Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blessi and the Camo Yarmulke

Blessi and I went to a camping event this summer.  I forgot to pack a fly mask for him so I had to improvise.  This fashion statement is made from a hood meant to keep flies off people.  I cut it in half and tied it to Blessi's halter.  He only wore it during the day when flies were really bad.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blessi and the Apple Paddle

This summer, Blessi and I attended a Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) tourney. One of the most challenging obstacles did not involve throwing a lance or chopping a head off a bandit--oh no, Blessi was fine with all that.  The tricky part involved an apple. 
One challenge consisted of balancing an apple on a paddle, carrying the apple to an elevated box, and dropping it in. So  Johannes, the equestrian marshall, puts the apple on the paddle that I am carrying. And what does Blessi do? He starts circling to the right to chase the apple. He was convinced that the apple was a treat for him and if we circled enough he could get that apple.
After he stopped laughing, Johannes walked in front of us to get Blessi to stop circling. We followed him and successfully dropped the apple into the box.  
We were able to deposit the second apple on our own.  Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of Blessi circling.  Blessi was the only horse that tried this but then he was the only Icelandic in the tourney.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Icelandic Horse mtDNA Research

Shetland Ponies, Wikipedia
Now let’s examine how recent mtDNA research supports or contradicts what historical and saga references have suggested are the origins of the Icelandic horse.  Jansen, Forster et al, (2002) extracted DNA from 318 unrelated horses representing 25 breeds from the US, Austria, Germany, Britain, Germany, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal.  Each horse had to have documented ancestry for at last five generations.  Additional mtDNA data was used from the GenBank or other publications creating a total horse population of 652.  Using this data, the researchers were able to create 17 very frequent mtDNA types indicating relationships among breeds.  As Jansen, and Forster, et al specify, “The clearest association between cluster and breed is evidenced by cluster C1 (n = 48): in our sample, it is geographically restricted to central Europe, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, including Iceland. A total of 17 of 19 documented horses with C1 are northern European ponies (Exmoor, Fjord, Icelandic, and Scottish Highland). Additionally, 14 of 27 undocumented horses with C1 are ponies, including Connemara ponies. The cluster is younger than perhaps 8,000 y, but definitely older than 1,500 y, because C1 was also found in two ancient Viking horses. Furthermore, mtDNA cluster E (n = 16) consists entirely of Icelandic, Shetland, and Fjord ponies. Taken together, this suggests a common late glacial or postglacial origin for these pony breeds.”
Mongolian Horse, Wikipedia

McCue, Bannasch, et al, (2012) conducted additional mtDNA research on samples from fourteen domestic horse breeds.  Results indicate that “The Norwegian Fjord, Icelandic, Mongolian, and Belgian clustered together in 3 dimensions, and Icelandic and Norwegian Fjord horses clustered tightly together in all 6 dimensions. This may reflect the suggested influence of Mongolian genes in the development of the Norwegian Fjord and subsequent development of the Icelandic horse from Scandinavian stock imported to Iceland.”    Note that the researchers caution against regarding the Belgian, a draft breed, as being closely related to the Norwegian Fjord, Icelandic, and Mongolian horses since its history shows that it could have little relationship to the other breeds.

Nordland Horse, Wikipedia
Additional research suggests that the Nordland, a rare Norwegian breed, is also very closely related to the Icelandic.  These horses exhibit very similar conformation and colors to the Icelandic horse and are also gaited  (Bjőrnsson and Sveinsson (2006)).  Representatives of the Nordland have not been included in recent mtDNA studies.

Without the benefit of some of the more recent mtDNA research, Bjőrnsson and Sveinsson (2006) argue against including the Norwegian Fjord as a direct ancestor of the Icelandic horse since the conformation and singular coloring of the breed (only dun coloring is acceptable) is so different from the conformation and multiple colors of the Icelandic breed.  Nor is the Norwegian Fjord gaited.  Certainly in the far past, the Norwegian Fjord could have had more colors especially since all extant Fjords are the offspring of one Fjord stallion born in 1891.  One could certainly reason that both breeds had a common ancestor that would explain the close relationship indicated by recent mtDNA studies.  

Fjord Mare and Foal, Wikipedia


As researchers refine their analytical techniques and increase the number of individual Icelandic horses included in their research, additional surprises about the breed’s genetic background may be revealed.   As Lippold, Matzke, et al (2011) caution, “…mitochondrial DNA alone is unlikely to resolve the geographical origin of horse domestication. Given the relatively recent origin of modern horse breeds and the extensive trade of horses as well as their use as a means of long distance transport, this result is, however, not entirely surprising. Resolving the timing and geographical origin of horse domestication will therefore require the use of alternative genetic markers.”
Bjőrnsson, G., & Sveinsson, H.  (2006).  The Icelandic Horse, Edda Publishing, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Jansen, T., Forster, P. Levine, M., Oelke, H., Hurles, M., Renfrew, C., Weber, J., & Olek, K.  (2002) Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.  Found September 10, 2012 at
Lippold, S., Matzke, N., Reissmann, M.,  & Hofreiter, M.  (2011).  Whole mitochondrial genome sequencing of domestic horses reveals incorporation of extensive wild horse diversity during domestication, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:328,

McCue, M., Bannasch, D., Petersen, J., Gurr, J., Bailey, E, Binns, M., Distl, O., Guérin, G., Hasegawa, T, Hill, E., Lee, T., Lindgren, G., M. Penedo, M., Røed, K. Ryder, O, Swinburne, J., Tozaki, T, Valberg, S., Vaudin, M., Lindblad-Toh, K., Wade, C., & Mickelson, J.  (2012) A High Density SNP Array for the Domestic Horse and Extant Perissodactyla: Utility for Association Mapping, Genetic Diversity, and Phylogeny Studies, PLOS Genetics, Found on September 20, 1012 at

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Origins of the Icelandic Horse--History

From Hathi Trust Digital Library
In 1905, Annandale published Iceland and the Faroes: Studies in Iceland Life.  Almost 50 years before Watson and Crick discovered DNA, Annandale used the Landnámabók to try to deduce the origin of the Icelandic horse. Per the Landnámabók, the earliest permanent settlers in Iceland came from two major groups.  In the late 880s, the majority of the first settlers were Norsemen, originally from Norway, who had occupied pockets of modern Britain including the Shetlands and Faroe islands.  They brought in “Westman” slaves from those Islands and settled mainly in the south of the Island.  About 20 years later, a second batch of settlers, mostly nobles and their households, arrived either directly from Norway or after short stays in the northern Scottish islands, and settled in the north of Iceland.  Annandale speculated that first group brought mostly Shetland-like pony type stock from northern Britain islands; and the second, Norwegian horse/pony stock and probably some pony stock from the northern British islands.
Annandale also mentions that after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in the early 1000s, Icelanders made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and that ambitious young Norse men took service in the Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine emperor from the ninth to the fourteenth century.  As he concludes, “In short, it is probable that the original breed of horses in Iceland and the Faroes was of mixed origin, in which the Hebridean and the Scandinavian predominated, though blood from South Europe or even from the African and Asiatic coasts of the Mediterranean may [emphasis added by the author of this article] have contributed to its formation” (p, 175).  Annandale also highlights the resemblance between native Norwegian stock and the Mongolian pony. 
But was Annadale correct in what he postulated?  Check tomorrow's post for the results of recent mtDNA studies.

Annandale, N., & Marshall, F.  (1905) Iceland and the Faroes:Studies in Iceland Life, Oxford, Clarendon Press.   Available via Hathitrust Library.  Found September 19, 2012, at;page=root;view=image;size=100;seq=7;num=i

Friday, October 26, 2012

Where did Vikings Sail (and get horses)

English sources typically date the beginning of the Viking Age by the burning of the monastery at Lyndisfarme on a small British island in 793 AD and the end at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD.  However, the time period is more accurately described as “Old Norse” since the term Viking or “fara í víking” referred only to those Norsemen who went exploring or raiding, returning with loot and slaves to a home base.  Possibly due to population expansion with limited agricultural resources or just exploiting a power gap after the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire in the 830s, groups of Norse from Scandinavia began to expand across Europe at this time (Viking, Wikepedia).
Map showing Norse Expansion from Wikipedia

Norse ships were capable of sailing cross large expansions of open ocean and navigating far inland up rivers.  Establishing trade routes and forming both permanent and temporary settlements, the Norse groups founded outposts in pockets of coastline and rivers along current day France, Spain, North Africa and western Italy.  Additional settlers headed to England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Shetlands, and Faroe Islands.  Other trading groups navigated the major river ways of Eastern Europe and Russia--eventually reaching the Black and Caspian Seas.  Eric the Red and similar adventurers sailed to North America and established short term settlements in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and Labrador.
The map to the left shows Norse expansion during this time.  Certainly the Norse would have picked up horses on their travels and brought them to Iceland.  But what types of horses would have they have selected?  See tomorrow's post.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Przewalski's Horse and Domesticated Horses

Certain breed descriptions have claimed the Przewalski's Horse, an endangered wild horse, as a direct ancestor.  However recent mtDNA research (Ryder, Fisher, et al, 2011) indicates that Przewalski's Horse diverged from the ancestor of the modern horse approximately 160,000 years ago—long before domestication and development of modern horse breeds. 

Interestingly, mtDNA research by McCue, Bannasch, et al.(2012) shows that Przewalski's Horse is more closely related to Mongolian, Norwegian Fjord, Belgian, and Icelandic breeds than other breeds such as Thoroughbreds.   Although Przewalski’s Horse and the domesticated horse differ in number of chromosomes, the two species can interbreed.  McCue, Bannasch, et al.(2012) propose that mtDNA research indicates there was interbreeding of domesticated horses with Przewalski’s horses.
Horse herds in the wild where the range of the two equine subspecies overlapped--especially in Mongolia.  Since all existing Przewalski’s Horses are offspring of nine of these horses captured in 1945, said founding horses are not purebred but hybrids with domesticated horses.  In other words, the genetic material was from the domestic horse to Przewalksi’s Horse only.  The above example serves to caution the reader about making quick interpretations about breed origination on basis of mtDNA research.
McCue, M., Bannasch, D., Petersen, J., Gurr, J., Bailey, E, Binns, M., Distl, O., Guérin, G., Hasegawa, T, Hill, E., Lee, T., Lindgren, G., M. Penedo, M., Røed, K. Ryder, O, Swinburne, J., Tozaki, T, Valberg, S., Vaudin, M., Lindblad-Toh, K., Wade, C., & Mickelson, J.  (2012) A High Density SNP Array for the Domestic Horse and Extant Perissodactyla: Utility for Association Mapping, Genetic Diversity, and Phylogeny Studies, PLOS Genetics, Found on September 20, 1012 at
Ryder, A., Fisher, Schultz, B., Pond, S., Nekrutenko, A.,  & Makova., K. (2011).  A massively parallel sequencing approach uncovers ancient origins and high genetic variability of endangered Przewalski's horses". Genome Biology and Evolution.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

DNA and mtDNA in Equine Studies

mtDNA as shown by electron microscope
DNA is the hereditary material passed down from generation to generation.  Most DNA is located in the nucleus of the cell.  In the nuclear DNA of the horse, 32 chromosomes come from the sire and 32 from the dam. However, Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is located in mitochondria which are that part of the cell that converts energy from food directly into a form that the cell can use. 
MtDNA is highly mutatable and evolves frequently over time.  In horses and most organisms, mtDNA is inherited from the mother so that researchers can study changes in a species over time and the evolutionary relations between and among organisms.  (Arabian Horse Society, 2011)  Research using mtDNA enables scientists to provide additional information about the evolution of equines and the relationships among equine breeds.

Check the posts for the next few days to see the results of recent mtDNA research into the origin of the Icelandic horse.
Arabian Horse Association (2011) Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – What Is It and What Does It Tell Us.  Provided by the AHA Equine Stress, Research and Education Subcommittee on Genetic Disorders. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why is there an arrow through my pants

Ok, I am not the most coordinated person on the planet.  So in preparation for the mounted archery clinic, I decided to take a few archery lessons at the local gun club.  Well I managed to put an arrow through my pants. 

How did this happen?  After everybody finishes shooting their arrows at the target, the range master calls a cease fire and those of us who missed the target have the opportunity to gather up the arrows.  Well I was practicing some long distance shooting so I had a rather large area to search.  As I turned around to look for my last missing arrow, I managed to turn into my last, lost arrow stuck in ground and get the fletched side of the arrow stuck through my pants.

The Bad Cowgirls and I have been trying out some medieval games.  The score so far:

  • Lora shot her horse Hollyanna in the nose with the toy arrow going backwards Score = 1 (personally I think this should count as 2 since the arrow went backwards so it is worth more)
  • Pam got a spear caught between Blessi's legs Score = 1 (although this should probably count as 3 since the spear has a sharp pointed blade on the end)
  • Deb shot Blessi with the toy arrow at least two times Score = 2
  • Gretchen hasn't tried either spear throwing or mounted archery.  Score = 0   Good job Gretchen!

I highly suggest that we get some archery lessons before we try this with a real bow and arrow.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Preparing your horse for mounted archery

There is a lot of prep work to get your horse ready for mounted archery.  The horse has to be desensitized to the sound of the bow, arrows whizzing by, arrow hitting or missing the target.  Plus since you need both hands to shoot the bow, you need to be able to guide your horse with your seat and legs.

I discovered that working working with Blessi that he enjoyed all of this especially if there were carrots involved.  Here is one of the series of videos put out by Ashmoor Horse Archers about getting your horse ready for mounted shooting.  And remember that you can get a toy bow and arrow for about $6.  (A real Hun or Mongol horse bow costs around $250 and up.)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Resurgence of Mounted Archery

Blessi and I are trying to attend a workshop on Mounted Archery with Katie Sterns.   Katie has represented the US in several international competitions and brought back gold medals.  Here is a video of her competing in Korea.
Mounted archery is very high speed and exciting.  Blessi and I are going to aim at archery at a walk or perhaps a slow tolt.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Blessi and Dannelle canter and shoot

Blessi and I started preparing for our mounted archery clinic (which we haven't attended yet)  in the spring of 2012.  I got a child's toy bow and arrows with suction cups from Walmart. After working with Blessi on the ground and shooting a few arrows from his back, I convinced Dannelle  dressage instructor to try and canter Blessi and shoot.

Here are the results.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What is Mounted Archery

In the previous video of Blessi and mounted shooting, I use the term "take a Parthian shot," which refers to a type of shot made famous by the Parthian tribe (who battled the Romans) in which the bowman shoots over the back of the horse while retreating from the enemy. Today you will hear "take a parting shot" meaning to make one final, cutting remark right before leaving the conversation.

Mounted archery is an age old sport in which a rider shoots from the back of a horse running at full speed.  In the Iron age, warriors from tribes on the Eurasian steppes skirmished with various armies.  Later during Medieval times, Mongols, Huns, and various Turkish tribes went on paths of conquest supported by their quick moving armies of mounted archers.  Japanese, Koreans, and American Indians also had strong traditions of mounted archery.  The use of firearms in warfare brought an end to use of archery.

Usually mounted archers use a composite recurve bow which is shorter and lighter in draw than along bow or cross bow .  Each culture has its own history of how the recurve bow is made, shaped, held, and released.  Today, there is a resurgence in interest in this equestrian activity.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mounted Archery--If Monty Python tried it

It has been awhile since I posted--but never fear.  Blessi and I spent the summer having adventures so we have lots of new material.  My friend Deb rode Blessi and tried the sport of mounted archery for
the first time. Since this is all new, we are using a toy bow and the arrows have suction cups on the ends.

Blessi had us in stitches. After this ride, another rider, not Deb, dropped the
reins to take her shot. She missed the target entirely. For the second time, Blessi independently
walked her over to the target and put his nose in the hole of the target--as if to say: "Look lady, the arrow goes right there! How hard can it be when I can get my nose in there."