Horseback riding is the most fundamental use of domestic horses. However, aficionadas know that ambling Icelandic horses give the most joy. But were they perhaps originally English?
Over time, riding techniques and the style of riding improved. Especially sought after were horses with the ability to perform comfortable gaits (e.g. ambling or pacing), so-called ‘gaited’ horses. Nothing beats these animals for long distance travel. Anyone, who have ever tried riding an Icelandic horse will know that it is a particularly pleasant experience.
Recently, the causative mutation for this gaitedness in horses was identified. Genotyping the position in 4396 modern horses from 141 breeds revealed that nowadays the mutated allele is distributed worldwide with an especially high frequency in horses and breeds used for harness racing.
However, in an article from August in Current Biology a team of scientists have followed up on these results publishing a study of historic horse remains.
More than 90 ancient horses were genotyped ranging from 6000 BC to the 11th century. The scientists then succeeded in finding the allele in two English horses from AD 850 – 900 from York and in ten out of thirteen Icelandic horses from AD 870 – 1050. Compared to this, all the continental horses, including ten examples from Denmark and Sweden lacked the genetic imprint.
Based on this, the team has proposed that the Viking settlers in Iceland brought their horses from England to Iceland. “The presence of the corresponding allele in Icelandic horses (9th–11th century) strongly suggests that ambling horses were originally brought from the British Isles to Iceland by the Norse”, they write.
Considering the high frequency of the ambling allele in early Icelandic horses, the scientists believe that Norse settlers selected for this comfortable mode of horse riding soon after their arrival in the British Isles, after which they brought the animals with them to Iceland.
The absence of the allele in samples from continental Europe (including Scandinavia) at this time implies – according to the scientists – that the specific gene for ‘gaited’ horses must have been the result of recent mutation; otherwise it would have been detectable on the continent. Horses were prized commodities, which was traded all over Europe; had it been an earlier mutation, the gene flow would have resulted in different distribution.
However, the scientists have not studied horse remains from Norway – only Sweden and Denmark.
Granted that it was a recent mutation, it might initially have mutated in Norway in the 9th century and then spread simultaneously to Iceland and England; later bringing it further into the continent, including Denmark and Sweden. As yet, the studied sample lacks the Norwegian specimens.
The Origin of Ambling Horses
By Saskia Wutke, Leif Andersson, Norbert Benecke, Edson Sandoval-Castellanos, Javier Gonzalez, Jón Hallsteinn Hallsson, Lembi Lõugas, Ola Magnell, Arturo Morales-Muniz, Ludovic Orlando, Albína Hulda Pálsdóttir, Monika Reissmann, Mariana B. Muñoz-Rodríguez, Matej Ruttkay, Alexandra Trinks, Michael Hofreiter, Arne Ludwig
In: Current Biology, 2016, Volume 26, Issue 15, 8 August 2016, Pages R697-R699
Source: Disa – Icelandic Horse Service