Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Breed All About It: American Quarter Horse

Partially because horses are a subject I can talk about for days on end and partially because nothing interesting is happening around here lately to provide me with alternate blogfodder, I've decided to do a series of posts about various breeds, their origins, the reason they were developed, the breeding and cross breeding strategies if I know them or can find them, and my own personal opinion of them.

It won't be daily, and it might not even be weekly, but it'll give me a stand by filler so ya'll won't have to wait too long for something to read.

Today, we're starting with my personal all around favorite: the American Quarter Horse.

Today's Quarter Horse is a long trot from it's origins, starting in the days when the US was still a loose collection of colonies. The colonists, after painstakingly shipping Thoroughbreds across the ocean (crossing oceans with horses is an expensive and specialized process today, much less in the days of sailing vessels) bred their steeds to the Native Americans', which were descended from mounts traded for, stolen from, or escaped from Conquistadors. Those Spanish horses had, in turn, bloodlines of Barb, Arabian, and Iberian lines.

Convoluted, no? But much like your average mutt, the wide mix of genes that went into the creation of the Quarter Horse often created an animal superior in health and intelligence to its purebred counterparts. After many, many generations and breeding experiments, today's Quarter Horse has developed some genetic problems of its own, but we'll get to those later.

Originally, the cross was experimental, and practical. Those colonists who were knowledgeable about animal breeding knew that they had to introduce new genes, and they used what they had. They hoped to get a working horse (stout, well muscled Indian Ponies) that could still compete in a race (Thoroughbred.) Racing your horse, or betting on the race, was one of the most common entertainments. The course of the race might be a stretch of the road leading to town, out and back (or perhaps out, around the edge of town, and back into the other side of town,) or if it was a big deal, between two nearby towns. The most common distance was a quarter or half mile, that being a distance that would allow the horses to show their stuff, while still allowing several races to be run in the course of an afternoon.

In those days, the breed was called "The Famous American Quarter Running Horse"- famous for it's speed over the quarter mile, and the almost universal lack of the stamina to maintain that speed over the longer distances.

In the 1800's, as Manifest Destiny swept across the land, so too did the Quarter Horse. Pioneers needed a versatile, hardy horse that was willing to work, and they found it in the unique Quarter Horse breed. As people settled and began raising families, and cattle, the cowboys tending to and moving the herds found another serendipitous trait of the breed- cow sense.

In the wide open spaces of the frontier, new challenges were found in dealing with cattle. The amount of room, lack of fencing, and general differences between tending animals in well-established areas in Europe and working with what you had in the Wild West required new techniques, new abilities, new horses.

As these things were worked out, partially through trial and error, and partially through skills used for generations by Spanish herdsmen it became apparent that the Quarter Horse was uniquely suited to the work. The compact, build allowed for quick movement, the thick muscling allowed the horse to hold their ground when attached to the opposite end of a rope from a large steer or cow.

Their intelligence allowed them to learn the behavior of the cattle, how to handle them. Those who picked this up quickly were bred to others with the same trait, until the behaviors that make for a good cow pony today can be observed in foals, as they begin to stray from their dam's side and play.

Another important point in the development of the American Quarter Horse is the breeding for personality- the cowboys needed a very specific kind of horse out there on the open range. They needed a steady horse that wouldn't spook at every shadow, but didn't lose all it's initiative. They needed a horse that liked people. If a cowboy had to get off his horse to do something, he wanted to know that his horse wouldn't take the opportunity to high-tail it back to the barn as soon as his back was turned. This created a breed well known for its good nature.

There are two kinds of American Quarter Horses, Foundation, and Appendix.

Foundation Quarter Horses hearken back to the breed's origins. They're stocky, with thick muscling. The heads are more blocky, less "pretty." I like to think of a Foundation Quarter Horse as "built like a tank."

The American Quarter Horse Association requires that the offspring of a registered Quarter horse and a Thoroughbred (with the Thoroughbred being required to meet a certain performance standard) be registered as an Appendix Quarter Horse.

The offspring of a registered Quarter Horse and an Appendix may be registered normally, thus changing the look of many bloodlines into something more delicate and refined. Thoroughbred blood introduces longer legs, less bulk, and a more delicate head.

Personally, I see the appeal of both the Foundation and the more refined looks, but my focus is more on the horse's personality and abilities.

Some of the downsides of the American Quarter Horse include genetic diseases. With today's technology, they can identify the diseases, and trace them back through bloodlines.

HYPP (Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis) is a disease that causes severe muscle twitching, and paralysis, for short or extended periods of time. This disease has been traced back to the stallion Impressive, and is believed to be the result of a natural mutation. The gene is dominant, so only one parent has to have the gene for the disease to manifest. Currently, horses that are homozygous for the gene are barred from registry in the AQHA, but horses that are heterozygous are allowed. There is discussion on whether to bar horses that have the gene at all from the registry, thus cutting the disease off from future generations of registered Quarter Horses.

HERDA (Hereditary Equine Regional Dermal Asthenia) is the result of a recessive gene, and causes a defect in the collagen that results in the layers of skin being only loosely bonded together. So loosely that, in severe cases, a simple pat can peel the layers of hide down to muscle, leaving an open wound. Horses with this disease cannot be ridden, because the weight and friction of the saddle causes tears in the skin, as will bumps and bruises. This disease is commonly believed to have originated with the Poco Bueno bloodline, perhaps before that famous stallion himself. Most horses with this disease are euthanized, both due to the fact that they're not suitable for riding and that they are care intensive, since the slightest bump can result in a painful and difficult to care for open wound, or a situation in which the skin doesn't tear but does come loose from the muscle, creating the possibility for abscesses.

Other genetic diseases present in Quarter Horses include GBED and EPSM, both diseases that effect the muscles. GBED is universally fatal in short order, the foal being unable to process glycogen and the muscles, including the heart and lungs, seizing up and failing to function. EPSM, while similar to GBED and HYPP in that the muscles seize up and fail to function, is not usually fatal, more commonly effecting the muscles of the legs and neck, preventing the horse from being able to move. EPSM attacks (commonly called "tying up") are caused by the body being unable to process and store polysaccharides, rather than glycogen. Tying up is also known in draft horses, and in the days of the true working horse was known as "Monday Morning Disease".. The horses would do heavy work all week, with a grain ration to match, and then would get a rest over the weekend. The grain ration wasn't always cut to match the lower exertion, though, and the excess of polysaccharides would cause the horse's muscles to lock up once they were asked to work. Instances of tying up are still linked to exercise and diet today.

Along with these there is some evidence that the Lethal White gene is present in Quarter Horses. This gene is related to the gene causing white coat, and is, as the name suggests, universally lethal. Lethal White foals are stillborn or die in utero to be re-absorbed.

The American Quarter Horse started out as a dual purpose breed and developed into the definition of the American West.

Not bad for what proper Englishmen considered a muttley breed, huh?