Monday, June 22, 2015

How bred is well-bred?

The thoroughly bred horse

Here's something a little different.  The linked article comes from the magazine Science, which is the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  It would be fabuloso if some of my readers might also glom onto the book 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.  It's really long, and it's the third part of a trilogy, but if you have any interest in history or how we (and our horses) got to where we are (or the FTT, or anything else regarding the world), it's well worth the effort.

Moving on...

There's much talk in the horse world about the state of the business and of horses overall.  We have seen a glut of horses, many of which have wound up going to slaughter.  We have a heavy load of breedism in our system that is doing no one but the breeders and the breed associations any good.  We have seen throwaway horses, bred to run fast, then tossed when they don't make the grade. And we've seen people frantically trying to solve the problems we, ourselves, have created.

Man-made.

It's a fascinating dilemma.  Thanks to my generation of Boom Babies, there was a huge upsurge in horse ownership.  Thanks to my generation of Boom Babies, there was a big financial brouhaha that is still brou-ing in many quarters.  We built businesses that were anything but Anti-fragile, all based on the backs of horses who had no option but to let us have our way with them.  Left to their own devices, they would have died out long ago because many habitats into which they were transplanted were truly inhospitable to the species.

We did that.  Humans.  We did it all, because it's what we do.  Benign Intervention is our middle name (which makes monograms really idiotic).

We did the same with dogs.  I'm sure many of you are well aware that there is not a dog species on the planet that was not designer-built by humans.  Our domestic varieties of chickens don't exist in the wild.  We just can't stop meddling.

Until recently, however, there's been little written about the actual genesis of the equines currently pooping in our yards.  The research done and reported in the article linked above was actually science.  DNA science.  Not the usual survey of how many Quarter Horses are currently registered and where Morgans are most popular.  From the article:  Genomes from ancient horses show the genetic changes wrought by domestication--and their costs.

It's that last bit that bears discussion.

There's a huge furor about genetically modified organisms raging around the world.  I'm not really sure why.  It's not news.  It's not even slightly news.  No matter how much people yell, the fact that companies like Monsanto are making food plants that resist their own chemical weaponry arsenal so they can sell more chemicals is hardly different from a breeder spending a fortune on two oddly-incompatible breeds of cat and using AI to put them together into a New Breed, which s/he cutely names after a favored hobby or whatever. And for a short time that creator of a pet GMO variety makes oodles of money selling offspring and breedings, and setting up clubs and associations for the fans that result.  Ka-CHING!  Somebody made money, and somewhere there are cats that can't breathe or can't stand properly or can't breed on their own.

I've been moderately aware of this business because I've owned a couple of horses whose breeders were focused on something like color or size or shape and neglected to consider things like whether the feet on the animal were going to hold up long enough for it to be sound and pain-free.  That's the Unintended Consequences piece of Benign Interventionism.  I read all about this in Temple Grandin's Genetics and Behavior in Domestic Animals.  Add that to your reading list.

Behind the unnatural color,
a body riddled with carcinoma.

But I wasn't aware of the historical perspective until the Mann book and the Gibbons article happened to show up together in my collection.  What ho!  Mann explained that without Columbus and the Columbian expansion, we wouldn't have horses (or tomatoes, or corn, or kachina dolls) at all in this country...or many other places in the world.  It was the global trade that his landing in the West permitted that brought it all together and allowed us to make a global mess of it all with such flair.

We fussed and tinkered and recreated until we turned a hardy, well-adapted animal into a fragile, barely-functional one.  And here we sit, wondering what to do about it.

I'm not a scientist, but it seems to me that we need to cut back the ego dial and start breeding horses not for their speed for our delight or for their ability to perform odd tricks for our amusement, but for hardiness in the area of the world in which we've left them dangling.

I hear the death throes of several breed associations in the distance.  It's not pretty, but it may be our only hope to truly save the horses.


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