It’s hard to imagine one of our pampered barn horses, in their thick waterproof blankets and hoods, standing outside in subzero temperatures…and it would probably be hard for them to imagine, too! After all, our Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Saddlebreds, and definitely Arabians, were not developed for cold climates.
But some horses were. The Icelandic Horse is one of them. This breed was brought to Iceland by the Vikings around 874-930 A.D. They are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world and one of the most pure, and they are the only breed of horse in Iceland. (Icelandhorse.org). This breed gets a very thick coat of fur in the winter to withstand Iceland’s frigid temperatures.
The breed has two special gaits in addition to the walk-trot-canter. Some of them possess the tolt, a four-beat gait similar to a walk, but much faster, and it can be as fast as a gallop! And then there’s the flying pace, a bi-lateral gait where the horse moves the fore and hind legs on one side at the same time. This gait has been clocked at speeds up to 45mph! (Icelandhorse.org)
Another breed that withstands cold winters is one you might not have heard of: the Yakutian horse (also called the Yakut horse). They are a rare horse native to Siberia. These horses are unlike any other equine in the world: they withstand -70 degree temperatures without freezing to death. Now that’s pretty amazing!
A new study compared the genomes of nine living and two ancient Yakut horses from Siberia with a large genome panel of 27 domesticated horses and found that today’s Yakut horse is not related to the now-extinct horses that used to be in the region. This means that these horses have adapted to the extreme cold of that region in just 800 years (the Yakuts migrated there in the 13-15th centuries), a relatively short time, in terms of evolution.
Researcher Dr. Ludovic Orlando said:
This is truly amazing as it implies that all traits now seen in Yakutian horses are the product of very fast adaptive processes, taking place in about 800 years. This represents about a hundred generations for horses. That shows how fast evolution can go when selective pressures for survival are as strong as in the extreme environment of Yakutia.
In their research, they found that the Yakut horse’s adaption to their environment took place through a “massive reprogramming of gene expression.”
What they found were changes in genes that affect hair development, which might be responsible for the horse’s thick winter coats and their shiver response to cold.
“We also found genes that were reported to have undergone selection in other Arctic populations, such as indigenous Siberian humans, and even the woolly mammoth,” said Dr. Orlando. “It provides a compelling example of evolutionary convergence, where unrelated groups exposed to similar environments end up independently developing similar adaptations.”
This video is a trailer for a documentary on the Yakut horse. It gives you a glimpse of these rare, beautiful equines in deep winter.
You can read more about the research on the Yakut horse in this news release.