000-strong, landed in Spain in the spring of 711. Once established on the Iberian peninsula the Barb horse played a major role in the development of the Andalusian (as well as the Lusitano), which subsequently became one of the major influences in horse breeding all over the world.
Among the many historical references to "Barbary" horses perhaps the most famous in Roan Barbary, belonging to King Richard II of England. During the 16th century, Henry VIII imported a number of Barbary horses into England and a century later the Barb played an important part in the evolution of the Thoroughbred.
Despite its importance as a progenitor of other breeds, the Barb has achieved less widespead renown than the Arab, no doubt because it lacks the Arabian horse's unique visual appeal, being much less refined and generally less impressive in appearance. Nevertheless it has the same boundless stamina and endurance, the same ability to thrive on meagre rations, the same sure-footedness and an impressive turn of speed over short distances.
The Abaco Barb is supposed to have descended from horses which had been shipwrecked on the Island during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Caribbean.
The entire population of wild Abaco Barbs that run free on the island of Abaco once numbered over 200 horses. However, beginning in the 1960s, several events took place that led to the breed's severe decline from over 200 horses to just three individuals, including the paving of new roads through or near their territory, wild dog attacks on foals, and in some instances, people killed some of the horses.
Several Abaconians intervened against the slaughter and brought the three horses to a farm near Treasure Cay. A herd of 35 built up again, yet since 1992 over half the horses have died. There have been no foals since 1998, though there was one abortion and one fetus aborted for unknown reasons. By mid-2004, only 12 horses remained.
Recently, however, there has been a push to help preserve the breed. One of the remaining stallions, Capella, was made into a Breyer Model Horse in 2005.
As the breed is critically endangered, it has been confirmed that no Abaco Barb horses will be sold on the commercial market. Instead, the remaining herd will run free on the preserve on Abaco.