In a study of more than 4,000 horses of various breeds, researchers found that a mutation in the DMRT3 gene is responsible for a horse's ability to perform special gaits, such as ambling or pacing, beyond the standard walk, trot, and gallop.
These special gaits unique to certain breeds are often more comfortable for riders, especially over long distances.
An international research team set out to explore the history and origins of these gaited horses. With the guidance of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, the team analyzed the DMRT3 mutation in 90 horses from the Copper Age (6000 BC) to the Middle Ages (11th century).
The researchers found evidence of the gait mutation in the genomes of two English horses that lived between 850-900 AD. They found more frequent evidence of the mutation in samples from Icelandic horses that lived between the 9th-11th centuries.
The findings suggest that gaited horses originated in 9th century medieval England. Vikings brought the horses to Iceland and eventually, the horses became dispersed throughout Europe and Asia. There have been horses in Iceland since 870 BC. However, researchers did not find evidence of the mutation in any European or Asian horses from the same period.
Given the short timeframe, it is unlikely that the populations of English and Icelandic gaited horses developed separately from each other. According to IZW geneticist Arne Ludwig;
"It is much more likely that the first horses ever imported to Iceland already carried the mutation for alternative gaits. The Vikings recognised the value of the gaited horses and preferentially selected for this trait--thereby laying the foundation for the worldwide distribution."
The origin of the Icelandic horse is not fully understood, but history and science suggest that it came to Iceland with the Vikings. Given the fact that no evidence of the gait mutation was detected in 9th century Scandinavian horses, however, it is likely that horses from various other regions were imported to Iceland as well.
There is historical evidence of an ongoing Viking presence in the British Isles in the region that the two English horses whose genomes contained the gait mutation originated from.
"Taking that into account our results suggest that Vikings first encountered gaited horses on the British Isles and transported them to Iceland," says first lead author of the study, IZW Ph.D. student Saskia Wutke.
The ample evidence of the gait mutation in early Icelandic horses suggests that the Icelandic settlers valued the gaited horses for traveling long distances over harsh terrain and used selective breeding to propagate the trait.
The study was published in the journal Current Biology and you can check it out here.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section!
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