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Cloning Horses

Cloning, History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit.
By Marcella- Peyre Ferry (Horse History article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Cloning used to be part of science fiction. We watched armies of clones march across the movie screen in Star Wars and thought of it as just a movie. Then science began to catch up with imagination. We ve heard of Dolly the cloned sheep, and seen television and newspaper reports of cloned cats, but did you know there are laboratories working on cloning horses?

Horsemen are not too far removed from the process. Today, horse breeders use frozen semen and embryo transfers on a regular basis. Is it hard to imagine that cloning of horses is such a big step away. Though there are laws against cloning in the United States, that doesn t stop an American from having a horse replicated outside this country. In a news report this April, Italian scientists announced that they have created their second cloned horse. This one, born February 25, is alleged to be the clone of Arabian endurance champion Pieraz.  According to the wire service report, the lab claims the event as a breakthrough paving the way to preserving bloodlines that would otherwise be lost because the horse in question is a gelding. If that is the philosophy driving these efforts, I see a problem with the philosophy. Just because we can clone a horse doesn t mean we should.

Bloodlines sometimes die out because we let them. With all the information available from our breed registries you can find your horse s close kin without too much trouble. In most cases, it s not hard to go back and find a sibling or half sibling of your horse. A bloodline may die out if we let it. If a stallion does not produce good foals, we stop sending our mares to him. If a stallion can not pass on his positive traits to the next generation then he probably should not be a stallion.

Horses are gelded for good reason. Certainly there is some second guessing when a gelding turns out to be a star. The problem is, if he had not been gelded, he might never have achieved his full potential. Gelding can make colts safer to handle, and easier to train. Growing geldings develop different physical characteristics than their colt brothers. Their proportions and muscle structure are changed, so even full brothers can grow up very differently if one is gelded and one is not. The biggest difference, however, comes from the life our horses lead. Even if this new cloned Pieraz is genetically the same as the original, there is no guarantee that he could ever be an endurance champion in his own right.

Every bit of a horse s life impacts what he will become, starting with the nutrition he receives while still in the womb. Nutritional programs for pregnant mares, nursing mares, foals and weanlings make a difference in the growth of the youngster, bone density and muscle structure. Nutrition also affects organ development including the brain. Does the young horse grow up in a big pasture playing with other foals, or is he along with his dam? His place in his herd affects his personality in the future, just like psychologists claim that birth order affects children. This could be what makes the difference between a competitive, outgoing horse and a shy retiring one.

Does a foal have close contact with people from an early age or are they strangers who appear only at feeding time? These are the kinds of things that can affect his disposition and make him hard to handle or easy to train. When it comes to training, the difference is huge. We all have stories of how a horse flourishes when he is in the hands of the trainer that is right for him. Leave the same animal with a different person and he becomes a different horse.

I can understand why owners would want to clone a great horse like Pieraz. He is a two time world champion, with countless awards and accomplishments. My guess, however, is that his greatness goes back to the care, conditioning and training he received over the years as well as the physical traits he was blessed with at birth. Though you may be able to copy the genetic material of a champion, there is more to creating a great horse than what is in his genes. That gives us all hope that any horse in our barn can rise to his full potential if we help him all along the way.

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