Genetic study of Arabian horses challenges some common beliefs

Arabian horse by Samantha Brooks, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of animal sciences.

by Cornell University | June 2020

A study involving Arabian horses from 12 countries found that some populations maintained a larger degree of genetic diversity and that the breed did not contribute genetically to the modern-day Thoroughbred, contrary to popular thought.

An international team of scientists was led by the University of Florida’s Samantha Brooks, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of animal sciences; Cornell University’s Doug Antczak, the Dorothy Havemeyer McConville Professor of Equine Medicine at the Baker Institute for Animal Health; and Andy Clark, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor in Cornell’s department of molecular biology and genetics.

“The Arabian horse has a special mystique due to the long recorded history of the breed. Arabian horse breeders, in particular, know their horse’s bloodlines many generations back.” — Samantha Brooks

The group collected and examined DNA samples from 378 Arabian horses from Qatar, Iran, UAE, Poland, USA, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark and Canada. The research, published June 16 in the journal Scientific Reports, was conducted over an 8-year period, beginning in 2014 before Brooks made the move from Cornell to UF. The process was a lot of effort, she said, in part due to traveling to collect the Arabians’ blood and hair samples, as well as natural delays in working with international colleagues to collect and ship other samples.

The samples were anonymized for data analysis purposes, except to note the horse’s location and categorizing them as endurance competition, flat course racing or show horses. The data set was also expanded using information from past studies on other breeds, which included Thoroughbreds, Persian Arabian, Turkemen and Straight Egyptians.

“The Arabian horse has a special mystique due to the long recorded history of the breed,” Brooks said. “Arabian horse breeders, in particular, know their horse’s bloodlines many generations back. What we found was that in the area where this breed originates—likely the near East region, but we don’t know exactly—there’s a healthy level of diversity. This is particularly evident in populations from Bahrain and Syria, which suggests these are some pretty old populations.”


The horse is prized for characteristics like heat tolerance and endurance, as well as its unique appearance, with a dish-shaped facial profile, wide-set eyes, an arched neck and a high tail carriage. It has been exported from its ancestral homeland for centuries, with some modern lineages drawn strictly from these smaller genetic pools, giving the breed a reputation for inbred disorders. While this was true for some groups they tested, Brooks noted, they also found remarkable diversity when considering the breed as a whole.

Brooks contrasted the discovery of more diverse populations with the samples they received from racing Arabians. Another longstanding myth says that the Arabian contributed genetically to the modern Thoroughbred, but the racing Arabians’ DNA told a different story.

What we found in these samples was not that much Arabian ancestry was part of the Thoroughbred line, but the opposite: that Thoroughbred DNA exists in most of the modern racing Arabian lines.” — Samantha Brooks

“What we found in these samples was not that much Arabian ancestry was part of the Thoroughbred line, but the opposite: that Thoroughbred DNA exists in most of the modern racing Arabian lines, indicating a more recent interbreeding within this group,” Brooks said. “I can’t speculate on the how or why, but this is clearly the story the DNA is telling us.”

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FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: Arabian horse by Samantha Brooks, UF/IFAS Assistant Professor of Animal Sciences, University of Florida.

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Of viruses, zoonotics and horses

Isolated image of a horse's nose. Horse and Rider magazine online.

A morbillivirus that caused fatal disease in horses and humans

Articles on this subject keep popping up in our news feed on horses, most likely because of the coronavirus pandemic so that any mention of any type of virus is garnering attention.

No need for alarm horse lovers, owners and handlers. The title of the article clearly states “that caused” (past tense), not “is causing” (current tense).

We cite below some information on the morbillivirus for the scientists among us first. Following that we talk about zoonoses (a disease which can be transmitted to humans from animals) associated with horses. Non-scientists please feel free to skip ahead.

In an abstract published by PubMed they state:

Open quote

A morbillivirus has been isolated and added to an increasing list of emerging viral diseases. This virus caused an outbreak of fatal respiratory disease in horses and humans. Genetic analyses show it to be only distantly related to the classic morbilliviruses rinderpest, measles, and canine distemper. When seen by electron microscopy, viruses had 10- and 18-nanometer surface projections that gave them a “double-fringed” appearance. The virus induced syncytia that developed in the endothelium of blood vessels, particularly the lungs.

NCBI tells us:

Open quote

The genus Morbillivirus belongs to the virus family Paramyxoviridae, a group of enveloped viruses with non-segmented, negative strand RNA genomes. It contains viruses that are highly infectious, spread via the respiratory route, cause profound immune suppression, and have a propensity to cause large outbreaks associated with high morbidity and mortality in previously unexposed populations. In populations with endemic virus circulation, the epidemiology changes to that of a childhood disease, as hosts that survive the infection normally develop lifelong immunity.

Measles virus (MV) is the prototype morbillivirus, and causes disease in primates. Read more at NCBI »

Well, we don’t know about you but that was “all Greek” to us.

It is true, however, that animals can sometimes carry harmful germs that can spread to people and cause illness — these are known as zoonotic diseases or zoonoses. Please read on.

Click image to see “Kissing horses — cute or dangerous?” (REDDIT). We are not talking about “exchanging breath” which is normal and natural, especially to a horse.

If you live with, care for or ever have to handle horses, please pay special attention to the bulleted recommendations at the end of the report below.

This is sound advice, and excellent habits to form if you are going to be around horses for any reason. Copy and paste the list into a document, print it out and carry it with you. Post it at your stable, in your barn and/or barn office.

Zoonoses associated with horses


This document provides information on various diseases that can be passed from horses to humans. Often these diseases do not make the animal appear sick but can cause serious illness in humans. Persons with specific medical conditions such as an immunodeficiency and pregnancy may be at higher risk of developing disease or complications from a zoonotic disease and should consult with their physician before working with horses. The diseases associated with horses include rabies, ringworm, methicillin-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus, leptospirosis, salmonellosis, campylobacterosis, cryptosporidiosis and infections with Rhodococcus equi.

Diseases associated with direct contact:

Rabies is a fatal viral infection that can be transmitted by bites, and mucus membrane exposure from an infected animal. Rabies in horses in the Northwest is very rare but horses can be infected from contact with wildlife such as bats, skunks, and raccoons. Infected animals often exhibit neurological symptoms and unusual behavior. There is an effective vaccine available for people and most domestic animals including horses.

Dermatophytosis is a fungal skin infection commonly known as “ringworm” and is seen in both animals and people as scaly round areas of hair loss. Transmission of ringworm is by direct contact with an infected animal. For prevention, wear gloves when handling infected animals and wash hands after contact.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been identified in both normal horses and those with clinical symptoms of wound infections. It is possible to contract the infection through direct contact with an infected horse. Once infected, people may or may not develop symptoms. While transmission is unlikely, it is recommended to wash your hands after handling horses and to cover any open wounds that are susceptible to infection.

Diseases associated with vectors or contaminated materials:

Leptospirosis is most commonly associated with eye infections, abortion or kidney disease in horses and is typically shed in the urine of infected animals. People acquire the infection by oral ingestion and contact with contaminated urine, placenta, and fetal tissues. The organism can infect people through abraded skin.

Rhodococcus equi is a bacterium that causes pneumonia in foals and is found in manure and contaminated soil around horse facilities. Inhalation of dust particles laden with virulent R. equi is the major route of infection. R. equi is an opportunistic pathogen in immunocompromised people and does not cause disease in persons with normal immune function.

Salmonellosis, campylobacterosis, and cryptosporidiosis are acquired by contact and accidental oral ingestion of fecal material from infected animals. Animals infected with these diseases typically have diarrhea but some animals may show no symptoms of disease. Any animal with diarrhea should be suspect of having a zoonotic disease.

Individuals with exposure to animals and animal environments may develop allergic reactions to animal proteins (allergens). Approximately 20-30 percent of individuals working with laboratory animals will develop an allergic reaction to animal proteins and 5-10 percent of individuals will develop asthma. Personnel may be exposed to allergens through inhalation and contact with skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Animal allergens may be present in animal dander, hair, skin, urine, saliva, serum and any contaminated feed or bedding materials. Risk factors for developing an allergic reaction include history of previous allergies to animals. The signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction are nasal discharge and congestion, conjunctivitis, tearing and eye itching, skin redness, rash or hives and lower airway symptoms (coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath).  Individuals with symptoms suggestive of an allergic reaction related to a workplace allergen should report their concerns to their supervisor and consult a physician.

Transmission of zoonotic diseases from horses is primarily by direct contact when handling and grooming horses, contact with contaminated objects such as grooming tools, accidental ingestion of feces or urine or inhalation of aerosolized materials.

We can protect ourselves from most diseases by using the following procedures:

  • Handle animals appropriately and safely to avoid bites, kicks, and other injuries.
  • Thoroughly wash bite wounds and report injuries.
  • Do not eat, drink, apply makeup or use tobacco products while handling horses or in horse stalls or pens.
  • Wash hands after handling animals or their waste both before eating or drinking.
  • Wear clothing appropriate for handling large animals including long pants and shoes or boots that cover your feet (no sandals). Launder the soiled clothing separate from your personal clothes and preferably at the animal facility
  • Wear respiratory protection when appropriate.
  • Keep animal areas clean and disinfect equipment after using it on animals or in animal areas.

Most importantly, familiarize yourself about the animals that you will be working with and the potential zoonotic diseases associated with each species. If at any time, you suspect that you have acquired a zoonotic disease, inform your supervisor and seek medical care.

Thank you for stopping by.

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Please see also the Fund for Horses’ new website which we launched at the beginning of the year. We keep forgetting to mention it. It is deluxe! It is wonderful for us finally to have all our sites hosted in one place, at the highly recommended

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The Curly horse

A Curly is a specific breed of horse. Curlies come in all sizes, colors, and body types but all carry a gene for a unique curly coat of hair.

Curlies are known for their calm, intelligent and friendly personality. They show an easily trainable temperament. They are also known for having a tough constitution and great stamina. Most people have found that Curlies enjoy being around people. Curlies are typically not flighty, and tend to do more reasoning than most breeds. 

Bit of history

While the exact origin of the American Curly Horse is currently being researched, experts know that Curly horses were found in North America in the 1800s and used as mounts by Native Americans. They were discovered by white settlers in wild herds of mustangs at the turn of the 20th century. There is also evidence of Curly horses living in South America.

They range in all sizes and body types, and they may be gaited, but all Curlies carry a dominant gene for a unique curly coat of hair.

Coat, mane and tail

Curlies have split manes and are not braided or clipped when shown. Curlies are most commonly chestnut colored, but can be found in every color from standard bays, blacks, and greys, to appaloosa markings; from pinto patterns to dilute colors such as buckskin, roan, grulla, and cremello.

In the winter, a Curly horse’s coat takes on the most curled appearance, looking like waves, ringlets, or microcurls, depending on the horse. Manes and forelocks can take on the look of corkscrew, ringlet, or dreadlocked curls. The tails may also be curly or wavy.

Lovely SEDONIA, Stag Creek Farm, in her winter curls.

Ear hair, whiskers, eyelashes, and fetlocks are often curly as well. The Curly horse does shed in the summer; some horses lose their curly look with the arrival of their slick summer coat, while others remain curly year-round.

Because the trait can be carried heterozygously, some purebred Curlies exhibit no curl at all — called “smooth coat” curlies.

The care for the curly hair is simple with most people choosing to not comb the mane because the hair will lose its curliness. The manes are often trimmed to keep them from matting. The tails can be combed.

Some people choose to collect the hair that is shed from the mane and tails in the spring. The hair is then donated to the ICHO Fiber Guild. They use the hair for spinning. All of the proceeds go to ICHO Curly Research Efforts.


Curlies are claimed to be the only hypoallergenic horse breed; most people allergic to horses can handle Curly Horses without suffering any allergic reaction. Research indicates a protein is missing from the hair of Curlies which may be what causes allergic reactions to horses in allergy sufferers, but the study was never officially published. Members of the Curly community are working towards funding more research on the topic.


Wild Curly Mustang from the Salt Wells Creek herd in Wyoming. By Ottilia.



Related Reading

Wild Curly Horses found in Nevada an enigma, Tuesday’s Horse, 17 Mar. 2009

Featured Image: American Bashkir Curly Horse Registry,

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Pretty young woman showing us how to muck out. THINKSTOCK.

All of us at the Fund for Horses have the following “pets” or family members: horses, dogs, cats, rabbits and a few birds. They all poo. Horses poo enormously of course. But what about that dung?

9 Fascinating Facts About Horse Manure

Spruce Pets have an interesting article called 9 Fascinating Facts About Horse Manure. Here’s a teaser:

  1. Horses produce about eight piles of manure a day at about 50 lbs a day.
  2. Horse manure contains grass and grain fibers, minerals, shed cells, fats, water, and sand or grit, depending on the type of soil the hay or grass was growing in. About 3/4 of the total weight of manure is water.
  3. Horse manure is sometimes called horse buns, road apples, horse pucky, horse chips, horse hooey, and horse apples. 
  4. Horse manure should be aged about six months before using on gardens.
  5. Horse manure is unlikely to spread any disease to people, including bacterial problems with e-coli which is killed in sunlight. 
  6. Horse manure changes color and consistency depending on their diet.
  7. Horse manure is not as smelly as cat or dog feces. 
  8. Apparently dried horse manure makes good fuel. You probably may not want to roast marshmallows over it, but it has been used as heating fuel.
  9. Horse manure has also been used in brick making. It’s one of the components of adobe. 

Read detailed version of the above »

The horse owners among us knew only one on the above list. Can you guess which one? It was #6. All of us who live with cats were nodding our heads vigorously in agreement with #7.

Spruce Pets

We love, love, love Spruce Pets. They are sure to have something special for you. Check them out »

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Featured Image: THINKSTOCK. (P.S. Who ever looks that good mucking out?)