Sardinian Anglo-Arab horses put under the genetic microscope

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A Sardinian Anglo-Arab horse being worked. Photo: Piccolomondoagiudizio, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Thoroughbred-Arabian cross is considered very desirable by many breeders. These Anglo-Arabs have shown endurance, speed and versatility across a range of disciplines.

Indeed, in Sardinia — a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea — the Anglo-Arab is a breed in its own right.

The Sardinian Anglo-Arab is well known across Italy, used mainly for sport.

It originated by crossing indigenous mares with old Arabian lines (Purosangue Orientale) and Thoroughbred stallions.

The use of these two originating breeds was very different depending on the historical period, Andrea Giontella and her fellow researchers with the University of Perugia noted in the open-access journal Animals.

Arabian and Thoroughbred stallions were alternatively used in order to achieve different goals, such as racing, jumping and other disciplines.

This management strongly affected the breed composition and demographic and genetic patterns of the Sardinian Anglo-Arab, the genetics of which have just been examined in a recently published study.

The breed had its beginnings in 1874.

The Ozieri Army Remount Station was established to supply mounts for cavalry units in the Italian Army.

Indigenous Sardinian mares were crossed with oriental‐bred stallions to produce resistant and fast horses that were suitable for the cavalry.

In the early 1900s, Captain Grattarola, the commander of the Ozieri Remount Station, continued the work by crossing the best available indigenous mares with Purosangue Orientale stallions which had been purchased directly from Bedouin tribes.

Later, Arab and Thoroughbred stallions started to be bred with the mares of mixed Sardinian and oriental ancestry.

In 1967, when the studbook of this breed was officially established, blood percentages were defined and accurately settled.

The breed was officially named the Sardinian Anglo‐Arab, with a percentage of Arabian blood set at not less than 25% and not more than 75%. From that moment, the main breeding goal became sport.

Giontella and her colleagues set out in their study to learn about the genetics of the breed.

They performed an evaluation of genetic variability in the breed using pedigree and mitochondrial DNA (genes that are passed down the female lines only).

They analyzed the results and compared them with three other Italian horse-breed populations, the Maremmano, Murgese and Bardigiano.

Pedigree completeness was found to be close to 100%, while the inbreeding coefficient and the average relatedness were lower than 3%.

“The estimated parameters suggest that the Sardinian Anglo-Arab breed is well managed, especially when considering the female lineage because it still conserves a high number of founder mares,” they reported.

“The number of founders and ancestors is quite high, and their ratio shows that this population could be affected by a certain bottleneck effect and genetic drift, which are also confirmed by the effective numbers that are higher than those observed in other Italian horse breeds, thereby requiring special care to avoid these events.”

On the other hand, the average relationship coefficient was found to be rather low, and the genetic conservation index (GCI) was high in comparison with the values estimated on other Italian breeds.

“Therefore, good genetic variability can be presumed in the Sardinian Anglo-Arab breed.”

This finding, they said, could also be observed from a female perspective, with a high haplotype diversity, indicating a lack of bottleneck phenomena along maternal lines.

They noted the important contribution of one particular line — the L lineage — into the mitochondrial DNA gene pool for the breed, which was probably due to the re‐colonization from the Iberian Peninsula after the Last Glacial Maximum.

The study team said the use of pedigree information in conjunction with the additional mitochondrial DNA data might be an effective tool not only to verify the success of a breeding program but also to be helpful for breeders on planning effective mating programs.

The study team comprised Giontella, Francesca Maria Sarti, Irene Cardinali, Samira Giovannini, Raffaele Cherchi, Hovirag Lancioni and Maurizio Silvestrelli, all with the University of Perugia; and Camillo Pieramati, with AGRIS, the Quality Research and Enhancement Service for Horse Production.

Giontella, A.; Sarti, F.M.; Cardinali, I.; Giovannini, S.; Cherchi, R.; Lancioni, H.; Silvestrelli, M.; Pieramati, C. Genetic Variability and Population Structure in the Sardinian Anglo-Arab Horse. Animals 2020, 10, 1018.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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