The Beautiful Irony – An Afterword for The Age of the Horse, February 2018


Przewalski horse in Berlin Zoo.

On 23 February 2018 an international group of paleogeneticists and zooarchaeologists studying horse domestication published a report in the journal Science. They had recovered and sequenced DNA from the remains of horses found at the Botai site, hoping, as team-member Ludovico Orlando put it, “to catch evolution red-handed, when domestication first started.” Instead, they turned our understanding of domestication, of the wild and the feral, upside down.

The Botai horses did not appear to be the ancestors of today’s domestic horses. They were the ancestors of the Przewalski. Our sacred wild Takhi was, like the mustangs, the brumbies and the New Forest ponies, feral – an escapee from the Botai’s Copper Age corrals. Very like the wild horses on cave walls with their upright manes and dun coats, but taller and tamed. Either so many other wild horses had been added to the gene pool since the Botai vanished that the Przewalski DNA had been erased, or domestication had happened in other places, with other ghost horse herds. All two thousand of our last surviving wild horses disappeared overnight.

Thinking back to Hustai and everything that led to the rewilding of those 121,000 acres of steppe, to the airlifts, the complicated breeding programme, the conferences, studies, rangers, scientists, grants and zookeepers, I thought only what a beautiful irony we’d created. After all that the horse had done for humanity, we’d thrown the world’s resources into returning the earliest horse who’d known a bridle and a fence to a landscape with neither bridles nor fences. The Takhi was tamed, and we had insisted that he become wild once more.




“Ancient genomes revisit the ancestry of domestic and Przewalski’s horses” by C Gaunitz et al. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Ancient DNA upends the horse family tree” by Elizabeth Pennisi. Science, 22 February, 2018.

“Surprising new study redraws family tree of domesticated and ‘wild’ horses” by University of Kansas., 22 February 2018.




Holding My Horses

Horses, Mongolia.

Horses, Mongolia.

Sometimes I have these daydreams about, you know, really sorting out the blog and having regular features, or an interview series, or book reviews. Making it a news source rather than an overflowing drawer of newspaper clippings and bits and bobs I couldn’t use in my books. Then I remember how much time it takes to blog well, do my sums and realise it can’t be. That’s why you have to put up with my randomness.
I have a huge amount to do this month with the book so the blog will be shuttered for a while to give me a chance to crack on. Have fun with the archives in the meantime, or check on Facebook for news, and I hope to emerge in February!

Sidesaddle Across Mongolia: An Adventure in Memory of an Adventurous Woman

In memory of their sister Polly de Blank, Martha Sitwell and Clemmie de Blank will cross Mongolia aside in six weeks next May. A journalist, campaigner and yoga scholar, Polly supported both the mental health charity Mind and Prisoners of Conscience, and her sisters are raising funds for both charities. If you’d like to chip in or read more, click here and see their page on Just Giving.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

  • Professional child jockeys (as young as 4) in Indonesia (SBS)
  • Virtual racehorses on the game Digiturf sell for $7,000 and $9,000. (ESPN)
  • The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration goes ahead, although welfare concerns knock out some leading competitors. DIg into the comments here. (Tennessean)
  • The number of horses slaughtered in Ireland this year appears to have fallen by half since 2012 – a good thing. The government are still organising a horse disposal scheme. (Irish Independent)
  • Mongolians and their horses (The Diplomat)
  • The results of a study into the deaths of feral walers culled by helicopter gunmen in Australia. (Horse Talk NZ)