A scene of a Viking on a horse from New Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

How the Vikings Started the Worldwide Distribution of Gaited Horses

(Read the article on one page)

Some horses have special gaits, which are more comfortable for the rider than walk, trot or gallop. Now, a study by an international research team under the direction of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin revealed that these gaited horses most likely originated in the 9th century medieval England. From there they were brought to Iceland by the Vikings and later spread all over Europe and Asia. These findings were published in the current issue of the journal "Current Biology."

Walk, trot and gallop are the gaits which all horses can master. However, riders who want to sit in their saddle more comfortably while still making good time on long journeys would benefit from choosing gaited horses. They are able to perform special gaits, like the ambling or pacing, which are typical for Icelandic horses and allow for a smoother ride. Responsible for this ability is a mutation in the DMRT3 gene, which was recently shown by a study with over 4,000 horses from different breeds. To investigate the history of gaited horses the scientist analysed this mutation in the genome of 90 horses from the Copper Age (6000 BC) to the Middle Ages (11th century). They detected the mutation in samples of two English horses from 850 -- 900 AD and more frequently in Icelandic horses dating to the 9th -- 11th century. Most likely the first gaited horses appeared in medieval England and were then transported to Iceland by the Vikings. Horses have existed in Iceland since 870 BC. In contrast, no European (Scandinavia included) or Asian horse of the same period carrying the mutation for the alternative gaits was found.

Vikings with their horses. A painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Vikings with their horses. A painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo ( public domain )

It is improbable that the English and Icelandic gaited horse populations developed independently from each other in such a short time. "It is much more likely, that the first horses ever imported to Iceland already carried the mutation for alternative gaits. The Vikings recognised the value of the gaited horses and preferentially selected for this trait -- thereby laying the foundation for the worldwide distribution," explains Arne Ludwig, geneticist at the IZW. Historic sagas also suggest that Icelandic horses exhibited the ability for alternative gaits at a very early stage. Although the origin of the Icelandic horse is not fully resolved, the general assumption is that they came to the island together with the Vikings. However, since the mutation was not found in Scandinavian horses of the 9th century, horses from other regions must have been brought to Iceland as well.

An Icelandic gaited horse

An Icelandic gaited horse ( public domain )

Historic records report that Vikings were repeatedly pillaging on the British Isles and conquered the region of today's Yorkshire -- precisely the region the two historic gaited horses originated from. "Taking that into account our results suggest that Vikings first encountered gaited horses on the British Isles and transported them to Iceland," explains Saskia Wutke, PhD student at the IZW and first lead author of the study. The high frequency of the mutation for gaitedness in the early Icelandic horses indicates that the Icelandic settlers preferably bred gaited horses -- apparently the comfortable gaits proved to be particularly suitable for long distance travel through rough terrain.

An illustration of Odin riding Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript.

An illustration of Odin riding Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript. ( public domain )

Top image: A scene of a Viking on a horse from New Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Source: Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V. (FVB). "How the Vikings started the worldwide distribution of gaited horses." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 August 2016. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160808123849.htm

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch’ (1892) by Paul Gauguin.
A belief in ghosts is held by many cultures (both modern and ancient) around the world. Some of these ghost beliefs are well-known, whilst others, such as those held by the Polynesians, are less so. In terms of geography, Polynesia covers a large area in the central and southern parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Myths & Legends

An image of Enki from the Adda cylinder seal.
In the belief system of the Sumerians, Enki (known also as Ea by the Akkadians and Babylonians) was regarded to be one of the most important deities. Originally Enki was worshipped as a god of fresh water and served as the patron deity of the city of Eridu (which the ancient Mesopotamians believe was the first city to have been established in the world). Over time, however, Enki’s influence grew and this deity was considered to have power over many other aspects of life, including trickery and mischief, magic, creation, fertility, and intelligence.

Human Origins

Detail of ‘God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars’ by Jan Brueghel the Younger.
Although most mainstream scientists and most of the developed world now accept the theory of evolution and the scientifically established age of Earth and the universe, there is still a group of people that resist the status quo and insist, based on a particular literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in the Hebrew Bible

Ancient Technology

Representation of an ancient Egyptian chariot.
The wheel can be considered mankind’s most important invention, the utility of which is still applied in multiple spheres of our daily life. While most other inventions have been derived from nature itself, the wheel is 100% a product of human imagination. Even today, it would be difficult to imagine what it would be like without wheels, since movement as we know it would be undeniably impossible.

Opinion

El Caracol Observatory at Chichen Itza (Wright Reading/CC BY-NC 2.0) and Composite 3D laser scan image of El Caracol from above
In 1526, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and found most of the great Maya cities deeply eroded and unoccupied. Many generations removed from the master builders, engineers, and scientists who conceived and built the cities, the remaining Maya they encountered had degenerated into waring groups who practiced blood rituals and human sacrifice.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article