The Vikings are well known for their violent raids, but did you know that they were also expert horse breeders?
New DNA research sheds light on the softer side of Viking culture. The new study has discovered that it was the Vikings who first bred horses to move in a way that was more comfortable for the rider, especially when travelling for long distances.
Today we call it the ‘ambling gait’, which describes a particular style of movement--faster than a walk but slower than a canter or a gallop.
The results have surprised many scientists and contradicts previous theories of human involvement in animal development.
“It has been widely accepted until now that targeted breeding of domesticated animals occurred in the last couple of hundred years. The study provides clear evidence that the Vikings were already actively breeding particular traits in horses,” says Dr. Ernest Bailey from the Gluck Equine Research Center, at the University of Kentucky, USA, who was not involved in the study.
The scientists behind the study analysed DNA samples from 90 horse skeletons collected from across Eurasia and dated between 5000 BCE and 1100 CE.
One of the skeletons, found in England and dated to around 850 to 900 CE, contained a single genetic mutation that was subsequently inherited by the following generations and is found in horses all over the world today.
The mutation occurred in the DMRT3 gene, affectionately known as the ‘gait keeper’ gene, which controls the horses’ leg movement.
This mutation led horses to develop new gaits, such as the Icelandic tölt, which is so smooth that the rider appears to be almost completely still while the horse is in motion. See the tölt in action in the video below.
See the famous Icelandic Pony in action, performing it’s famous ambling gait known as the tölt. (Video: YouTube.com, uploaded by Stan Hirson)
The gait-keeper gene probably started to spread around the world when the Danish Vikings settlers in England first transported horses to Iceland shortly after 850 CE.
In Iceland they continued to breed the horses that carried the gait-keeper gene and so passed it on to subsequent generations.
“After discovering the mutation among the Icelandic horses in the period between 900 to 1100 CE, we think that the Norse Vikings took the horses that carried the mutation with them to Iceland, after coming across them in England around 850 CE,” says senior author Arne Ludwig from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Germany.
After this initial breeding, the gait-keeper gene spread quickly and today many horses all over the world perform a range of different types of ambling-gait. (See Fact Box).
“There was only a limited population of horses in Iceland at the time, so it didn’t take long for the mutation to spread to all the horses on the island as the Vikings bred them for this particular property,” says Ludwig.
Over time the Vikings helped to spread this popular and comfortable style of movement by trading horses that carried the gait-keeper gene, says Ludwig.
“The Vikings were such effective horse breeders that today, over half of all horse breeds around the world have inherited the ambling gait. That equates to around 40 million horses globally,” he says.
Dagfinn Skre from Oslo University, Norway is a professor in Archaeology and is not surprised by the suggestion that Vikings traded horses with Iceland.
“This is known in archaeologist circles,” says Skre. “How would the horses otherwise have reached an uninhabited island in the middle of the sea?” he says.
Skre is unconvinced that the study has enough data to conclude that the horses originated in England, and not, for example, in Scandinavia.
“The documentation in the study builds on 90 horse skeletons spanning a long period of time--over 7,000 years. Among them, only ten came from Scandinavia, from where Vikings usually transported horses to Iceland during this period. I think that is too small a sample,” says Skre.
And he points out that the study did not analyse samples from Norwegian or Irish horses, which were often transported to Iceland during this period.
But knowing where the first mutation occurred is not the most important aspect of the research, says Bailey.
“The core of the study is the quick breeding. The mutation possibly began even earlier in another place, in another horse, or it could have begun in the British Isles. That’s not the important thing,” he says.
“What’s important here is that there was clearly a rapid spread of the DMRT3-mutation, which began with the English horses and that, based on historical facts, were possibly taken to Iceland by the Vikings and therefore spread further,” he says.