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Why do horses move like they do? Research says it’s a genetic ‘mistake’

Series of photos of a horse in motion

Image courtesy of Wikicommons

The smooth movement of gaited horses is caused by a genetic mutation that can be found across the world, according to a recent study.

The paper, “Worldwide frequency distribution of the ‘Gait keeper’ mutation in the DMRT3 gene,” was published Tuesday in the journal Animal Genetics.

“We have previously demonstrated that a single mutation in the DMRT3 gene has a large impact on gaitedness in horses, and it was therefore named ‘Gait keeper,’” said Dr. Leif Andersson, one of the authors of the article and a Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study Faculty Fellow collaborating with researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

This gene codes for a protein in a specific subset of neurons in the spinal cord that coordinates the movements of the animal’s legs. The mutated version of the gene causes a truncation of the DMRT3 protein, a genetic “mistake” that allows horses to pace and amble.

This recent research shows that the mutation arose only once and then spread across the world via positive selection, Andersson said. In other words, early humans probably noticed that some horses had the ability to move in unique ways, and they then selected those horses for breeding, most likely because they offered a smoother, more comfortable ride, called a “running walk” in some breeds.