In a series of posts I would like to compare and contrast the major groups in the mammalian fancy: breeders of horses, dogs, cats, and rodents. While these groups have major fundamental differences I believe the comparison is informative and will help explain why the canine fancy exists the way it does and to cut through some of the situational ethics that are claimed to be universal. First up, the horse.
Although the cultural ethic of keeping pedigrees and anointing certain breeding schemes as “pure” and imbued with special powers is as old as documented human history, purebred dog culture has inherited much of its structure and character from horse culture which in turn acquired its manner from the genealogy-fixation of the nobility.
As the royalty and nobility were highly concerned with their own pedigrees they spent considerable time and resources to both establish their blood ties to famous heroes and even gods–to fortify their political legitimacy–and secure marriages to prominent families followed by incestuous pairings to maintain the bloodline and consolidate power.
As we move down the social heirarchy from nobility to the aristocracy, the consequences of and ability to engineer human eugenic breeding schemes decreases but horses make an apt substitute for social climbing and conspicuous consumption. The association of European nobility and horses is ancient and most clearly rooted in the Equestrian order–literally the “Horsemen Class”–within the Roman Empire from which the knights and cavalry were exclusively drawn. The ordo equester was hereditary like the patrician class above them, but over time and under the strain to grow the cavalry, upstart knights who could afford their own horse and equipment were drafted into their ranks.
We no longer have hereditary political castes, but the financial investment required to husband various species of domestic animals still creates a plutocracy of sorts.
Horses are still the pinnacle of guided breeding efforts. They are historically the most utilitarian, giving man the first means of distant travel and massive physical power. They are also incredibly costly to purchase and maintain given their size, fragility, level of domestication, housing requirements, and accessories for use. They are larger and stronger than humans, have not been as intimately domesticated and subordinated, can not share living quarters with people requiring special boarding, must be trained and broken for use, and require task specific tack for riding or plowing or racing, etc.
They are widely used as a work implement, for sport and entertainment, and for companionship. All of these endeavors are costly given the amount of specialized training. The competition and gambling events bring even more money into the picture.
As far as breeding, horses have a long gestation period of 11 months and give birth to foals that are very large compared to their body size making delivery potentially hazardous. They most typically give birth to only one foal and mares are best able to start breeding when they mature between five and seven years of age. This means that even the most active and well-off breeders will only be able to preside over a handful of generations in their lifetime.
Pedigrees go back for centuries whether it’s to the three founding sires of the Thoroughbred breed–the Byerley Turk b.1679, the Darley Arabian b. 1700, and the Gondolphin Arabian b. 1724—or the mythical five favored mares of Mohammad. Even in racing where it’s ultimately performance that matters, the pedigree of hopeful prospects plays a significant role in evaluation and early betting.
Although inbreeding and linebreeding are used, a survey of the top winning horses shows that it’s rarely to the excess we see in the lessor species. Horses considered to be closely bred rarely have COIs in the double digits and most horses that are considered “inbred” and “linebred” would be viewed as out-crossed in dogs.
Although the popular sire effect and limited sire lines is in full effect in closed stud-book populations like Thoroughbreds, the time between generations works against rapid genetic loss to some degree. Even though entry into breeding is limited by the high cost, Thoroughbreds are covered by thousands of breeders so no individual breeding program can sway the entire population like they can in rare breeds of dog or cat.
Horse husbandry is prestigious because quite often the players involved are already rich or accomplished. Many of the activities with horses have hundreds of years of tradition and documentation behind them and horses have played a crucial historical role in warfare, industry, exploration and human survival. Horses are often deeply entwined with national and cultural identities adding even further to their mystique.
All of these factors combine to make horse breeding a game of the very rich, and even horse ownership a luxury for all but a few.
* * *
Comments and disagreements are welcome, but be sure to read the Comment Policy. If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the left to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
* * *