A Gene for Speed?

What makes a winner? Just about every breeder and owner has asked and debated this question. Certainly genetics must play a role, or why else breed a winning stallion or mare?

But is there a gene for speed? This was the question asked of the researchers and veterinarians who contributed to an article on hereditary problems and genetic testing that will appear in the upcoming December issue of The Horse.

Their consensus was no. "In reality there is not a single speed gene," Samantha A. Brooks, PhD, assistant professor of equine genetics at Cornell University in New York. “Speed is a very complex trait. You need to consider things like cardiovascular output and muscular strength and the speed at which muscles can contract. There is a huge environmental component, as well as behavioral and personality aspects. A horse has to have 'heart.'"

Although some researchers are looking at how genetics contribute to a horse's performance, no one is trying to create a superhorse, according to James N. MacLeod, VMD, PhD, John and Elizabeth Knight Chair and professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky.

"There are multiple genes that contribute to racing performance," he says.

Besides, researchers say, a race is more than just how fast the horse ran down the track; races are about the interplay between the horses on the track. Most people who remember a race don’t necessarily remember the speed of the winner; they recall the two horses that went neck and neck and the horse that pulled ahead in the photo finish.

"Even though we are starting to look at the genetic basis of some athletic traits, I don't think we are going to ever find the perfect recipe for a winning horse," Brooks says. "To be honest, I think Mother Nature is too complex."

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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