What did the Vikings ever do for us? Quite a lot it seems. 

They founded our cities, taught us how to build better ships and left behind beautiful artefacts. Research just published suggests that they also did something for horses.

A noble steed has four main ‘gaits’. It can walk, trot, canter and gallop. When trotting, a front foot and the rear one on the opposite side move together; two feet touch the ground at the same time. Some breeds, however, are capable of a fifth gait known as ‘ambling’, in which the animal moves all four legs independently of each other, one foot at a time making contact with the ground.

The resulting four-beat movement is bounce-free and smooth, more comfortable for a rider than either trotting or cantering. Footage on YouTube shows a man holding a tankard of beer while riding an ambling horse. He does so effortlessly without spilling his drink. The gait is ideal when long periods are spent in the saddle, or rough terrain has to be crossed.

Medieval knights would sometimes ride an ambling mount to the battlefield, only changing to a war-horse when hostilities were about to begin. There are variants of the gait worldwide, with horse varieties bred locally to exploit them. At some South American horse shows, contestants are required to amble over wooden sheeting so that judges can hear the characteristic four-beat foot-fall. Thoroughbreds and the wild Przewalski’s horse, thought to be the ancestor of domestic ones, can’t amble.

In 2012, scientists traced the ambling propensity to a mutation in a gene governing spinal chord neurons involved in limb co-ordination. DNA samples, taken from horses worldwide, yielded identical copies of this ‘gait-keeper’ mutation. The copies were so alike that the mutation must have occurred spontaneously in a single animal and relatively recently. However, when and where did the original ambler live? In a paper just published, Arne Ludwig and colleagues from the Leibniz Institute in Berlin try to answer to this question.

Ludwig’s team found the gait mutation in DNA samples taken from two specimens in the York Archaeological Collection. The horses had lived in the north of England between AD850 and AD900. It’s unlikely, the scientists think, that the mutation originated elsewhere or earlier.

Ponies in Iceland are particularly adept at a version of the ambling gait known as the ‘tolt’. Samples taken from 90 horses confirmed that the gait-keeper allele is widespread there. Horses are not native to the island; the mutated gene arrived with imported ones. Why did it become so widespread? The researchers suggest how this may have come about.

In AD866, the Vikings captured ‘Jorvic’, now York. The town became an important trading base. The Nordic settlers would have seen some local horses ambling, their riders being carried smoothly and comfortably for long periods. Tradition says in AD874, Ingólfur Arnarson and his wife established the first Norse settlement in Iceland. Horses were among the items imported from York for this and subsequent colonies. Given the volcanic island’s rough rocky terrain and the distances between homesteads there, ‘gaited’ horses would become much in demand. They were selectively bred from north of England stock.

The ‘gait-keeper’ mutation was not found in DNA samples taken from horses living in mainland Europe during Viking times. Nor was it found in Scandinavian ones. The ambling gene was exported from either Iceland or Britain later.

Did the native English breed ambling horses or were Viking settlers the first to do so? We will never know for sure but, without the help of the Nordic traders and their ships, the mutation enabling horses to amble might never have caught on.

  • Saskia Wutke et al. The Origin of Ambling Horses. Current Biology. August 8, 2016.


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