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.

Books for the Saddle Bag

Books I want to buy and read:

Sometimes it’s tiresome when publishers try to ape a successful book by buying similar titles, but sometimes that policy opens the best of floodgates: suddenly writers get the chance to work on projects that would have been turned down as uncommercial till a forerunner proved otherwise. Laura Hillenbrand’s smash-hit Seabiscuit has opened the barn door for a whole series of new commissions and reissues of horse biographies, from William Nack’s Secretariat to Ruffian: Burning from the Start, Man O’War: A Legend Like Lightning, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World’s Smartest Horse and The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation.

The latest is Sharon B Smith’s The Best There Ever Was, about Dan Patch, a harness racer from the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century who became America’s national pet. It grounds Dan Patch’s career against a time of rapid social, economic and technical change, as he moves, like every biographised horse since Dick and Black Beauty, from owner to owner.

And thanks to Mark Bond-Webster for alerting me to a book I missed in May. Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread is about showjumping in Australia in the rough and ready 1920s and a rider who is slowly paralysed after being struck by lightning. In the words of Alfred Hickling, reviewing for the Guardian:

The bush country of New South Wales is a tough, unforgiving landscape and Foal’s Bread turns out to be a tough, unforgiving book. But to her immense credit, Mears’s account of a terrible illness never becomes self-pitying or sentimental, while her galloping prose thrums to the rhythm of some perfectly constructed sentences: “The sound of horses’ hooves turns hollow on the farms west of Wirri.” The outlook may be pessimistic in the extreme, but you are unlikely to read a more courageous novel this year.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

I was away! Things happened! But first – a round up of curious happenings in the horse world!

  • Looks like I got rid of the virtual racing stable I ran in the early 1990s far too early. An unraced imaginary horse from the Digiturf game has just been sold for $5,225. Yes, not only is it nonexistent, it’s also unproven. $5,225. You could get a real racehorse for a lot less. ESPN reports.
  • The Guardian’s dance critic was dispatched to review para-dressage: “With their tightly plaited manes and long ballerina necks, they perform tightly controlled pirouettes and piaffes with impressive finesse; they float across the arena with a silken stride that is like a horsey grand jeté.”
  • An Australian study suggests that Monty Roberts’ methods should be re-assessed. (Horse Talk). UPDATE: Monty responds with a link to an earlier peer-reviewed study of his methods from Anthrozoology.
  • A riding school in Kenya thrives, thanks to its enterprising owner. (BBC).
  • Yahoo has a mighty fine photo gallery of an Icelandic horse round up. Iceland: a nation where horse shoes are sold at garages. MSNBC has sulky racing on the north German coast.
  • The Bloggess brings us the worst example of equine taxidermy I’ve yet seen – and I love bad taxidermy. It’s meant to be a falabella.
  • Kazakhstan is shipping its own horse-meat sausages to London for its Olympic Team. (The Atlantic)
  • As a US Senate hearing calls for stricter rules concerning drug use in horse racing, the New York Times gets hold of Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another’s vet sheet. The colt had been battling tendon problems and osteoarthritis for some time before he even began his Triple Crown bid. That’s an unsound horse, racing on dirt at the highest level. Since the NYT’s report, other racing figures have come forward to say this is no big deal and in fact, common and legitimate. (New York Times).
  • Meanwhile, here’s a less depressing NYT blog post on using dressage to train both competing and retired racehorses. (NYT)
  • Riding school ponies stolen in area of Florida notorious for blackmarket horse-meat slaughters. (CBS Local).
  • And so that we don’t end on a bum note, here’s North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s girlfriend, Hyon Song-Wol, singing her smash hit “Excellent Horse-like Lady” or “A Girl In The Saddle Of A Steed”. Enjoy.

If Wishes Were Horses: Love

If you want to  learn more about Sven Forsling and the wonderful Frossarbo reform school for girls, there’s an eBook in English called The Girl and the Horse. The video above is in Swedish but features not just Sven but also the school and its horses.

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

You Shall Go to the Ball. Even If You’re a Horse

The Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York features a surrey drawn by two greys circling the dance floor with two ballet dancers on board. There’s a nice little New York Times blog piece here – with photos – about the logistics of getting two 17hh standardbreds into an elevator, through a hotel kitchen and into the ballroom. And out again.

What do horses think of us?

In Two-Four Time

On Sunday I went to the Trabrennbahn Mariendorf to watch the 2010 Deutsches Traber-Derby – my first harness racing meet. I saw a couple of exhibition trotting races at Hoppegarten last year and was fascinated – the horses so fast they seemed as low to the ground as the rocking horse racers in old paintings, legs flashing like scissors. Occasionally you see one curl its front legs once, twice, too many times and then break its trot for an irresistable gallop, only to be pulled out of the race.  Standardbreds are longer in the back than Thoroughbreds, with full-muscled chests and lengthy manes – pretty buff, as Sarah pointed out, and then we got sidetracked trying to work out a suitable German translation. There wasn’t much hope in me following the form or understanding the tactics required, so I just went for buff horses with nice names and didn’t win much at all. The sun shone, the buffet was heavy and Deutsch (bratkartoffeln and chocolate mousse), Mayor Wowi turned out and a good time was had by all, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to go harness racing.

In  Norfolk I grew up five minutes from the yard of a family who were prominent in the local trotting world, but the sport seems almost like an underground pursuit in the UK, linked to Traveller and Roma culture. As Standardbreds are descended from the old Norfolk Trotter breed (gone the way of the Quagga) it seems a shame that the mainstream overlooks the county’s contribution to a sport which is so prominent on the Continent, in Russia and in North America. Maybe K M Peyton’s Small Gains and Greater Gains novels about a nineteenth-century Norfolk girl and her trotter stallion, Rattler, will inspire children and teenagers to find out more. I hope so.

In the Gains books the trotters are ridden, not driven, but I had no idea that “le trot monté” still featured in European programmes until a ridden race began, and I noticed that most of the jocks were girls who must have had legs of steel to hover up in their stirrups for 1,900m of choppy trot – a gait where a horse moves in two-four time and not the rocking three-four of a canter – although the sheer speed and extension of the racing trot looked weirdly smooth. Hats off to ’em. I’d love to try…

Terrible cameraphone photo of race card

My family love racing, and whenever any of us goes to a meet we keep in touch by phone in case there’s a grey we can bet on, in memory of my grandmother, who thought no card game or horse race worth her while if she couldn’t have a little flutter. She owned a grey pony called Nonny (short for Anonymous), so I scoured the card for “Schimmeln” (the German for a grey horse is also the word for mould) and found nothing. The horses were almost uniformly bay, dark bay or chestnut and solid – I can’t remember seeing so much as a star or sock – a legacy, I presume, of the nineteenth century preference for plain coloured cavalry horses.

I liked the look of a filly called Finca because her name echoed that of Kincsem, a Hungarian mare who won more races than any other Thoroughbred in history, and retired unbeaten after 54 starts. Mum texted that we should have money on the derby and asked me to pick, so I asked her to choose a number between one and ten, and she chose seven – Finca – so it had to be. Two euros were duly invested.

The mare came with a late run which wasn’t quite enough, especially when Mum and I had recklessly bet to win.