Genes link wild horses in Western Canada to Siberian Breed

A genetic study of a remote population of wild horses in Western Canada has posed a raft of new questions about their origins, with the results revealing an intriguing link to the Yakut horses of Siberia.

It is assumed that the horses observed by European fur traders in the early 1800s in association with Tsilhqot’in First Nations in the Chilcotin area of south central British Columbia were descended from Spanish-derived horses brought in about 1740 along native trade routes from plateau grasslands in what is now Washington State.

Today, an estimated 1,000 feral horses still survive in remote areas of the Chilcotin Plateau, including an estimated 150-215 in the Brittany Triangle sub-population. The semi-isolated Brittany sub-population is likely the most remote herd left in mainland Canada and has survived for several centuries alongside major predators, including grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), mountain lions (Felis concolor), and grey wolves (Canis lupus).

In 2002, to protect and recover these horses, the Xeni Gwet’in, a horse culture and member group of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, established a large wild horse preserve, an area that includes the Brittany Triangle (?Elegesi Qayus[Nemiah] Wild Horse Preserve). The Xeni Gwet’in have won recognition through the BC Supreme Court of their aboriginal right to capture wild horses for domestic and work purposes.

In a comparison with 69 different horse breeds by phylogenetic analysis, the Brittany Triangle (BT) horse of today paired with the Canadian Horse breed within the cluster that includes the Shire, Clydesdale, Highland Pony, Eriskay Pony, Fell Pony, and Dales Pony. This is a natural cluster of the domestic breeds, which are native British breeds except for the Canadian. The origins of the herd are largely from the heavy horse types and, specifically, it appears that the Canadian Horse breed (or its ancestors) contributed significantly to the ancestry of the Brittany Triangle sup-population. This warrants further investigation.

The most intriguing result of our genetic study was the possibility that Yakut horses, an ancient horse of Russian heritage, also contributed to the origins of the herd. However, this requires more study and probably more baseline samples from Eastern Russia. We found very limited historic documentation to support the most obvious hypothesis that the Yakut horse bloodlines arrived in the remote Brittany Triangle of British Columbia from Russian fur traders along the adjacent Pacific Coast.

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A Preliminary Genetic Study of the Wild Horse in the Brittany Triangle

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