Horse’s Gait Controlled by Genetic Mutation Deliberately Sought for Selective Breeding by Humans, New Study Reveals

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The ability to move with a lateral gait can be a desirable trait in a horse but it is related to a genetic mutation. Humans sought horses with that genetic mutation because they were more comfortable to ride. The process of selective breeding led to the rise of specific breeds and types of horses known for the trait. This rider is demonstrating the smoothness of her Icelandic horse's gait. (Travfotos image from a horse show in Iceland)

The ability to move with a lateral gait can be a desirable trait in a horse but it is related to a genetic mutation. Humans sought horses with that genetic mutation because they were more comfortable to ride. The process of selective breeding led to the rise of specific breeds and types of horses known for the trait. This rider is demonstrating the smoothness of her Icelandic horse's gait. (Travfotos image from a horse show in Iceland)

The horse that gave the most comfortable ride was likely to be bred in hopes of passing along that quality, in days gone by. And if you bred a smooth-moving horse to another smooth-moving horse, and your neighbors were doing the same, you might find that you had a regional type of horse after some generations.These regional types developed into distinctive breeds and we’ve now forgotten how they came to be. But the genetic code tells us more.

New research in the journal Animal Genetics reveals that a horse’s gait, an attribute central to its importance to humans, is influenced by a genetic mutation, spread by humans across the world. The team, led by Dr. Leif Andersson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences explored the distribution of a mutation in the DMRT3 gene which affects the gait of horses, known as the ‘gait keeper.’

“All over the world, horses have been used for everyday transportation, in military settings, cattle herding and agricultural power, pulling carriages and carts, pleasure riding or racing,” said Dr Andersson. “Over the centuries, horse populations and breeds have been shaped by humans based on the different purposes for which the animals were used.”

The DMRT3 gene is central to the utility of horses to humans, as it controls a range of gaits as well as pace. From racing to pleasure riding, many species have been bred to encourage smoothness of gait.

The mututation that causes (or enables) the gaited breeds to provide a comfortable ride to humans has spread around the world.

The mututation that causes (or enables) the gaited breeds to provide a comfortable ride to humans has spread around the world.

“For example, the Paso Fino is a breed from Latin America in which the frequency of the ‘gait keeper’ mutation is nearly 100%. It is claimed that the Paso Fino gait is so smooth that you can have a glass of wine in your hand without letting it spill,” said Dr Andersson.

The team analyzed 4,396 horses from 141 breeds around the world and found that the ‘gait keeper’ mutation is spread across Eurasia from Japan in the East, to the British Isles in West, on Iceland, in both South and North America, and also in breeds from South Africa.

“Humans have spread this mutation across the world primarily because horses carrying this mutation are able to provide a very smooth ride, in some breeds referred to as a running walk,” said Dr Andersson. “During such ambling gaits the horse has at least one foot on the ground that means that the vertical movement of the rider is minimal.”

Read Worldwide frequency distribution of the ‘Gait keeper’ mutation in the DMRT3 gene via open access on the Animal Genetics website.