A Mounted Search for Scientific Truth
In addition to being the first global equestrian journey, the World Ride will inspire the largest equine DNA search in history.
Working with leading equine hereditary specialists, Basha O’Reilly will be collecting hair samples from the breeds encountered on the World Ride. An international appeal is also being broadcast to horse-owners world wide, so as to include their animals from continents not on the journey’s route. The goal is to construct the first uninterrupted equine DNA chain, thanks to an unprecedented international alliance of equestrian, cultural and scientific co-operation.
The creation of the world’s first equine DNA chain brings staggering possibilities, including unravelling the origins of the horse.
Though the horse has lived alongside mankind for millennia, many of his mysteries are still unresolved, and because of a lack of modern academic evidence, equestrian concepts often end up being argued with more passion than proof. The global equine DNA project will offer a host of new answers in fields ranging from archaeology to zoology.
This isn’t to say that the horse hasn’t already intrigued scholars for generations, as literary and archaeological evidence converge on the subject. Flavius Renatus, a fourth-century Roman, wrote a treatise on the horses of the ancient world and in the thirteenth century the noted Mameluke warrior/scholar, Abu Bakr, attempted to locate copies of every major equestrian work known to man.
Plus, when Marco Polo reached Afghanistan he narrowly missed seeing horses directly descended from Alexander’s horse, Bucephalus. These famous equines became pawns in a deadly political struggle, which resulted in the entire breed being destroyed by a distraught wife. Though the story of Alexander’s horses appeared in Polo’s original Venetian book, it was edited out of subsequent editions.
Despite these early efforts, there are still unrecognised links between mounted muscle and scientific exploration, as no less a personality than Carl Linnaeus launched the search in the saddle for scholastic truth.
At first glance Linnaeus didn’t
look like a biological pioneer or an extraordinary Long Rider but that’s what he
was. Of course part of the reason no one recognised his importance back in 1732
was because young Carl was still thought of as being merely the eldest son of a
small-town curate in Sweden. All that changed on the day before his twenty-fifth
birthday. That’s when he saddled his horse, and armed with a plant press and a
crazy notion, Linnaeus rode away from his family’s home in Uppsala, Sweden and
into scientific history. His mission was to journey north into “Lapland,” an
area inhabited by the ethnic Sami tribes people who lived on the frozen tundra
with their reindeer.
During the five years in which he made his famous scientific journey around the world, Charles Darwin took every opportunity to explore the continents of South America, Australia and Africa on horseback. That expedition, he said, “was the most important event in my life.”
Thanks to his equine interests, in addition to arguing that the migratory urge is the strongest of all animal instincts, Charles Darwin was among the first to pursue an investigation into the origin of the modern horse. The evolutionary scientist put forward a hypothesis which assumed one wild ancestor for all equines. According to this theory there existed only one original species of wild horse, which in all likelihood, Darwin believed, was identical with the Przewalski horse. The English scientist went on to speculate that all present domestic horses could be traced back to this original species.
Darwin didn’t have long to wait, as the discovery in the late nineteenth century of Iron Age equestrian artefacts caused a flurry of academic speculation essentially lasting until the First World War. This era was characterized by researchers examining a small number of artefacts and then proposing theories on the origin, migration and history of the horse. Nevertheless a study of different craniums led paleontologists, such as Professor James Cossar Ewart, to believe that there were several different types of equines, each with its own separate wild ancestor. This included the Scythian steppe horse, the Celtic pony and European forest horse. Ewart also posed the possibility that Equus Celticus may have occurred at a time when extensive animal migration seemed to have been in progress and the British Isles were joined to Europe by land. Ewart’s innovative work was praised by Charles Darwin.
Thus, it was Linnaeus, Darwin and Ewart whose nineteenth-century appreciation of horses laid the foundation for the most exciting equestrian experiment of all time, the twenty-first century exploration of equine DNA.