Your Guide to Equine Health Care

It’s All in the Genes: Horse Traits and Heritability

Scientists are continuing to uncover which genes are responsible for certain traits in horses.

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Chestnut horses might be genetically wired to be more sensitive to environmental stimuli. | Photo: iStock

Scientists are continuing to uncover which genes are responsible for certain traits in horses

What are you drawn to in a horse? A flashy coat color? A puppy dog personality? Smooth-as-molasses gaits? Well, your dream horse didn’t come by these traits by happenstance. Many characteristics such as coat color, height, athletic ability, and behavioral tendencies are genetic in nature. And researchers are using “genomics,” the study of gene heritability, structure, and function, to determine which characteristics are connected to which genes.

Before getting into the fun stuff, let’s break down the terminology. The genome includes all DNA that goes into an individual from sperm pairing with an egg. Every cell contains DNA in the form of chromosome pairs—except for gametes, or sex cells, which just have one chromosome.

Each strand of chromosomal DNA is made up of organic molecules called nucleotides (guanine, cytosine, adenine, and thymine). Their sequence leads to differences in the traits the individual displays—for example, coat

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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