Designer Horses?

With the Sports Horse industry adapting more and more reproductive technology from the cattle industry, can we start to consider the idea of ‘designer’ horses?

The sports horse industry has been using artificial insemination for over 50 years, and more recently the use of embryo transfer and cloning. The first horse was cloned in 2003 and it is becoming a popular option in the competitive world. Cloning offers the opportunity for top quality geldings to pass on their genetics as a stallion or for a competitive stallion to keep competing. Embryo transfer means a top quality mare can pass on her genes without being at risk of problems faced during the pregnancy and parturition.

Super ovulation embryo transfer is an idea that has become very popular in cattle breeding. It basically means making the female ovulate lots of time at once by using hormones. This means that these eggs/embryos can be put in carrier animals so that the cow can have lots of offspring in one year, rather than one. This has been adapted to horses, however, it isn’t as affective. On average a mare produces 2-5 embryos from a super ovulation whereas cows produce 5-6. But as research continues it may become more effective.

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Semen Sexing has also just been introduced to the equine breeding world. However, it is currently only used by a handful stallions. This process works by using the difference in the X and Y chromosomes. Each sperm contains a X or a Y chromosome. The X is slightly bigger, holding slightly more DNA and slightly negatively charged. The Y chromosome is slightly positively charged and is the male chromosome. The process uses these charges to separate the female X chromosomes and the male Y chromosomes. So when you order semen, you can order for what sex foal you want. However, currently it only works 90% of the time and there is no refund if you get the wrong gender.

You might be wondering how this could lead to designer horses? Well it might not. But the idea is, if you can identify and separate one gene like this, there is no reason why other genes couldn’t also be looked for. Traits like coat colour, conformation and disease resistance could also be chosen before inseminating your mare.

Obviously there are lots of ethical issues with all these developments, you have probably come across them for human reproductive technology. However, animal research isn’t as strict and constrained as human research and I have no doubt there will be more developments soon. I also feel that it won’t be a case of everyone starting to use these methods in the sports horse world as it is simply too expensive.

I don’t know if you have noticed or not, but throughout this I have only mentioned these technologies on sports horses and how all the research started in live stock such as cows. This is because the racing industry only allows breeding by natural covering. Therefore they are not interested in other methods  and therefore do not fund any research into them. I personally feel this is a good thing. With the amount of inbreeding in the thoroughbred industry especially when there is a popular stallion like Northern Dancer, the amount of mares the stallion can cover is limited. If artificial insemination was allowed, a popular stallion could cover 5 times as many mares, increasing the level of inbreeding. Therefore the research for equine reproduction often comes from elsewhere such as cows, where there is a big market behind it.

I hope I made this clear to everyone. I just had a lecture on it last week and there was a sky documentary about cloned horses beginning of the year, so thought you might be interested in it. If you have any questions I will try and answer them!

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