Scandal! Did the Icelandic tölt come from England?

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William Blake’s take on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath rides an ambler,

Researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wild Animal Research (IZW) in Berlin have announced a fascinating discovery in the history of gaited horses. By studying the genomes of ninety horses that lived between the Copper Age and the eleventh century, they have traced the spread of the fifth equine gait or amble. This builds on the recent discovery (read about it here) that a mutation to gene DMRT3 causes horses to tölt or pace.

According to the scientists, ambling, tölting or pacing horses seem to have originated in England in the ninth century and were then taken to Iceland by the Vikings and on to the rest of Europe and Asia.

I’m curious about this as I’m pretty sure some Mongolian horses amble, and I didn’t know they were descended in any way, shape or form from Viking horses. Also, pre-horse hipparions were pacers.

Here’s the details of the paper: Wutke S, Andersson L, Benecke N, Sandoval-Castellanos E, Gonzalez J, Hallsson  JH, Lembi L,  Magnell O, Morales-Muniz A, Orlando L, Pálsdóttir AH, Reissmann M, Muñioz-Rodríguez MB, Ruttkay M, Trinks A, Hofreiter M, Ludwig A (2016): The Origin of Ambling Horses. CURR BIOL 26, 697-698. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.07.001.


We Are Horses, Horses Are Us

In Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men, the inhabitants of a remote Icelandic valley have emotions as tightly knitted as their jumpers – except when it comes to their swift-trotting, thick-maned horses.

In the opening scene we see the coat on a grey mare’s chest, caught in whorls and feathered by drizzle as her owner’s eye lovingly traces it. And then we see the owner himself, Kollbeinn, a middle-aged man in a tightly buttoned tweed jacket, reflected in the mare’s eye. “Darling,” he calls her, and “little lady.” When he smooths the coat on her back before hoicking her saddle on, it’s a caress. She will carry him across the valley to Solveig, the woman he’s in love with, at a spanking “tolt” that is watched covetously by the rest of the community through their binoculars and windows. “She’s no slouch, that mare,” Solveig greets him, before inviting him in for tea with her mother and son.

Left tied up outside, the grey mare acts on her own unihibited romantic inclinations, humiliating Kollbein – with grievous results for both herself and her lover, Solveig’s brown stallion.

There are six interlocking stories in this dark and comic Icelandic film, which won the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize and the Brussels’ Golden Iris. In each, horses look on as humans commit all manner of sins of pride and folly, sometimes with disastrous consequences for themselves, and more often with terrible consequences for the horses. The dysfunctional, emotionally repressed humans are direct only when they are in pursuit of alcohol, which they sink like English foxhunters (from hip flasks, on horseback, and often). They would rather watch their neighbours through those binoculars than bare their hearts.

While they love their horses, what they love more is what horses can do for them: make them look desirable or masterful, get them vodka, humiliate their sexual rivals or take them home. The horses generally oblige them – even standing pacifically on a platform suspended from the hull of a Russian trawler at sea – but they cannot save them from their own idiocy, and sometimes, just by being horses, they ruin the best laid plans of their owners. The film’s humour can be tarry black: This wimp found the story of poor Juan, the Spanish tourist whose only crime was to wear a woolly hat and want to ride a horse, a little hard to stomach.

The characters are eccentric, but not grotesques: Erlingsson’s actors can convey a repressed emotion into the minutest gesture of the hand or widening of an eye. A woman announces her intention to seduce a man by flicking her pony tail out of her cagoule. Solveig’s eyebrows perform a small, expressive dance as Kollbein stands next to her and sweet talks his mare as Solveig wants to hear him whisper to her. A homesick Mongolian sailor called Genghis embraces a horse’s head tenderly, his face shining.

Throughout the six stories runs the busy rhythm of the tolt, matched by Icelandic folk music, and the spare and beautiful landscape, where sloping green valleys give way to crags of shifting, slatey rocks. The sea is frigid turquoise. The sky changes from mackerel clouds to pelting rain or a deathly blizzard.

Towards the end there’s a shift, and a lightening. People come together, and, fortified by alcohol, dare to reach for one another across the gaps between their horses. Cries of love making blur into those of horse herding. The film’s Icelandic title is Hross í Oss, which translates as “Horses and Us” – the similarities between the words in both English and Icelandic has the sealed-in wit of a palindrome or pun. We are horses, horses are us. And when we give up our stupid human inhibitions and wrongheadedness, and act a little more like horses, we find happiness.

Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2013 feature, Of Horses and Men, will be on general release here in Germany from February 19th on, as Von Menschen und Pferde, and is available on DVD in the UK and US.

Icelandic Horses Gather at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

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The 2013 Icelandic Horse World Championships launched this morning at the Platz der 18 Mars, in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A parade of horses and riders from over twenty nations clopped up the Strasse des 17 Juni through the middle of the Tiergarten park in the centre of Berlin and stood in a circle as the president of Iceland spoke in tribute to the breed, which he said had held Iceland together for centuries, by carrying locals back and forth from one isolated farm or village to another.  The championships will take place this week at Karlshorst, a harness racing track in the south east of the city. I’m hoping to go along* and see not just the famous “tölt” gait live, but also the fifth gait, or “skei∂”, which looks to me like the origin of the myth of Sleipnir. This horse looks like it has at least eight legs on the go…


* Oooof. Having seen the steep prices for a day ticket, I don’t think this will happen.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links


  • Artist Mark Wallinger has made a 3D scan of a racehorse, produced it in marble dust and resin and set it outside the British Council building in London. Wallinger’s work frequently features horses, and he’s even a racehorse owner himself. The piece will tour internationally, and the artist hopes it will revive interest in his project to built a giant grey horse at Ebbsfleet, Kent, which appears to have stalled. (De Zeen)
  • A man declares himself the fiancé of a My Little Pony (AV Club, thanks to Anne Billson)
  • A poodle rides a pony (Komo News)
  • From a care home to a dressage team at Rio 2016? Here’s hoping. Sam Martin on his journey from London gangland to the dressage ring (Get Surrey)
  • Cedar Lane Stables in Queens has been shut down after concerns over the welfare of horses on livery on the property – six deaths were too many for local authorities. The Federation of Black Cowboys, who run the city-owned yard, have protested that the fault lies with individual owners, and that others will be unfairly punished by the closure. (New York Times)
  • Yosemite National Park is considering banning horses (as well as ice rinks, rafting, bikes and swimming pools) in its bid to return Yosemite Valley to its most “natural” state (Mercury News)
  • An Icelandic horse learns to count (HorseTalk)
  • Beautiful bird’s eye view by Brad Styron of the feral horses of Shackleford Banks (Tumblr, thanks to KK)

Nature Wins Over Nurture in the Gaited Horse

Guðmundur Arnarson rides Sævar frá Stangarholti (grey with sunfading black base) in tölti at five-gait horse championships in Hella, 2008. Photo Dagur Brynjólfsson, WikiCommons

We talk very easily about “a gene for this” or “a gene for that” but most of our characteristics have more complex biological origins than a single strand of DNA. That’s perhaps why it’s such a surprise to read this story, which my brother, Sarah Everts and Christine Wilsdon all sent me.
Researchers at Uppsala University have discovered that a variation on a single gene called DMRT3 on chromosome 23 causes gves mice a fifth gait. The scientists moved on to looking at Icelandic horses, famous for their rapid “tolt” and sometimes for “pacing”. From GenomeWeb:

To look at this in more detail, the team started by doing an association study involving 30 Icelandic horses that could walk, trot, gallop, and amble or “tölt,” and another 40 Icelandic horses that could do those four and move at the two-beat pace gait.

Amongst the horses capable of pacing, the researchers found a significant association involving a region on chromosome 23. More extensive analyses indicated that five-gaited Icelandic horses typically share several SNPs in the region, including a nonsense mutation that introduces a premature stop codon in DMRT3.

When the team screened hundreds more Icelandic horses, it identified the same alteration affecting both copies of the DMRT3 gene in almost all of the five-gaited horses tested.

In Icelandic horses with four gaits — those that could tölt but did not perform the pace gait — the DMRT3 mutation was still more common than it is in many other horse breeds. But the change was far less likely to be homozygous.

The nonsense mutation in DMRT3 turned up in some other breeds too, the researchers reported, though it tended to be more common among those with uncommon gaits and in breeds developed for harness racing, consistent with the notion that DMRT3 function contributes to the way coordinated movement is controlled.

Discover Magazine has interviews with some of the scientists involved and added this, suggesting that while nature may have made the gaited horse by random mutation, it was human nurture that helped it to thrive:

By contrast, it’s absent in all horses that stick to the standard walk, trot and gallop. Thoroughbreds, Shetland ponies, wild Przewalski’s horses—all of them have unabridged DMRT3 proteins. The conclusion is stark: for a horse to move beyond its three natural gaits, it needs a stunted version of the DMRT3 protein. … [Mice with the mutation] walked normally, but the coordination between their legs broke down at high speeds.

The same is true for horses, and explains why the DMRT3 mutations are almost non-existent in the wild. Carriers find it hard to transition from trots and paces to full-blown gallops. They lack the coordination necessary to pull off the fastest gait, and predators would easily have removed them from the gene pool.

Humans were kinder, and saw a different sort of potential. Andersson imagines that early humans noticed that some horses could move in unique ways, and selected them for breeding, perhaps because they offered a smoother ride or were more versatile at intermediate speeds. Certainly, these animals also do very well in harness-racing, where trotting horses are disqualified if they break into a gallop. In our stables and tracks, an otherwise debilitating mutation has found a comfortable home.

At this point a bell went off in my head and I made my way to the bookshelf. Stephen Budiansky’s The Nature of Horses: Their Evolution, Intelligence and Behaviour. Page 21 of the Phoenix paperback:

The almost unbelievable discovery of fossil footprints of three Hipparion horses [in Tanzania]  from the middle Pliocene (3.5 million years ago) has provided ample confirmation of the speed and agility of these grasslands adapted horses.  … A subsequent analysis of the horse footprints makes a convincing case that these Hipparion horses traveled at a good clip utilizing the gait known as the running walk – the characteristic gait of Tennessee walking horses, Icelandic ponies, and paso finos, in which the length of stride is extended and only one or two feet are in contact with the ground at any given time. Comparison of the the fossil footfalls wih the footfall patterns of Icelandic ponies suggests that one of the Hipparions was traveling at 15 kilometers per hour.

Hipparions, imagined by Heinrich Harder (1858-1935) via WikiCommons

Hipparion is a relative of the modern horse, but not an ancestor. According to Wikipedia, it existed for 22.219 million years, which really ain’t bad for a runty little gaited horse.