How the Yakut Horse Breed Withstands Arctic Cold
 By Winniefield Park   •   13th Dec 2015   •   2,286 views   •   0 comments

About this time of year, we start to worry if our horses are cold. After all, there’s snow on the ground in many places, the temperature is dipping below freezing and most of us are wrapping up in hats, scarves and coats before heading outside. And, it’s about the time heated debates about whether or not we should be blanketing our horses begin.

Most horses probably don’t need blankets as long as it’s not windy, wet or snowy. Those things tend to cool a horse down more than just cold air. And, our horses get acclimatized to cold if they’re given the chance. Some just won’t though. Many of us have thin coated Thoroughbreds or others that seem to be hot house flowers that get chilled easily. We don’t breed horses to withstand temperature extremes, so some horses, by luck of their genetics seem to be hardier than others.

There are a few breeds that seem to be able to withstand the cold better than others. One that comes readily to mind are Icelandic Horses. These hardy critters rarely see the inside of a stable in their native Iceland, and live outside all of the time without blankets, or much shelter at all. If you’ve ever met an Icelandic in the winter, you’ll see they grow a very thick coat. Unlike many of our horses, they appear to have a double coat, with longer thicker guard hairs on the outside, and a slightly shorter, downy undercoat. In North America, if they’re ridden throughout the winter months, they may have to be clipped, as they work up a sweat in no time.

Scientists have examined another breed of horse that is able to withstand temperatures of -70C and made some surprising discoveries. The Yakutian horses of North East Siberia live in temperatures that would reduce most of our horses, and ourselves into shivering popsicles. The genes of living and ancient Yakutian horses were compared to the genes of our modern horses. What the scientists found surprised them. The genes that govern patterns of their hair growth, hormones and the production of natural antifreeze show different patterns of expression compared to our modern horses.

Yakutian horses arrived in Siberia about 800 years ago when the Yakutian people migrated there. These horses are not native to the area. But, in that relatively short time period, Yakutian horses showed profound changes in their ability to adapt to the cold. 800 years represents about 100 generations of horses, and in this time, their genes reprogrammed to help them withstand the extreme weather they must survive.

Yakut horses are larger than other similar types and breeds such as the Icelandic and Prezwalski Horses. Although there are a few types recognized within the breed, they are generally broad backed, short and straight necked, low withered and short legged. In the winter, their hair coat may grow over 3 inches (8cm) long. Their manes and tails are very long and thick. Sometimes their manes reach almost down to their knees. Like many similar breeds they can have dark dorsal stripes and striping on their legs and shoulders.

It’s not just that this particular breed was able to adapt to its condition so quickly that has piqued scientists interests. This speedy adaptation may also help researchers understand how other species, even humans, change in similar ways in response to similar conditions. And it may help explain why some of our own horses shiver while the thermometer is still well above the freezing mark, and others treat subzero temperatures as beach weather. It may well be all in the genes.
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