New Horse Park residents link past and present

They are a Sumerian tablet come to life. Or an Assyrian frieze, circa 710 B.C. Or a Polish portrait from the 1860s.

They are pure-blooded Arabian horses, virtually unchanged in appearance from the ancestors who inspired the Kentucky Horse Park's upcoming blockbuster museum exhibit, A Gift From the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse.

Rafiq, a black stallion, and Shazray Moonbeam, a black mare, are themselves a kind of gift.

They were adopted by the horse park after their former owner called the Kentucky Equine Humane Center for help in finding them a new home.

The horse park has made it part of its mission to educate the public about the economic stress horse owners of all kinds are facing and to help at-risk horses whenever it can.

"The travesty of this crisis is that thousands of good horses are coming to the end of the line prematurely and will never reach the fullness of their life's purpose unless more people get involved in their rescue," said John Nicholson, executive director of the horse park. "The Arabian horse has been highly prized by many cultures throughout history, but in spite of that, like so many other breeds, scores of them are fighting for survival in perilous situations."

Lori Neagle, executive director of the humane center, said the horses "will also be great ambassadors for their breed and for equine adoption for years to come."

The two Arabians will join the park's Parade of Breeds, presented to visitors from mid-March through October, and be ambassadors for the $2.35 million museum exhibit, which runs May 29 to Oct. 15 at the International Museum of the Horse, on the horse park campus. The exhibit will coincide with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the horse park.

"We will probably also use them at the grand opening (of the exhibit), and at any event off-park where we might have a booth to promote the exhibit, those two horses will come along," said Cindy Rullman, a horse park spokeswoman. For added glamour, the horses might appear in traditional Arabian costumes.

The costumes will give a taste of what the public can expect in A Gift From the Desert.

Put together by the International Museum of the Horse and overseen by the museum's director, Bill Cooke, the 410-piece exhibition will be the largest ever of Arabian horse art and artifacts. It's assembled from museums all over the world and from private collections. The exhibit was financed in part by a gift from the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation.

Among the treasures on display will be the Kikkuli tablet, a 3,000-year-old treatise on horse care written in the Hittite language by master horse trainer Kikkuli of the Mitanni; and the Standard of Ur, a wooden box decorated with elaborate mosaics, including Sumerian chariots drawn by horses.

There also will be more contemporary pieces, such as the robes and dagger worn by T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia.

While the exhibit highlights the contributions of Near Eastern culture on human civilization, it explores that impact through horses, particularly the majestic Arabian, which forms the foundation of the Thoroughbred as well.

And Rafiq and Shazray Moonbeam will be the modern representatives of that legacy — living works of art.