Survive and thrive: Future planning crucial for native horse breeds

The Faroe Island horse, whose home is an archipelago between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic, about halfway between Norway and Iceland, 320 kilometres north-northwest of mainland Scotland.
The Faroe Island horse, whose home is an archipelago between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic, about halfway between Norway and Iceland, and 320km north-northwest of mainland Scotland.

Promotion and economically viable breeding is the key to survival for rare and native horse breeds, a genetic expert says.

Professor Juha Kantanen, an expert in the conservation of endangered native farm animal breeds, discussed the future of native horse breeds at the recent European Federation of Animal Science (EAAP) conference in Ireland.

The average inbreeding coefficient of Faroe Island horse breeding animals is 25.6%.
The average inbreeding coefficient of Faroe Island horse breeding animals is 25.6%.

Professor Kantanen, from the Natural Resources Institute in Finland, said a global action plan was needed for the conservation of native breeds, with sustainable use and development a key driver.

The rare Faroe Island horse breed was at the centre of discussion on how to preserve a breed without losing its type. In 1880 more than 800 horses were registered on the Faroe Islands, but over the next hundred years numbers dwindled to only a handful because of export for the British mining industry and other factors. In 1978 a conservation and breeding programme was established, and there are now 80 horses, with 14 stallions. The three-gaited Faroe Island horse, which is sized between 11.1 and 12.1hh, is related to the Icelandic horse.

“Would, for example, the habitants in Faroe Island want to have a ”new” horse of the Faroe Island pony by crossing with another breed with recent breeding lines that are about 800 years old? Probably not even if there is a close genetic relation between the Faroe Island pony and the Icelandic horse,” Kantanen said.

He said the Icelandic horse had evolved from a multipurpose breed  to a modern riding horse. “Some people have the opinion that the breed of today has turned to be less weight bearing and less durable but still they are very eager to work. Also old traits as calmness and willingness to drag are less represented.

“The Icelandic horse society also created competitions to support the new type of horse. Can the breeders really continue in that direction? These modern changes in the Icelandic horse also make it less attractive to be use as a genetic resource for the Faroe horse.

“To complete the picture, the Faroe people do have Icelandic horses to ride on, they don’t need to change the Faroe pony.”

Finland's native Finnhorse. Since the establishment of the Finnhorse stud book it has been closed and the breed has been bred pure.
Finland’s native Finnhorse.

Kantanen noted several examples of horse breeds which had been cross-bred to fulfill a modern purpose, such as Sweden’s Gotland Russ breed, Finland’s Finnhorse, and the Norwegian Fjord horse. The Fjord breed’s governing association changed its breed goal from a heavy horse used for agriculture and forestry, to a lighter type used for riding. “The breeding association thinks that the breed cannot stay as it was from the beginning, it has to follow the demand otherwise the breed will disappear.”

Kantanen said the Finnhorse is not a “relic” today because the breeding association had divided it into sections depending on purpose: a riding model, a trotter and a horse for work in agriculture and forestry and a pony type.

An Eriskay pony. © Mipmapped, CC BY-SA 3.0, viaWikipedia.
An Eriskay pony. © Mipmapped, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia.

Another example is the Scottish Eriskay Pony, a robust, semi feral breed that is rare today. The breed is pure and protected from crossbreeding. “The breed needs a healthy population size, the question is what the size should it be and for what purpose will they be used? The Scottish Highland Pony origins from the Erisaky Pony and that the populations are closely related. One possibility is to strengthen the genetic diversity within the breed by crossbreeding with a closely related breed.”

Kantanen said in Norway there is a working group for preserving the Norwegian native breeds.

Professor Juha Kantanen
Professor Juha Kantanen

“One great challenge for the group is the use of the breeds today. The current demand is strongly focusing on riding. If there is no interest for using the horses they will end up as “things for a museum”. But there could really be a use of those native breeds today because the ordinary sport horse of today is a super athlete and does not suit all riders, for example leisure riders and riders at riding schools. The native breeds are often lower at withers, calmer, more robust and weight carrying and could suit the leisure rider in a perfect way.”

He said that while demand was “slightly upwards” for native horses, breeders needed to be motivated to produce animals of good quality.

“We and the breeds need to move with the changes that are in our world right now.”

Reporting: Anna-Lena Holgersson

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