The thermometer was reading eleven degrees Fahrenheit (minus eleven Celsius), and it was bright out, but the sunlight held no warmth. There was a light breeze, and I didn’t even want to think about what the wind chill was. Nonetheless, work needed to be done. And while the weather was extreme for us, it was relatively tame compared to a story I’d read that morning.
I had never heard of Yakutian horses before. They made the news because their story is being revised thanks to new research based on DNA analysis. I can’t help myself when it comes to factual stories about small equines that are environmentally adapted and have a close relationship with their people. Yakutian horses taught me about a dimension of partnering that I’d never considered before. To see some beautiful pictures, click here.
Yakutian horses are a small (14.3hh average) equine adapted to life in Siberia where temperatures can drop to -70C. Recent research has revealed that these horses migrated to the area, likely with their people, about 800 years ago and developed their adaptations to the cold at an unprecedented speed. Adaptations in addition to the heavy coat for which they are known include vasoconstriction, body size, hormones having to do with thermal regulation, and metabolism. (1)
The researchers seemed most surprised to learn that Yakutian horses are unrelated to the horse population represented by five-century-old fossils in the area. That population appears to have gone extinct. Instead, Yakutian horses are related to Mongolian equine populations. What I found most interesting, though, was that the DNA analysis showed that the Yakutian horses shared similar genetic modifications to their people, as well as woolly mammoths, all likely due to adapting to the extreme cold environment in which they live.
The Yakut culture is horse-based. The horses have been relied upon for communication between far flung human communities. They have also been a source of meat and hides. These roles of sustenance and communication are not unique to this horse-human partnership. What was new to me though was the idea that similar genetic adaptations had occurred in both people and equine to survive the climate of their home.
My chore pony did a great job on that frigid day, though she seemed to move a little more quickly than usual. Perhaps she wanted to get back to absorbing the sun’s rays before they disappeared for the day. The extreme cold that we worked in left me more fatigued than usual, making me envious of the adaptations that the Yakut people and their equine partners have. I have a new appreciation for how deeply pony-person partnerships can run.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakutian_horse and http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/features/f0187-truly-amazing-scientific-discovery-on-adaptation-of-yakutian-horses-to-cold/ and http://phys.org/news/2015-11-70c-siberia-tale-yakutian-horses.html
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015
The Partnered Pony celebrates partnerships between people and their small equines. A book on the topic is available internationally by clicking here.