Horses: Origin of Tölt and Pass lies in England

Vikings started the worldwide spread of gait horses

Icelandic horse in tölt. Where the origin of this gait lies was long unclear. © Dagur Brynjólfsson / CC-by-sa 2.0
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Surprising find: Contrary to previous assumptions, the ability to pass and tölt horses does not come from Iceland or Scandinavia. Instead, horses in England were the first to develop the mutation that made these unusual gaits possible, as shown by gene analysis. These "gait horses" did not arrive in Iceland until the Vikings captured them in England and took them with them.

Step, trot or gallop dominate all horses. But some horse breeds like the Icelanders can also do two more gaits, the pass and the tölt. The first is a trot, in which both legs of the same side simultaneously swing forward or backward, similar to the passage of the camel. The tölt is a fast step sequence without limbo phases.

Both special gaits are very comfortable for riders because the back of the horse is less jerky up and down as in trot or canter. Even in the Middle Ages, such gait horses were therefore considered particularly valuable and were used, for example, as riding horses for nobles or women - and selectively bred.

A mutation is to blame

As early as 2012, researchers found that the ability to pass and tölt is genetically determined: Only horses that carry a mutation in the gene DMRT3, learn these gaits. But it was not clear where the first gait horses came from. Because Icelanders dominate most passport and tölt, one suspected their origin in Scandinavia.

Whether this is true, Saskia Wutke from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin and her colleagues have now examined in more detail. For their study, they analyzed the genome of 90 European horse fossils from the time between the Copper Age around 6000 BC and the Middle Ages around 1000 AD. They specifically searched for the mutation in the DMRT3 gene. display

The Icelandic horses probably got the gang mutation from English ancestors. Thomas Quine / CC-by-sa 2.0

Origin in England

Surprisingly, the researchers got somewhere better than they expected. Until now, the origin of this mutation was suspected in early Scandinavia because the Isl nder horses most often have this mutation and they were once brought to this island by the Vikings. In addition, the earliest evidence of the mutation in Iceland dates back to 870.

However, in Scandinavia and throughout continental Europe, scientists did not find a single horse fossil with this gene mutation from before 870. However, in two English horses dating back to around 850, they encountered the gang mutation. This indicates that this mutation originated in this region: "We have traced the origin of the gait horses back to medieval England, " says co-author Arne Ludwig of IZW.

Loot of the Vikings

But how did the first gait horses get to Iceland? According to the researchers, this must have happened to the Vikings. It is historically proven that the Vikings repeatedly burned in the UK. In the 9th century, they also subjugated the area in Yorkshire, from which come the two historic gait horses. "So it seems obvious that the Vikings first hit gait horses in England and took them to Iceland from there, " explains Wutke.

Arriving on the island, the Vikings quickly recognized the advantage of gait horses and began to breed with them. The gentle gait was probably especially well suited to cover Iceland's rough terrain in the rough terrain. Only later did the gait horses spread from Iceland and England to the rest of Europe. (Current Biology, 2016; doi: 10.1016 / j.cub.2016.07.001)

(Forschungsverbund Berlin eV, 09.08.2016 - NPO)