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Testing Arabian horses and the wild horses of North Carolina

DNA tests seek to determine heredity, lineage
Testing Arabian horses and the wild horses of North Carolina hero image

With its distinctive head and high tail, the Arabian is one of the most recognizable, and beautiful, horses in the world.

Bred in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and prized by Bedouins, the horses were so prized they were often brought into family tents at night. To the owners, the horses were a gift from above, and their alertness made them suitable for taking into battle, while their refinement saw them used to strengthen other breeds.

Exactly where they came from, however, has been a matter of debate, with one line of thought proposing they were domesticated from wild horses in northern Syria and southern Turkey, and perhaps Iraq. Another says they came from an area home to three great riverbeds in southwestern Arabia, although that area has been dry for more than 10,000 years. Egyptian art from 3,500 years ago depicts the horse and shows they may have used them in chariots. Bedouin history recounts their presence some 3,000 years back, and they also appeared as key figures in in Assyrian and Babylonian history, biblical writings, and Greek lore.

A new study, however, sheds new light on these old assumptions about the breed.

Published in Scientific Reports and authored by a team hailing from multiple nations, researchers used single nucleotide polymorphism array and whole-genome sequencing from 378 Arabians and compared the data with 18 other breeds. The study made a number of key findings:

  • There is a high degree of genetic variation and complex ancestry in Middle Eastern Arabian horses.
  • The horses originated in the Middle East. Syrian/Tunisian/Bahrain and Iranian subgroups showed shared ancestry, and, despite a diversity of physical characteristics, are clustered with other modern Arabians.
  • Arabians did not contribute to Thoroughbred racehorses except for recent interbreeding for Thoroughbreds for flat racing.
  • The breed has unique genetic adaptations for physiology and conformation, including heat tolerance and endurance.

“The Arabian horse presents a paradox within equestrian culture,” the authors wrote. “To those who admire the breed, the gracefully shaped head with dished forehead and wide-set eyes are the iconic representation of the Arabian horse. Furthermore, virtually every horse fancier can recite the story of the influence of Arabian stallions in founding the modern Thoroughbred breed. To its detractors, the Arabian represents an overly inbred horse breed with a high incidence of inherited autosomal recessive diseases.”

Notably, domestic horses have notoriously low genetic diversity, with the Cleveland Bay, Friesian, and Clydesdale horses leading the list, according to a 2019 study.

While researchers are hunting for the history of the Arabian, they are also looking into the history of wild horses on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Historians have speculated that those horses descend from stock brought by Spanish settlers some 500 years ago. Known as Banker horses, these animals are popularly photographed by island visitors frolicking in dunes and swimming in channels.

According to Southern Living, there are currently some 400 Bankers, and they may have swum ashore when Spanish ships wrecked on hidden shoals just off the coast, although they also could have been left behind by explorers, two of whom were in the area and brought livestock. Today, they are managed by the National Park Service, the state of North Carolina, and private groups.

A new DNA study of the horses will create a family tree of the horses several generations deep and manage breeding, according to the The Raleigh News & Observer.

In June, researchers collected DNA from 10 horses, and DNA has already been collected from formerly wild horses which were transported to a rescue farm for health reasons.

“Our goal is to collect tissue samples from every wild horse in the herd,” stated the Corolla Wild Horse Fund in a Facebook post. “We're working on a genetic study sponsorship program where supporters will get a photograph of their chosen horse, quarterly updates on our findings, and a final report at the end of the study.”

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