Canterbury farmer's lifelong passion for horses of the desert

David Marshall and his stallion Zaddam in full arabian regalia.
David Marshall

David Marshall and his stallion Zaddam in full arabian regalia.

David Marshall's childhood dream was to one day ride an arabian horse and do it justice. Now he owns one of the top arabian studs in the country. He talks to Pat Deavoll about what makes the horses so special.

Long time Arabian enthusiast, David Marshall is hoping his stallion Zaddam wins supreme champion at this year's Canterbury A&P Show.

Afterall, Zaddam has an impressive pedigree of wins including supreme champion as a yearling at the Silver Anniversary Canterbury All Arabian Show and champion arabian stallion and champion ridden stallion all-breeds at the Canterbury show last year.

David Marshall and his arabian stallion Zaddam, a beautiful, graceful grey with flared nostrils and large dark eyes.
David Marshall

David Marshall and his arabian stallion Zaddam, a beautiful, graceful grey with flared nostrils and large dark eyes.

Zaddam is also an open qualified endurance horse  - endurance riding is Marshall's passion - and the sire of two of hs team of endurance arabians. A beautiful, graceful grey with flared nostrils and large dark eyes, the horse is, as Marshall puts it, a product of the desert. It is easy to see why he is enamoured with the arabian breed. 

The Leeston farmer's lifelong interest in arabian horses stems from his late father Lester Marshall. Lester began breeding arabians on the family farm at Leeston in the early 1960s. The farm now boasts the oldest continuing arabian breeding programme in New Zealand.

"Lester was my greatest mentor," Marshall says.

 "He was, in my opinion, a breeder who was ahead of his time and he supported my quest to learn everything I could about arabians. I think had he lived longer the results at Holly Farm would have mirrored his aspirations.

"He was always pleased I'd developed an interest in arabs, but he worried it would ruin me. I must admit I have too many horses - about 60," he says.

Marshall says as a kid he was desperate for every fact, every bit of fiction, he could find about arabian horses. He learned to ride on ponies so that one day he'd "ride an arabian and do it justice." 

A respected breeder in his own right, Marshall's latest success is his Ali Badu Straight Egyptian programme. It had been a long-held ambition to  establish his own nucleus of quality desert horses, he says

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"The horses in my egyptian programme can trace pure lineage to the worldwide straight egyptian stud book. To have achieved this is more than I ever dreamed. I imported my first stallion in 1995. It took awhile to get the mares I needed and only in 2012 did my programme find stability.

"Egyptians are like the kobe beef of cattle," he says. "They are very rare and make up only four per cent of the arabian horses world wide."

Marshall is a skilled endurance rider, having represented New Zealand at the world championships in France in 2001 and Dubai in 2005. 

Endurance riding is one of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) official sports along with  show jumping, dressage and cross country. It is included in the world equestrian games and arabian horses excel as the best of the best.

An arabian has mental strength, Marshall says. They like to be in front, to win. They are physiologically sound and sure-footed and this makes them the best endurance racers. 

"Physical, genetical and metabolic survival over the centuries has produced a breed of horse that is unique in its ability to function efficiently. They cover the ground extremely well with a long, gliding gait that is energy efficient. They are an efficient athletic machine."

"They are a bit like an Ethiopian runner- they have an efficient metabolic system with superior heat distribution and an intelligence to keep going and going."

" A quarter horse, the fastest over 1/4 mile, has huge muscles and lots of power. This is not what you want in an endurance horse. Too much muscle produces too much heat that's hard to disperse when the animal tires. Lactic acid build-up causes problems.

"The arab has a high tail carriage that lets heat disperse. They have  the refinement of bone structure and long muscle twitch best for covering long distances easily. There is nothing in excess."

Endurance riders complete circuits, and at the end of each there is a vet check. The leader can come home first, but be disqualified because they haven't ridden the horse within set physiological boundaries, Marshall says.

"It's a personal challenge for the rider as well as an equestrian one. But you don't have to be Mark Todd to compete, as long as you can do the distance on your horse."

New Zealand riders are fortunate that there are many opportunities to qualify for the world endurance championships within easy reach. Australia, for instance, is difficult because competitors must travel huge distances.

"Canterbury is really lucky; you have no more than an hour to travel to an event. Last weekend there was a 40km [event] at Mt Somers.

"But the reality is, because of our isolation, the cost of competing overseas is huge," he says. "Riders get no financial help and the cost goes on the individual."

Marshall says the arabian horse as a purebred has always been seen as versatile - capable of dressage, show jumping, cross country or endurance. With a confident go-get-it rider they are outstanding, he says.

"They are very much influenced by their environment. If a rider is insecure, the horse will back off - they are very intuitive. They can be misunderstood in the wrong hands but if you can get them working for you, you wont get a better horse."

Marshall spent four years in the early 2000s living and working in Abu-Dhabi as rider, trainer and manager of the presidents' arab stable. He "literally paid for the farm" from the money he made as well as establishing a market for his horses.

"I have carried on my father's  programme but used primarily egyptian bloodlines. I now have a small straight egyptian programme along with my father's original stud. I've been able to turn what he started into a commodity the Middle East wants. I've had the pleasure of breeding the horses, competing on them and selling them to the Arabs for very good money. It's become a commercial venture, but not because I set out to make it one. It's been quite amazing."

 - Stuff

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