For centuries, horse lovers in China have believed their native equids descended from pure Chinese origins. But new DNA studies have revealed that the evolution of these unique breeds actually includes a mix of both local and imported influences.

“It may make us proud to say that the current local Chinese horses completely originated in China, but evidence from archaeology, DNA studies, and historical culture have not supported that theory,” said Chunjiang Zhao, PhD, of the College of Animal Science and Technology and the Equine Center of the China Agricultural University in Beijing, and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture’s Key Laboratory of Animal Breeding and Genetics.

In their study, Zhao and colleagues analyzed the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences of 714 Chinese indigenous horses. Mitochondrial DNA descends only from maternal lines, so it has become a useful tool for evolution researchers to study origins.

The researchers compared their results with known mtDNA from other horse breeds and found that native Chinese horses shared many haplotypes in their mtDNA with other types of horses. Haplotypes are classifications of the mtDNA based on close similarities of certain segments of the genome.

This shows that the modern Chinese horse has origins from horses introduced into China from elsewhere. Their in-depth analyses point toward an introduction of these foreign horses from the north, along the Eurasian steppes; however, they can’t yet determine a time period for that importation, Zhao said.

Even so, Chinese horse enthusiasts might be content to learn that native horses do have a unique mtDNA haplotype