The Daddies of Them All: How Arab and Turkoman Stallions Dominate the Gene Pool

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A team at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, has discovered that nearly all today’s horses* trace tail-male back to Arabian and Turkoman stallions brought to Europe over the last seven centuries (yes, pre-thoroughbred). There is so little diversity in domestic horses’ Y chromosomes that it took an advance in research methods to be able to distinguish between the limited lines out there. Researchers will even be able to designate haplotypes for single stallions, which is how they discovered the Turkoman great great great great great great (times a few more) grandsires of today’s thoroughbreds. Here’s a link to their research.

The fact that in modern times we humans chose to use a small number of stallions to improve our horses makes an interesting contrast to a study published in April on the early years of horse domestication (from 3,500BC on). When I was working on The Age of the Horse, I believed the current research, which suggested that very few stallions were involved in the process of turning wild horses into stockier, faster, more colourful and higher milk-yielding domestic horses. The study team revealed that the opposite was true. In fact, we began our working relationship with horses with plenty of stallions and lots of Y chromosome and haplotype diversity. You can see the study here. Then the bottleneck narrowed as we discovered intensive breeding and those fancy Oriental stallions.



*I would be curious to know which modern breeds were used in this study. Would the results be different for Mongolian horses?



Horses in Shining Armour – or Plate Mail Catsuits?

This eighteenth-century imagining of ancient Syrian horse armour seems bold, if a little impractical.

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Phlegmatic Greys and Woman-Killing Horses – Equine Coat Colour Theory

Phlegmatic Greys and Woman-Killing Horses – Equine Coat Colour Theory


Some renaissance and early modern horsekeeping manuals get quite carried away about horse colours and what they mean for the temperament and physical qualities of each animal. In 1560, Thomas Blundeville wrote, “A horse for the most part is coloured as he is complexioned”

for if he hath more of the Earth than of the [other three elements], he is melancholy, heavy and faint-hearted, and of colour a black, russet, a bright or dark dun. But if he hath more of water, then he is phlegmatic, slow, dull, and apt to lose flesh, and of a colour most commonly milk white. If of the air, then he is sanguine, and therefore pleasant, nimble and of colour is most commonly a bay. And if of the fire, then he is choleric, and therefore light, hot and fiery, a stirrer, and seldom of any great strength, and is wont to be of colour bright sorrel. But when he doth participate in all the four elements, equally and in due proportion, then he is perfect, and most commonly shall be one of the colours following. That is to say, a brown bay, a dapple grey, a black full of silver hairs, a black like a moor or a fair roan, which kinds of horses are most commendable, most temperate, strongest and of gentlest nature.

We can see the legacy of those theories in our memes about chestnut mares and that old rhyme about markings:

One white sock buy him,
two white socks try him,
three white socks suspect him,
four white socks reject him.

I’d love to hear about coat colour theories in other culture and I’ll certainly collect them as I can. Today I’m going to share some from a Chinese text called Essential Arts of the Common People, compiled by Jia Sixie at some point in the Wei Dynasty period between 534 and 549:

Chestnut horses with shoulders that are yellow marked with black, horses with coats like that of a deer marked with yellow, dappled horses, and white horses with black manes are all good horses.

If there is a streak of white running from the forehead into the mouth, this is called ‘Yuying’ or ‘Dilu’. If servants ride this kind of horse, they die outside their own country. If a master rides it, he will be executed in the marketplace. This is the most inauspicious of horses.

If the left and right rear feet are white, this is not beneficial to people. A white horse with four black feet is not beneficial. A yellow horse with a white mouth is not beneficial. A horse with white rear feet, left and right, will kill women.

If the patterns on the muzzle are like the characters wang (king) or gong (duke), the horse will live to be fifty sui, like the character huo (fire), forty sui; like the character tian (heaven), thirty sui; like the character xiao (small), twenty sui; like the character jin (present), eighteen sui; like the character si (four) eight sui; like the character zhai (dwelling), seven sui. [sui means a year but I’m not sure how Chinese calendar years worked at this time)

Don’t tell me you weren’t warned about flashy horses, ladies!

Source: Harrist, Robert E. (1997), “The Legacy of Bole: Physiognomy and Horses in Chinese Painting,” Artibus Asiae 57.1/2: 135-156.

Beware Girls on Cream Horses

Ever since I wrote about the “Ice Princess” found on the Ukok plateau in Siberia in If Wishes Were Horses I’ve been fascinated by the early cultures of the Eurasian Steppes. Aside from their deep horsiness, they also seem to have had a very egalitarian society, and their womenfolk fought alongside the men. I’m currently partway through Adrienne Mayor’s exhaustive account of the physical, textual and artistic evidence for the existence of these bow-wielding riders, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, and was delighted to read about two depictions of Amazons with cremellos. Since I got back from Versailles I’ve been seeing cream. So here they are: one Etruscan sarcophagus (the other side shows the creams drawing Amazon chariots) and one goblet found in Sudan.

Good Job Renaissance Italians Revived the Horsemanship of Xenophon and Not This Guy

I was googling around for details of a Greek cavalry commander called Eumenes, who’s credited with introducing the use of pillars in training horses when I found this. As Xenophon put it, would you whip a dancer? Eumenes would.

During this siege, as he [Eumenes] perceived … that the horses would lose condition if they never used their limbs …. he caused their necks to be hoisted by pulleys fastened to the roofs of their stable, until their forefeet barely touched the ground. In this uneasy position they were excited by their grooms with blows and shouts until the struggle produced the effects of a hard ride, as they sprung about and stood almost erect on their hind legs until sweat poured off them, so that this exercise proved no bad training either for strength or speed.

From Plutarch’s Lives, sourced here.

Saudis Seek to Bolster Their Claim to Earliest Horse Domestication

A new piece on the BBC website adds more to speculation over Saudi Arabia’s Al Maqar site: could the fragments of horse figures discovered there depict harness? If this could be definitively proved, the Saudis’ claim to earliest horse domestication would be verified. However, as I pointed out in an earlier, more detailed blog post on the Al Maqar hypothesis:

what sort of harness would that be? Horse collars and breast yokes for draft are not believed to have been invented until 4th century BC China, and a loose strap on the neck would provide little control for a rider. Even if domestication had happened in the peninsula at that period, it became obsolete as the hypothetical Al Maqar domesticated horse died out: new DNA research shows that all modern domestic horses are descended from animals of the Eneolithic Eurasian Steppes.

It now occurs to me that there’s another potential answer. Many equids have what are called “primitive markings” like “eel stripes” running the lengths of their backs, or zebra-esque stripes on their lower legs. One of these markings is a stripe lying across both shoulders. In donkeys it’s been attributed to the fact that Jesus rode an ass – and hence the eel stripe and shoulder band make the shape of a cross. And here’s one, photographed by Wikicommons contributor Barbirossa:
And here’s the Al Maqar horse. What do you think?

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

eBay, I don’t believe you. That never happened in my daydreams.

Right, on with a long overdue HHLHL! I’ve been busy organising a research trip for book two but the horse world went on turning, and lovely people have been sending me links, so enjoy this extra special post whose diversity reminds me why I’m writing that second book in the first place.

  • A zebra pulling a trap in Brixton, circa 1915. (Urban75)
  • Look at this beautifully carved golden horse head discovered in a Thracian tomb in Bulgaria. It dates from the third century BC. (Guardian)
  • If Radio 4 ever gets rid of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time I’ll know Britain is over. Here Melvyn and guests discuss the Upanishads – some of the sacred texts of Hinduism. Horse sacrifice is mentioned (maybe with a connection to the Steppes folk who first domesticated horses?) Thanks to Mum for sending this. (Radio 4)
  • The “Pony” chair of Eero Aarnio, the brilliant Finnish designer who came up with the Sixties icon, the Bubble Chair. (Eero Aarnio)
  • Francis Robinson send me this cute piece on a police horse who likes to rearrange cones at Buckingham Palace (Daily Mail)
  • Wired on the astonishing solidification of the Brony movement, with military personnel confessing their love for My Little Pony in front of the camera. Thanks to my brother for this one (Wired)
  • A clean drug-test sheet for all competitors at this year’s Breeders’ Cup. Some of the races were even lasix-free. (ESPN)
  • Mega race mare and US Horse of the Year Havre de Grace sells for $10,000,000 (Blood Horse)
  • The feral Chicoteague ponies survived Sandy just fine (Daily Press) Speaking of the hurricane, this crazy hoss was just fine too. (Washington Post)
  • Horses in today’s US military (CS Monitor)
  • A disaster for a herd of Brumbies in Western Australia (ABC)