Origins of ambling horses traced

DNA analysis suggests that gaited horses were brought from the British Isles to the North Atlantic island by the Norse people.

A study from Germany suggests that the Vikings who settled in what is now Iceland in the 9th century may have had a penchant for gaited horses.

Riders in a field of purple flowers in Iceland
DNA analysis suggests that gaited horses came to Iceland from the British Isles.

To track the spread of the genetic mutation that enables horses to amble, tolt or perform other “easy” gaits, researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin recently worked with scientists across Europe to analyze DNA0 from historic horse remains. Specifically, they looked for a mutation of DMRT3, a gene believed to be responsible for gaitedness because it helps govern the coordination of limb movement.

Previous DNA analysis of more than 4,000 contemporary horses of 141 breeds showed that DMRT3 mutation is found among equine populations around the world, particularly in horses used for harness racing.

Click here to learn what DNA test can, and can’t, tell you about a horse.

In the new study, researchers found the DMRT3 mutation in horses that had lived on the British Isles between 850 and 900 AD, as well as among those living in Iceland between the 9th and 11th centuries. This suggests, they say, that gaited horses were brought from the British Isles to the North Atlantic island by the Norse people. In addition, the high frequency of DMRT3 mutation in the Icelandic remains suggests that Norse settlers preferred horses that ambled and sought to perpetuate the trait through selective breeding.

The researchers note that DNA samples from horses in Asia and continental Europe including Scandinavia living in the same era do not show the DMRT3 mutation, meaning gaited horses did not show up there until later.

Reference: “The origin of ambling horses,” Current Biology, August 2016

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #471, December 2016.

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