Category Archives: Horses

Morning at Triton

War was brewing in Yugoslavia back in early 1991. I hopped on one of the last trains from Belgrade to London, then a plane to JFK in New York City, then next day down to Asheville, NC. A week later, the war broke out. They were knocking on doors, looking for men of military age, putting them in uniform, giving them rifles and sending them to the front. I was 25, I had a little backpack, and there was no going back.

I worked for two months in a summer camp outside of Hendersonville, NC as a camp counselor, teaching kids to ride horses and taking care of the animals. When the camp ended, together with several other counselors, I got into an old Toyota station wagon and drove all the way up to upstate New York. There we stayed a couple of days, cleaning and degreasing the kitchen of another camp owned by the same organization. That was a nice way to earn a little extra money. I needed it. My travelers checks were OK, but running thin. My regular bank checks were useless – with the war on, the bank transfers were blocked.

One of the camp counselors was a student at Brandeis University, just north of Boston. He took me there and gave me food and shelter in his room. He was one of several guys living in a huge fraternity house which in its past life used to be a funeral home. Apparently, the crematorium equipment in the basement was still operational.

I stayed there for a couple of weeks, then went up north to New Hampshire to visit an old childhood friend of mine. We used to ride horses together and now she was a professional horse trainer up there. We have not seen each other for ten years, so she put me on one of her horses to see how my riding improved since the last time she saw me on a horse. I spent about two weeks there, with her trying hard to switch me from European, deep-seat, controlling style of riding to the more free-flowing, fluid American style – something I needed if I was going to stay in the country and work at a horse farm somewhere – probably the only solution for a person whose visa was about to expire and render him an illegal alien.

She opened the latest issue of the Chronicle of the Horse, the professional weekly magazine, and turned to the job ads. She called up about a dozen numbers. She narrowed them to three: “Now you call!”. I did. One job was in Virginia, paid almost nothing, and the owner did not care about my riding – he needed someone to muck stalls. The second one was with Ian Millar up in Canada, but he was just getting ready to go down to the Florida circuit and had no time to deal with my paperwork, passports, visas, etc.

The third one was Shep Welles, down in North Carolina which was familiar place already. He interviewed me for two hours over the phone, asking everything about my riding history, physique, current administrative and financial situation, and more. He was interested, but he had two girls coming to interview next day, so he told me to call again after a couple of days, in case he did not like their riding. I was nervous. My still very stiff European riding could not possibly compare to locally produced riders.

I went back to Boston, waited a couple of days, and called Shep again. He did not like the way the two girls rode (ooops, he has high standards, nervous, nervous!), so he was interested in seeing me. Again, he interviewed me over the phone for two hours, touching on many of the same topics. I had 20 years of experience with horses by then, riding, training, grooming, teaching riding to kids, and working as finish-line judge and assistant handicapper at the Belgrade racecourse. But I was still not confident that my Balkans-style riding would be something he’d like.

Shep was going to give me a chance. If he did not like my riding, I could stay at his place and clean the stalls and he’d find me a job in the area. If he did like me, he would help me with the visa, documents, finances etc. I borrowed some money from my Boston friend and bought Greyhound tickets to Raleigh.

Actually, it was not that easy. This was 1991, no Google Maps, Facebook, iPhones or Twitter. I wrote down the name of the town the way I heard Shep say it. Then I opened an old print map of USA, found North Carolina, and started looking for “Rowley”. Ooops! No such place. But also no town whatsoever that starts with R except Raleigh. So I risked it – I bought a ticket to Raleigh. If that was a wrong spot, at least I’d be in the right state and they could come and get me.

Ellen Mordecai Welles, 1925-2013.

Ellen Mordecai Welles, 1923-2013.

My bus pulled into the Raleigh Greyhound station. An old, dirty, beat-up truck pulled up right next to the bus. Yup, right there, on the platform. Out came a wiry old lady, Shep’s mother, the owner of the barn. But why not? After all, Mrs.Welles was a Mordecai – she was Raleigh before there was Raleigh, she owned the place, she could park wherever she wanted!

I was standing there with my backpack and she looked straight at me: “You must be Bow-rah!”. Yup, it was me. How did she guess?

She threw my backpack on some bales of straw in the back of the truck and motioned me to get in the cabin. I did. Within a microsecond, three Jack Russell terriers were in my face, barking their heads off. “This is Winston, this is Russell, and this one is Jester and aren’t they such good boys!” They kept barking in my face for another ten miles of the ride, until we got to the barn.

Ten miles does not seem such a long drive, but it did for me then. There was never a moment Mrs.Welles ever looked at the road! Why should she? The old truck knew the way by itself! By the time we got to the house, I heard the history of the family, the history of Camp Triton and Triton Stables. We were greeted at the house by two more dogs – huge, ancient Mildred, and tiny, blind Henry. I was shown my room, deposited my backpack there, and looked at all the cobwebs in the rafters – the life is at the barn, after all, so why clean the house when it’s just for sleeping!

Off we went to the barn across the road from the house. Shep was teaching his class – the group of best riders at the stables – so I had to wait until he had time to put me on a horse for an interview. I sat on a bench and watched. I was deeply impressed. Lots of horses in a relatively small ring, yet horses seemed calm and relaxed and happy, jumping with ease and appetite. This was obviously a top-notch establishment.

When the class was over, and the riders untacked, washed and turned out their horses, one of the riders from that class approached me at the bench: “Hi, I am Catharine, you must be the new guy, may I sit here with you?” Of course, of course, why not…. A year or so later, she became my wife. Triton magic!

Shep put me on a wonderful horse, named Time (I think the show name was ‘Time Maker’), a tall, handsome chestnut who was so easy to ride I managed to remember my New Hampshire lessons and ride him pretty smoothly and fluidly, pretending I was an American rider.

The late afternoon is a hectic time at a barn. Horses need to be brought in and fed. I did not know the horses yet, or even where the grain was. But there was something I could do to help – teach a new kid her first ever riding lesson on a pony. Mrs. Welles handed me an old dappled-grey pony (Rosie), and a tiny little child (Heidi) and told me to teach her to post in trot. Which I did. After all, I used to teach riding before and felt comfortable doing it. By the end of the hour, Heidi was posting like a pro.

Apparently, Shep liked my riding. Also apparently, Mrs. Welles liked my teaching. Some years later I heard that the two of them had a somewhat tense discussion over dinner that night – who will get me! In the end, they decided on a Solomon’s solution: to split me up in half. I spent next eighteen months riding young horses in the mornings and teaching beginner riders in the afternoons and on Saturdays.

The very next weekend, there was a horse show at Triton Stables. Everyone came up to me to introduce themselves. “Where are you from?” “Rowley”, I said, in my best imitation of Southern drawl.

And in a sense, that was true. That was my home now.

On occasion, I’d go with Shep to a horse show as a groom. Not to small local shows where he took bunches of ponies – kids and parents went along for those – but to the big shows where he’d take a few young hunters he hoped to show well – and sell – and his old Grand Prix show-jumper Amadeus. We had great times together at such shows, and I did my best to be a good groom, take good care of horses, and make sure that Penny Lane, Tiki Toy, French Horn, Crusader and others were well warmed up for him. And this was serious stuff – I learned so much just watching Shep warm up!

But afternoons were different. Shep was the boss. Yes, we were friends, we had fun, and my riding improved more during those eighteen months than the entire twenty years before it, but he was still The Boss. On the other hand, Mrs.Welles became a new mother to me. I was a stranger in a strange land. Not sure what tomorrow brings, except that there is no going home to the country that soon became seven countries over a decade of bloody wars.

She was a tough lady. Whenever I hear the phrase “tough as nails” I think of Mrs. Welles – she is the epitome of that saying.

But she also had endless love, for all of her family, all of her students, her horses, her dogs and her cats. With six grown kids, what’s a big deal about adding another one? One more or less, doesn’t matter, there was plenty of heart for all of us.

I got away with some things others could not. As a night owl, it was hard for me to get up in the morning. So I’d wake up at the last moment, run down to the barn to help bring in the horses from the paddocks, feed them, clean the stalls if Alvin and Albert had a day off, put the hay out in the fields. But then I’d run back up to the house for…breakfast break! Instead of working! But I needed my calories! I had my big bowl of cocoa puffs, cocoa crispies and coco pebbles (yes, all mixed in) with chocolate milk, perhaps also some toast and jam, I gulped that all fast and ran back down to the barn to ride. I needed the energy to work all day, walking miles taking horses in and out of the fields, riding several young spirited horses every morning and teaching (which means “running after the ponies non-stop”) two or three classes every afternoon. I actually gained weight! Mrs. Welles liked that – she wanted to see me put on some muscle on this skinny body!

I must have been doing something right. I started by teaching one afternoon class with five ponies: Peppy, Flopsie, Blue Eyes, Bella and Rosie. Within months, I was teaching two or even three classes every day, with a dozen horses in each, pulling the summer-camp ponies out of the fields and putting them to work every single day. Apparently, the kids liked it and kept coming back for more and more lessons. Soon we had to split the pre-short-stirrup show class into two, then three, then four divisions – A, B, C and D. Soon after, my students and Mrs.Welles’ students started battling for ribbons in the D class. Sometimes we fought over students – I wanted to keep my best for “just one more horse show” while she wanted to promote them to her more advanced classes. She even let me take one of my students to short-stirrup division before letting her move up to her classes.

And we talked. We talked so much. About horses. And dogs. And kids we taught. And my old life in former Yugoslavia. And the history of her family. And her pride in successes of her other son Jeffrey on the international circuit. And why I was so good with crazy fillies like Penny Lane, Dream Girl, Pharlap and especially the super-sensitive Con Tiki – the last ever horse she herself broke in, and probably my most favorite horse I rode there. And about my new love for Catharine. And so much more. And we laughed. We laughed a lot. And I felt at home.

I can’t believe it all lasted just eighteen months! Catharine and I got married. I was given a green card. Catharine sold her horse (Double Helix, but she called him Watson) so we could buy a car – a stick-shift Volvo station wagon in which I got my drivers license. The first winter, Catharine moved into my room at the Welles house, and we spent a couple of months battling an outbreak of strangles for many hours every day, from dawn late into the dark, trying to help all the poor horses feel better and get well. The second winter, we moved out to Catharine’s place across the street from NCSU. In the end, I quit and had a couple of boring manual jobs for a few months until I started graduate school at NCSU.

But I kept coming back for many years, judging the pre-short-stirrup classes at Triton shows, thus getting to see Mrs.Welles at least a few times a year. My own Jack Russell terrier, Gru (short for Grushenka – the lady of the night from Dostoyevsky novels), ended up living at Triton so I had to visit her every now and then. Our friend Betty Trustman bought a big thoroughbred, Quartermane, so I went to Triton to ride him on Sundays, to get his energy out so he does not buck her off on Mondays. That was about fifteen years ago – the last time I was on a horse.

As we moved farther away and my life got busier, and as Mrs.Welles gradually stopped teaching and got older and began to feel her age, we lost touch. Thanks to Facebook, I reconnected with several other people from Triton, so I could be informed about comings and goings there. So I knew when the barn moved out to Durham county. And I knew when various other things happened.

Several years ago, Mrs. Welles needed a hip replacement. Catharine and I went to visit her at the hospital right after the surgery. Barely out of anesthesia, Mrs.Welles pulled herself up with her own arms, lifted and moved herself from the trolley to the bed. The nurse kept coming and looking at the monitors, apparently not very happy. Catharine, a nurse herself, asked what was the worry. This is where we had to explain that the pulse will never go up as high as expected – Mrs.Welles, after all, was a top athlete in top form, even when she was in her 70s. She had an athlete’s heart.

A couple of months ago, we heard that Mrs.Welles had another stroke and was again in a hospital and not in a nursing home. We went to visit her. She could not speak. It took her a long time and lots of talking to recognize Catharine, and even longer to recognize me. She was squeezing a plush toy piebald pony – looking just like Marco Polo, or Oreo – with her right hand. Suddenly, she pulled herself up, and grabbed my hand. She pinched my hand so hard I thought she’d break my fingers. Decades of working with horses made her so strong that even this close to the end of her life she could still grip harder than I could. Tough as nails to the end…

How to ride a horse bareback and bridle-less (video)

Diving Horses (video)

Related information:
The Diving Horses of Atlantic City
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (movie)
Dedicated to The Diving Horses
Diving Horses (video)
The diving Horse (video)
Diving horse (Wikipedia)
A girl and Five Brave Horses (book)


To Irena Ilic (see here) for winning the Junior Division of the Show Jumping Balkans Championship a couple of weeks ago in Istanbul.

The Horse Exhibit at the AMNH

One of the cool perks of being a scienceblogger and going to a meetup this year was the opportunity to go and see the Horse Exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and to recieve (as we were not allowed to take pictures in there) a CD with some of the pictures. You can also see a lot more text and pictures, pretty closely following what is on the exhibit itself, on the excellent Horse Exhibit wesbite.
So, on Saturday afternoon, after the Meet-the-Readers event, several of us got on the subway and went up to the Museum. And I was not disappointed. You know I love horses and have been voraciously reading about them all my life. Yet, I still learned a thing or two new to me at the exhibit. The first thing one sees when entering the room is this huge and beautiful diorama, with various species of now-extinct equids:
The exhibit itself put a lot of effort into dispelling the old textbook notion of a linear progression (from Eohippus to Equus caballus) of the horse evolution, the ‘ladder’, and tries to present the more realistic way of thinking about it as a ‘bush‘ (I am surprised Brian never moved that post to his new blog) with many twigs, and with many species of horses living simultaneously in many parts of the word.
The video (featuring, I think, Ross MacPhee) next to this part of the exhibit, explained how scientists figure out these things, like ages of fossils and genealogical relationships between extinct species – a good antidote to the inevitably static nature of the exhibit, i.e., the Facts, as opposed to the Process.
A similar video about the way scientists study the early domestication of horses serves the same function – it shows the method by which we get to know what we know, not just what we know. The portion of the exhibit about domestication, as well as the one on the natural history (evolution, behavior, extinct and living relatives, etc.) were very well done – there were no usual factual errors that often creep into such exhibits, books etc.about horses.
The rest of the exhibit was devoted to the relationship between horses and humans – how the two species affected and changed each other over the past six millennia. From the use of horses for food, bones, hair and milk, through domestication, riding, driving, warfare and work and today – to sport and the protection of the horses. How horses were bred for different purposes at different times, for instance for large size and carrying ability:
…or for high speed needed to deliver mail from East to West Coast:
It was great fun, especially seeing this together with some knowledgeable SciBlings like Brian, Grrrl, Josh and others who will probably write their own reviews soon. If you can come to NYC before January 4th 2009, make sure you take some time to see this exhibit. Perhaps it will go on a tour of other cities afterwards. In the meantime, peruse the Horse Exhibit wesbite for more information.

Equestrian sports in Serbia

Before I went back to Belgrade, I did not know if there was a website with information about the racing and equestrian activities there. There used to be one some years ago, but it has not been updated in a very long time. So, I was happy when, while there, I was given URLs of the Belgrade Racecourse website and the Federation for Equestrian Sport of Serbia website. The former looks good and easy to navigate.
The latter is little old-timey in appearance but that may be on purpose, to emphasize the long tradition. It is also a little too PDF-happy for my taste – it is OK to use the format for things like forms that need to be downloaded, filled out and sent in, but it is not needed for calendars and results – I would have organized them differently.
What is missing on both sites is an English version (for at least some parts of the content) and something interactive – perhaps a forum or a blog. There used to be one for racing/trotting folks and one for equestrians on the old site, but not any more. For someone like me, the only way to communicate with old friends and current people is via Facebook. There should be a better way especially that so many of the old riders now work as trainers in other countries and would probably like to have a way to keep in touch.
What I would also like to see is an accumulation of historical material. I remember many volumes of books at the office back then and there, full of information about Serbian (then Yugoslav) horses, from pedigrees to results to newspaper clippings. I’d love to see all those things scanned in and organized in some way on the site.

EuroTrip ’08 – Belgrade, the Horses

Yesterday I went to the Belgrade Racecourse and the barns and was happy to meet many of my old friends, including my old trainer (with Professor Steve Steve below) as well as some good new kids, including two sisters who used to own and ride my old horse. There were two small show jumping classes yesterday (3’6″ and 4′), both with simple, nicely flowing courses appropriate for the very beginning of the show season. The horses are all better than what we used to ride, the rides went smoothly, and both sisters placed in the bigger class that included a jump-off:

Continue reading

My Equestrian Past

My Equestrian PastThis post from May 07, 2005, was one of the rare personal posts I have ever written. Under the fold….

Continue reading

Have you hugged your horse today?

The other day, Kate wrote an interesting post about inter-species relationships, in particular the cases of inter-species adoption and parenting. In her post, she mentioned a paper that immediately drew my attention – Influence of various early human-foal interferences on subsequent human-foal relationship. by Henry S, Richard-Yris MA and Hausberger M. (Dev Psychobiol. 2006 Dec;48(8):712-8.).
In the paper, the newborn foals were either handled by humans (e.g., brought to the teat), or left completely alone with their mother, or just had humans standing by. Then, a few weeks later, they tested the foals as to their response to human handling. Those that were handled immediately after birth responded less positively than the controls and those that had just a presence of humans had a better response than the controls (in a nutshell – the study is more complicated than that, but this will suffice for now).
As someone who has spent my life around horses, I grokked this intuitively. The idea of “imprinting”, as I understood it at the time it was popular a couple of decades ago, did not mean, in my mind, force-handling newborn foals. It just meant ‘being there’. Letting the mare and foal do their stuff for the first few hours. Then, instead of letting the mares and foals out in the pasture for two years before trying to handle the semi-wild youngsters, making sure that the foals get used to the daily presence of humans, and gradually more and more interaction with humans, including touching and handling.
The paper is described as a test of “imprinting” but I am not sure – has anyone actually tried to imprint by force-handling foals at birth? Was that what imprinting ended up meaning? Or is the paper misinterpreting the idea?
I have raised a foal. My good friend and colleague, a veterinarian, was there when my horse was born. He let the nature take its course. For the first month, the dam was handled daily and they both spent time outside in the presence of humans, but nobody touched the foal. When I got him at six months of age, I spent the first night sitting in his food-trough, talking softly. He calmed down after a couple of hours, finally fell asleep, and later came over to me, sniffed me and nuzzled me. It never occurred to me to pat him as I never expected that to be a naturally soothing experience – “Yeesh, yuck, he…touched me!”.
But I spent hours every day with him afterwards. By the time he turned 1, I could catch him in the paddock (OK, the trick was to offer some tangerines), groom him, pick up his legs and trim his hooves, put a blanket on him, trim his whiskers with an electrical trimmer, lead him on the halter, lunge him, long-rein him, load him on the single-horse trailer and drive him around. At the age of 2, I had no problem putting the saddle on and getting on top myself. For the rest of his life he was a perfect gentleman in and out of the barn, easily handled by kids. He was not as easy to ride later on, I hear, which is surprising as I had no trouble riding him the first few months of his riding career. Last time I went home, back in 1995, I watched him do great at the Young Horse division of the showjumping championship of Serbia. I heard he started refusing to jump later and broke someone’s arm in the process. He subsequently won the dressage championship of Serbia with another rider. You can see a picture of him from his later years here.
I always thought that people patted horses because it feels good to the human, not the horse. The proper reward for work well done is rest – letting the reins long, walking the horse, taking him away from the noise of the show-ring to a quiet corner, giving him a bath, a stall full of fresh straw and some nice food, e.g., a warm bran-mash with apples and carrots (and garlic cloves – they LOVE it and their hair gets so shiny). The pat on the neck that a horse gets after running a good race or jumping a nice course is not in itself a reward. It is just a learned signal that the work is over and that the horse can now relax.

Running, breathing and being a horse

Yesterday, Chris Clarke wrote a post that I read three times so far, then finally submitted it myself for Reed’s consideration for the anthology. Most science bloggers are excellent writers, but rare is the gift that Chris displays in many a post, of weaving many threads into a coherent story that is also gripping and exciting – even when he writes about stuff like respiratory physiology, something that usually puts students to sleep in the classroom. But add a dash of evolution, a cool movie, some dinosaurs, and a personal experience and suddenly the story comes alive for the reader.
This was started as a comment on his blog, but it got long so I decided to put it here instead. You need to read his post in order to understand what in Earth I am talking about.
Human, like a horse.
First, I used to run a lot when I was in middle/high school. My favourite distances were 800m and 1500m and I usually held the school record and came in the top 10 in my age group for the city of Belgrade (pop. 2 mil.). Sure, I am lightweight and have ling legs, but I attributed my success to breathing – in exactly the same way Chris describes: 4 steps to inhale, 4 steps to exhale to begin with, then reducing it to 3, 2 or even 1 step for each inhalation and exhalation as I am approaching the finish line (or on an uphill). I was also breathing very loudly – sounding almost like a horse. And I actually imagined being a horse when I ran – a little imagery helps squeeze those last ounces of energy out of painful muscles in the end.
Horse, like a human.
Back in 1989 or so, I rode a champion sprinter racehorse throughout his winter fitness program, which was pretty much miles and miles of trotting around the track as a part of interval training. He was already getting older at the time and skipped two entire racing seasons out in the pasture, so he needed a good fitness program in order to get back on track and face the younger horses. Two decades later, he still holds the national and track records on 1000m and 1300m, going a kilometer well inside a minute. Translation: a damned fast horse! When the spring came and the professional jockeys arrived, it was time for me to give the horse to them to continue with the fast portion of the training. But, the owners wanted to reward my work by letting me, just once, get the feel for the speed. So, I took him out on the track and started in a steady canter around the course. The old campaigner knew just what to do – when we passed the last curve and entered the final stretch he took in one HUGE breath that made his chest almost double in diameter (I almost lost my stirrups at that moment when he suddenly widened) and took off. There was no way I could look forward without goggles – too much wind in my face. That was friggin’ fast! About 60km/h, I reckon, for that short burst of energy. And, during that entire final stretch he did not breath at all – he did it pretty much all on that one large breath plus anaerobic respiration. Chris, in his post, explains why horses do that. Oh, and that summer, the horse devastated his younger buddies by winning the biggest sprint of the year by several lengths, leaving the rest of the field, including that year’s Derby winner, in a cloud of dust. The audience roared as he was always a people’s favourite.
Horse and human, like a centaur.
One of the most important things in riding horses, something I always did and always taught, although it is rarely taught by others or mentioned in books, is the necessity for the rider to breath in sync with the horse’s movement. This is especially important when riding a nervous or spirited young horse who would otherwise explode. When trotting – three steps for inhale, three for exhale. Canter is more complicated. Stopping breathing leads to stiffening of the body which the horse immediately detects and it makes the horse nervous and more liable to stop at a jump or do something dangerous. It is easy to teach the adults to breath. But for the little kids, they forget, or even do not understand exactly what I am asking them to do. So, I made them sing while jumping courses. If you sing you have to breath all the time. You cannot stop breathing. So, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star got many a scared little kid over all the jumps in my classes as breathing relaxed them and gave their ponies confidence to jump.

2.5 hours from now

The horses will be entering the starting stalls for this year’s Preakness. Will Street Sense do it again? His Derby win was so impressive it seems impossible he can be beat, but this time the distance is different, the field is much smaller and everyone will be looking out for him. And he is starting from the outside stall, against the instincts of his jockey who loves to hog the rail. It will be exciting to watch…

Direct Spanish ancestry of the Shackleford wild horses

Shackleford ponies are often in the media around here. Some love them, some hate them, some want to preserve them, some to exterminate them, and it is not easy to get all the surplus horses adopted each year. Perhaps the new findings of their Spanish origin (DNA will tell the tale of wild horses) will tilt the scales towards their preservation, especially on the island of Corolla.
Thanks to Bill for the heads-up.

That’s one mighty fast horse!

Street Sense won the Derby in style. He hung back in 19th place (out of 20 horses) for most of the race. About 3/4 miles before the end, jockey Borel switched to a new gear and stepped on the gas. He passed all but the last two horses by riding on the rail – all the other horses (and it was horses, not jockeys) just moved away from him as he passed them one by one. That was so fast, all the other horses looked like Clydesdales in comparison. Not wanting to gamble any more, Borel decided to pass the last two on the outside and won so easily he started celebrating a hundred yards before the finish line! Awesome race!

OK, I sometimes do watch TV…

..and not just debates and C-span in an election year. I am unlikely to miss the three legs of the Triple Crown in any given year. Tomorrow at 6pm ET is the Kentucky Derby and I’ll be watching!

Horse Genome Assembled!

Just got this exciting news by e-mail:

Data on Equine Genome Freely Available to Researchers Worldwide
BETHESDA, Md., Wed., Feb. 7, 2007 – The first draft of the horse genome sequence has been deposited in public databases and is freely available for use by biomedical and veterinary researchers around the globe, leaders of the international Horse Genome Sequencing Project announced today.
The $15 million effort to sequence the approximately 2.7 billion DNA base pairs in the genome of the horse (Equus caballus) was funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A team led by Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, Ph.D., at the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., carried out the sequencing and assembly of the horse genome.
Approximately 300,000 Bacterial Artificial Chromosome (BAC) end sequences, which provide continuity when assembling a large genome sequence, were contributed to the horse sequencing project by Ottmar Distl, D.V.M., Ph.D. and Tosso Leeb, Ph.D., from the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Hanover, Germany and Helmut Blöcker, Ph.D., from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany. Production of the BAC end sequences was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and the State of Lower Saxony.
Sequencing of the domestic horse genome began in 2006, building upon a 10-year collaborative effort among an international group of scientists to use genomics to address important health issues for equines, known as the Horse Genome Project ( ). The horse whose DNA was used in the sequencing effort is a Thoroughbred mare named Twilight from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Researchers obtained the DNA from a small sample of the animal’s blood. To download a high-resolution photo of Twilight, go to
Twilight is stabled at the McConville Barn, Baker Institute for Animal Health, College of Veterinary Medicine, at Cornell University, with a small herd of horses that have been selected and bred for more than 25 years to study the mechanisms that prevent maternal immunological recognition and destruction of the developing fetus during mammalian pregnancy. The research, conducted by Cornell professor Doug Antczak, V.M.D, Ph.D., and funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has implications in reproduction, clinical organ transplantation and immune regulation.
In addition to sequencing the horse genome, researchers produced a map of horse genetic variation using DNA samples from a variety of modern and ancestral breeds, including the Akel Teke, Andalusian, Arabian, Icelandic, Quarter, Standardbred and Thoroughbred. This map, comprised of 1 million signposts of variation called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, will provide scientists with a genome-wide view of genetic variability in horses and help them identify the genetic contributions to physical and behavioral differences, as well as to disease susceptibility. There are more than 80 known genetic conditions in horses that are genetically similar to disorders seen in humans, including musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The SNPs are available at the Broad Institute web site ( ) and will be available shortly from NCBI’s Single Nucleotide Polymorphism database, dbSNP ( ).
The initial sequencing assembly is based on 6.8-fold coverage of the horse genome, which means, on average, each base pair has been sequenced almost seven times over. Researchers can access the horse genome sequence data through the following public databases: GenBank ( ) at NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI); NCBI’s Map Viewer ( ); UCSC Genome Browser ( ) at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and the Ensembl Genome Browser ( ) at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England. The data is also available from the Broad Institute Web site ( ).
Over the next several months, researchers plan to further improve the accuracy of the horse genome sequence and expect to deposit an even higher resolution assembly in public databases. Comparing the horse and human genomes will help medical researchers learn more about the human genome and will also serve as a tool for veterinary researchers to better understand the diseases that affect equines. A publication analyzing the horse genome sequence and its implications for horse population genetics is being planned for the future.

We can start working equine research now!

Postscript to Pittendrigh’s Pet Project – Phototaxis, Photoperiodism and Precise Projectile Parabolas of Pilobolus on Pasture Poop

We have recently covered interesting reproductive adaptations in mammals, birds, insects, flatworms, plants and protists. For the time being (until I lose inspiration) I’ll try to leave cephalopod sex to the experts and the pretty flower sex to the chimp crew.
In the meantime, I want to cover another Kingdom – the mysterious world of Fungi. And what follows is not just a cute example of a wonderfully evolved reproductive strategy, and not just a way to couple together my two passions – clocks and sex – but also (at the very end), an opportunity to post some of my own hypotheses online.

Continue reading

My Equestrian Past

My Equestrian PastThis post from May 07, 2005, was one of the rare personal posts I have ever written. Under the fold….

Continue reading