Salvos Across the Equine Gene Pool: a Reader

This is not so much a post as a string of links to some interesting, thought-provoking essays elsewhere and a question: what is “pure blood” and should it matter?

Let me explain. Roughly speaking, until the nineteenth century and even the twentieth century, the vast majority of horses and ponies in the West were not bred by someone who wanted to “preserve a bloodline” or produce a very specific set of characteristics. The aim was to make a “type” of horse to do a specific job, using the sires and dams that were available – ideally with good conformation. It was thoroughbreds whose breeders, inspired by Arabian breeding practices, changed the game. You can see that in the etymology of the words “thorough bred” “pur sang” “voll blut”. Soon it wasn’t enough to have a good horse, it had to be a “pure horse” (The warmblood bucks this trend, in theory. More anon). To a large extent, this probably did improve the quality of many horses: stallions were selected for meeting certain characteristics and performance criteria. But could the preoccupation with “breeds” over “types” eventually cause problems?

Here are my scattered thoughts and links.

1 – I just finished reading John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs, which deals, among other issues, with the problem of pedigree dogs:

“Until very recently, the amount of variation in the domestic dog was sufficient to maintain genetic health. Multiple domestications and back-crossing with wolves meant that dogs worldwide still have an estimated 95 per cent of the variation that was present in wolves during the time of domestication. Most of this variation lives on today in street dogs and mongrels, but pedigree dogs have lost a further 35 per cent. That may not seem much, but let us imagine the scenario in human terms. Mongrels maintain levels of variability that are similar to those found globally in our own species. In many individual breeds, however, the amount of variation within the whole breed amounts to little more than is typical of first cousins in our species. And we humans know that repeated marriages between cousins eventually lead to the emergence of a wide range of genetic abnormalities, which is why marriages between close relatives are taboo in most societies. It is astonishing that the same consideration is not given to dogs.”

Over just the last six generations, inbreeding [of golden retrievers] has removed more than 90% of the variation that once characterised the breed. … In a recent sampling of Y (male) chromosomes of dogs in California, no variation was found in fifteen out of fifty breeds, indicating that most of the male ancestors of each and every dog in those breeds have been very close relatives of each other.”

This put me in mind of Fell Foal Syndrome, HYPP, assorted genetic problems in Friesians, Minxy the ill-fated miniature horse, the bug-eyed, seahorse-headed Egyptian Arabians who are unrideable…

2 – The new blogger at Fugly Horse of the Day asked readers to guess the breeds of a series of horses. Today she revealed that most of the commenters had gotten it right, they were all mustangs. She then embarked on what can only be a deeply unpopular polemic about America’s nominated “wild horse” and alternative national symbol:

“I’ve done some research on mustangs over the years, I’ve owned one, trained many and ridden one I would have liked to try to turn into a cowhorse. Each one was a very different type of horse. They were little and arab-y like, in the middle like a QH, big and draft-y or a horrible mix of it all. My overwhelming impression was I could easily find the domestic equivalent at an auction, or in someones backyard, or rarely, through a good breeding program. They had good feet and good bone, or bad feet and birdy bones, they were “primitive” in their coloring or they were red. Some had stubby appy tails, some had flowing tails, some were big, some were small, some didn’t seem like horses at all. OK, no more Dr. Seuss, you get my drift. I didn’t hate them, or consider them a waste of space, they were just horses. …

I learned there are pockets of different horses tucked away here and there with DNA which goes back to the Spaniards horses. Some go all the way back to the first horses reintroduced to America. This is kind of cool. I can see the value of preserving these little drops of history.I like the idea of watching a herd of ancient history running free through a national park. It does not make me think these horses are extra special, better than others, or worth more than any decently bred horse from a good breeding program. It seems to me small pockets of animals, holed up in a little tiny undiscovered part of the mountains for hundreds of years, will end up much like the royal families of yore which only married their kids off to others of royal blood. They ended up with weakened bloodlines, an influx of disease and mental instability. …

When I read about these rare pure bloodlines going back to the Arabs and Andalusians I think, Huh? Don’t ALL breeds go back to Arabs and Andalusians? Aren’t there still some Arabs an Andalusians out there? …

Then there are the other mustangs. The ones developed by ranchers turning out their own studs and shooting the wild ones to create their own herds. Or sprung up from the drafts and saddle horses turned loose before the World Wars or the Great Depression. These are nothing but grade horses folks. Nothing wrong with a good grade horse, but nothing to be revered either.

Shoot, we’re breeding a whole new kind of mustang right now in 2011. With horses being dumped in record numbers, natural selection should kick in any minute. We should be ready to start saving the elusive, yet kind of stupid, ‘Bushama Mustang’ in just another couple of years.”

It was the original FHOTD blogger who introduced me to the ever-increasing roll call of new “breeds” from “Gypsy Vanners” to “Warlanders” – to give two of the more reputable examples. Everyone wanted to have a “rare” horse, a “special breed” with an exotic history. It wasn’t enough to have a good individual horse. It had to have history and pedigree.

3 – An Australian racehorse breeder is launching a legal attack on the national Thoroughbred industry’s ban on artificial methods of reproduction. As this is a global requirement in horse racing, it will be very interesting to see the result. All other sportshorses can be bred using AI and often embryo transfer. Horse Talk covers the debate:

“Smaller breeders – the vast majority in Australian thoroughbred breeding are small operators with an average of three mares – would benefit from not having to ship their mares to stud, and would also be able to gain access to semen from top horses around the globe, Tonking argues.

McHugh does not put much stock in the central argument from the Australian thoroughbred industry that it would become a world pariah if articificial insemination was allowed. He has proposed a separate registry for artificially bred thoroughbreds. France, he has pointed out, allows such separate registries and it did not appear to have damaged its industry.

The whole debate is fascinating. The arguments offered by McHugh are hard to challenge. Yes, relaxing the live-cover rules would give smaller breeders access to stallions around the globe. It would undoubtedly save them money. Australia’s ban on thoroughbred artificial insemination goes back to at least the 1940s. The practice was banned to prevent any skulduggery, and to ensure that mare owners got the stallion service for which they were paying.

However, in the modern era of DNA identification, that argument has long since been buried. Does the requirement for live cover effectively create a restraint of trade? If you’re a smaller breeder unable to afford a top stallion’s stud fee, but able to afford a straw or two or semen from a similarly-rated sire, it is hard to argue otherwise.”

What then happens to the mid-range sires, the rare ones with no Northern Dancer blood? The ones that represent an outcross and variation in one of the smallest gene pools in the equine world? Where are the limits when top stallions can already cover a hundred or more mares a year? (I blogged a little about “partbred” racehorses here)

4 – A video, rather than an article. When I made my return, of sorts, to the horse world, one thing which struck me was the breeding of specialist horses for eventing, dressage and showjumping – to the extent that there are now futurity competitions for foals and youngstock in these categories. Performance is paramount. As a lumpen outsider, I’ve started to wonder if dressage horses in particular might become too specialised in a few generations. Maybe I should just relax and enjoy the sight of the dressage-bred foal which raised a record price of €200,000 at the Oldenburg Elite Foal Auction last week in Vechta. He’s even called A la Dressage:

About Those 52 Thoroughbreds That Need a Home

A couple of weeks ago a friend emailed about a developing horse welfare situation in the US – one that’s not uncommon these days:

“I am re-posting this for somebody…’FREE horses!!! 52 thoroughbred horses need homes. Will go to Sugarcreek this Sat. for slaughter. Gentleman died and his son wants nothing to do with them. FREE and papered. Friend of the deceased is trying to find homes 1-440-463-4288 Barnesville, OH. Please help — call if you can save one of these amazing animals, or re-post this to get the word out to others.'”

I referred him to equine welfare blogger Fugly Horse of the Day, as I thought she would be the best person to broadcast it and get the horses rehomed. I should have done a little more research. There really were 52 horses, and they really did need to be rehomed, but this all happened in February.

Earlier this week, someone started a thread on Horse and Hound Online about 52 thoroughbreds that needed a home. This time, there was a new phone number attached:

“URGENT – 52 Thoroughbred horses need homes. Will go to slaughter this sat. Gentleman died & his son wants nothing to do with the horses. Most broodmares, broken in & some in foaling/weaning, 2-3 yrs old, most geldings- free- Contact Chett Wallace 0842 748538 . Please re-post -this message has come from a friend of mine in Cheshire – Sue Westwood-Ruttledge”

Nice and emotive, eh? Another HHO poster replied saying it was a scam, and adding a link to a 4th February 2011 piece on the case by Fugly Horse of the Day. There really was a gentleman who died – a vet named Dr Stearns – and there really were 52 thoroughbreds in Ohio who were about to be sold. After that, it all gets a bit woogly. The horses’ alleged plight was publicised on the net first by Lynn Boggs and then by people who hinted strongly that the horses would end up in the food chain if they were rehomed. As FHOTD points out, there were some gaps and inconsistencies in this story – it had happened over an extremely brief timeline, for a start, as Dr Stearns died on the 27th January and yet all the horses were rehomed by the 4th of February. The Horse ran an item on the phenomenon of social networks and horse rescue:

“After Stearns’ son dismantled his father’s breeding and racing farm, he gave Boggs and her boyfriend, Jerry Noss, a week to find homes for the 52 horses. He planned to send any unadopted animals to auction. … Although Boggs avoided mentioning ‘slaughter’ in her original posting, subsequent posts by other concerned parties mentioned this as a possibility, should the horses not find new homes. ‘I didn’t want to say slaughter; I hate that word,’ she said, noting she didn’t believe they would have that end. She thinks the post gained even more momentum when the word ‘slaughter’ entered the description.”

One concerned member of the public talked to staff at Dr Stearns’ old practice, who said that:

“They [the horses] ALL went to other owners/trainers and members of the racing community. These were very well bred, healthy horses. All have good homes. They were never, ever at any risk of slaughter. The son has worked tirelessly with the community to get the horses into safe homes.”

So, as FHOTD put it, who is lying? She asked for commenters to come forward and say if they knew of any of the rehomed horses, and several piped up with the intelligence that Dr Stearns’ thoroughbreds were now installed at good establishments. Lynn Boggs popped up too, and you can follow the fun here if you’re curious and have a big bag of popcorn to hand.

So why, seven months on, did this story get a revival and Dr Stearns die all over again and the 52 thoroughbred pack their hobo bags? The “urgent appeal” has popped up several times in my Twitter feed in the last week. The clue is in the new wording – specifically that new phone number:

0842 748538


That’ll be a phone call at 4p or 5p a minute in the UK. Scamholio. Thanks to HHO commenters for pointing this out.

IWWH coversIf Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession

The Definition of Abuse

23rd edition, 1 January 2009, updated 1 January 2010

Article 142 – Abuse of Horses
1. No person may abuse a Horse during an Event or at any other time. “Abuse” means an action or omission which causes or is likely to cause pain or unnecessary discomfort to a Horse, including without limitation any of the following:
– To whip or beat a Horse excessively;
– To subject a Horse to any kind of electric shock device;
– To use spurs excessively or persistently;
– To jab the Horse in the mouth with the bit or any other device;
– To compete using an exhausted, lame or injured Horse;
– To “rap” a Horse.
– To abnormally sensitise or desensitise any part of a Horse;
– To leave a Horse without adequate food, drink or exercise;
– To use any device or equipment which cause excessive pain to the Horse upon knocking down an obstacle.
2. Any person witnessing an Abuse must report it in the form of a protest (Article 163) without delay. If an Abuse is witnessed during or in direct connection with an Event, it should be reported as a protest (Article 163) to an Official. If the Abuse is witnessed at any other time it should be reported as a protest (Article 163) to the Secretary General for referral to the FEI Tribunal.

Craig Schmersal of the US reining team at an FEI event this year:

Full kudos to the brilliant EponaTV for turning an unflinching lens on this. They were also responsible for kicking off the hullaballoo about the infamous ‘Blue Tongue’ incident.

The extract from the FEI rules was found by poster Jimbol at Horse and Hound Online, who suggested this form letter for contacting the British Horse Society, who represent the FEI in the UK. The FEI itself can be contacted here.

UPDATE: commenter noctemare at Fugly Horse of the Day added a second Epona TV video showing other reining competitors ‘warming up’ at the same event:

FURTHER UPDATE: on the 27th May the FEI added a post to Horse and Hound Online discussion, to say that they were engaged in an ongoing review of reining which was initiated in January 2011. Details here.

UPDATE: There’s a petition asking the FEI to enforce Article 142 here.

UPDATE: Epona TV report that the FEI have now changed their story and said that verbal warnings were issued.

UPDATE: August 22, Horse & Hound have reported that the FEI will announce changes to reining rules in January 2012.

UPDATE: a new link to the video.

Here’s One for Fugly Horse of the Day

From the Herald News:

The owner of the bay mustang taken into the town’s custody last week insists her horse has never been neglected, but several months ago fell into a funk and stopped eating the way she should.

Ellie Rose, of 27 Marshall St., said she has been working diligently to get the horse, Shamray, to eat, and has receipts and canceled checks from the purchase of different types of feed. She’s also had a veterinarian from Mass Equine visit the horse and take blood samples to try to determine what is going on with the horse.

Animal Control Officer Hilary Cohen, meanwhile, said Rose “was ordered to have a vet out. She did not seek a veterinarian on her own. She has been ordered in more than one instance to have a vet come out. I have been to the residence for several years on numerous complaints of neglect.”

Excuses, excuses. As though a horse were like a cat, and got fussy about the flavour of its food…


A Spindles' Farm survivor takes it easy at Redwings Horse Sanctuary

  • Sealskin will no longer be used for sporran manufacture. It’ll be ponyskin instead.
  • Anthropologie has a very pretty catalogue full of very pretty clothes and a whole heap of pretty horses.
  • A South African pony called Bertie kicked a pit bull in the head after it attacked his nads.
  • Champion racemare Sariska has been retired after deciding, once more, that she would rather not run today thank you in the Prix Vermeille in Paris.
  • I’m finding polo championship websites pretty atrocious to negotiate, but I think this means that the all-female England team came third in the European Championships in Vienna last week.
  • Competitors are arriving in Kentucky for the World Equestrian Games which kick off with reining on the 25th September. Dressage superstar and fan of “”low, round and deep“”, Anky Van Grunsven, will represent Holland in the western event.
  • Does ranty equine welfare blogger Fugly Horse of the Day practise what she preaches? Accusations in posts and comments on Fugly Horse of the Day Review suggest not. If you want to investigate, do go read through, but the “review” blog doesn’t gather up the details and put them in one place for ease of reading, so it may take you a while.
  • Horse bones are among a collection discovered at an Iron Age site in Sutton. Archaeologists think they may have been sacrifices.  Interesting, as I’m not sure from my own reading that there were many equine sacrifices in ancient Britain – horses were a scarce resource and expensive to feed – though I could be wrong.
  • The last son of Secretariat to stand at stud, Tinner’s Way, has retired.
  • AND FINALLY – I am delighted to see that the traditional practice of little girls taking ponies into houses is being upheld.