The significant role of fodder plants growing in Yakutia, part of a republic within the Russian Federation, has been identified as a key element in the survival of one of the world’s hardiest horse breeds.
The Yakutian horse is renowned for its ability to survive in one of the harshest climates in the world, often without stabling.
A group of scientists from Yakutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk, in a study published in the journal Biomolecules, investigated features of the diet of Yakutian horses.
Their work on farms in the remote region revealed the crucial role of the fodder plants that grow in Central Yakutia in the survival of the breed.
The plants, which include smooth brome (Bromopsis inermis L.) and the common oat (Avena sativa L.), were found to be crucial in the formation of an optimal balance of omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the liver, muscle and fat of the horses.
Yakutian horses live in the Republic of Sakha and have been bred under the strong influence of natural selection. The animals are notable for their short stature, dense muscular build, and long hair with a thick undercoat. Such features are consistent with the harsh climatic conditions they face.
Horses are kept unstabled most of the year and graze on vegetation that is often under deep snow cover.
“During a short Yakutian summer, cereals grow, reach maturity and give seeds,” explains study co-author Olesia Makhutova, a specialist in water and terrestrial ecosystems with the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“During this period, local animals, including Yakutian horses, feed on them.”
In cooling autumn temperatures, some regrowth appears, often as temperatures dip below freezing.
Scientists with the academy and the Siberian Institute of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry showed that during this regrowth during marginal conditions, the cereals accumulate a significant quantity of useful compounds, including polyunsaturated fatty acids — in particular, alpha-linolenic acid.
“They, in turn, precede the synthesis of irreplaceable long-chain omega-3 acids, without which animals and people cannot fully function,” Makhutova says.
It was shown that these acids help plants to ensure the fluidity of cell membranes, which is necessary to maintain the cell in a working state.
“The muscle and fat tissue of horses, like many animals, reflect the fatty acid composition of the food eaten. Yakutian horses are no exception,” Makhutova says.
“Feeding on cereals enriched with alpha-linolenic acid; they accumulated it in their tissues.”
The livers of Yakutian horses were found to be rich in linoleic and arachidonic acids.
“These are polyunsaturated fatty acids from the omega-6 family. Arachidonic acid is most likely synthesized in the tissues of horses since food sources of this acid could not be found,” she says.
Samples for the study were taken from horses living in various regions of the Sakha Republic, including in the Oymyakon ulus, which is the coldest point in the northern hemisphere.
The extreme temperatures in the area, with temperatures plummeting to minus 60°C, prompted scientists to think that the antifreeze qualities of fatty acids obtained from local cereals served Yakutian horses well.
“We assume that the accumulation of alpha-linolenic acid in the body allows these animals to competently spend their stored fat,” Makhutova says.
“It is no coincidence that they look so well-fed.
“Without sufficient fat reserves and finely tuned mechanisms of its expenditure, horses cannot survive the Yakutian winters.”
Yakutia horses are also a key source of animal protein and fat for human consumption.
The Yakutian cow, once widespread, has dwindled in numbers, meaning horses are used to provide the indigenous population with meat.
“The dietary value of the Yakutian horse meat is very high precisely due to the ideal balance of polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 acids,” Makhutova explains.
“The 1:1 ratio of these acids is ideal for us, but civilization is steadily shifting the balance towards the predominance of omega-6 due to the dominance of vegetable oils, cheap pork and fast food in our daily diet.
“We also need omega-6 acids, but in combination with the omega-3 partners, which are found mainly in fatty fish.
“The horse meat we tested is also very good, especially for child nutrition and the diet of people suffering from cardiovascular diseases.
“If the population of Yakutia starts consuming mass-market products, which are now imported abundantly into the republic, and makes a choice in favor of, let us say, semi-finished pork products, this may drastically affect people’s health.
“This is just the case when you should not change a time-tested balanced diet.”
Reporting: The Siberian Federal University