Analysis: genetics, environment and equine psychology all play a role in the quest for equine excellence

Whether it be Celtic folklore, student race days, or the muddy trenches of a local point to point, horses are an intrinsic part of Irish culture. Ireland has produced some of the world's most prolific equine talents: Galileo, Arkle and, of course Tiger Roll, the subject of RTE's latest audio series Tiger Roll the People's Horse.

But just how do we manage to churn out champions? Is it our lush green grass, the litany of talented trainers, or simply the luck of the Irish?

In 2009 Professor Emmeline Hill, lecturer in equine science at UCD and chief science officer for equine science company Plusvital, discovered the speed gene. Mutations in the myostatin gene have been shown to have major effects on muscle type in dogs, cattle, pigs, and sheep. Hill hypothesised that the myostatin gene might have a similar effect in thoroughbreds. "Using this gene we can make a very strong prediction about how a horse is likely to perform at different distances". She was right.

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From RTÉ Podcasts, introducing Tiger Roll: The People's Horse, the remarkable story of the Irish racehorse who has won two Aintree Grand Nationals back-to-back and five times at the Cheltenham Festival.

Hill explains that there are three possible genetic types for the speed gene: CC, CT, and TT, which are the combinations of the DNA in the myostatin gene inherited from the parents. CC horses are most suited to sprint racing, CT horses excel in middle distance races, and TT horses are best for longer distance racing requiring stamina.

The discovery highlighted the importance of genetics in race preparation. In essence, training a horse for what it is genetically made to do. "Then the management and training of a horse can be fine-tuned to maximize the genetic potential that a horse is born with," says Hill.

But while genetic testing can increase the likelihood of producing the type of horse breeders dream about, it does not guarantee success. The speed gene is one of a vast number of genes that contribute to racing ability. In numerical terms, genetics contributes to about 30% to 50% of a horse's performance on the track, the rest comes down to the management and training environment.

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From RTÉ News, Aintree Grand National winner Tiger Roll returns home to Co Meath in 2019

"The fastest period of a horse's growth over its lifetime (when average daily gain is highest) occurs in the last three months before it’s born," says Dr. Barbara Murphy, head of Equine Science at UCD. During this period, nature would have provided longer days to turn on seasonal growth hormones, allowing the foal to grow to its optimum before birth.

A breeder can kick start a mare's reproductive cycles earlier than nature intended using artificial light to ensure a foal is born between January and March. The earlier a mare foals, the more mature that foal will generally be by the time it reaches a sale.

However, there is a reason why foals are naturally born in springtime. If the annual lighting is not corrected for the pregnant mare, to account for an earlier industry-imposed breeding season, it can lead to a longer pregnancy as light isn't stimulating the fetus to grow.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report from 1966 on Arkle's third successive win in the Leopardstown Chase in Dublin.

Besides, when a foal reaches the world, there is still a lot more work to be done. "I think actually that probably the most important thing is to do with the conformation of their limbs," says Prof Peter Clegg, an expert in Equine Orthopedics from the University of Liverpool. "You can have the most amazing athlete, but if their limbs won’t last and they end up getting recurring injuries they will never be a great racehorse".

Murphy describes conformation as "the shape or structure of a horse, and includes how limb bones are positioned in relation to each other without too much deviation from accepted angles." It helps to determine whether someone is going to buy a horse, and is highly hereditary.

Young horses with conformational issues can have them corrected using surgery. These procedures are often used on angular limb deformities, if a horse has a varus-valgus conformation, or to put it simply knocked knees. "You are interfering in the horse's conformation", says Clegg, "but the main reason to do that is to improve its longevity in racing and prevent it getting orthopedic disease in the future." Still, he favours a less invasive approach, as deformities often correct themselves with proper care.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday with Miriam, jockey Davy Russell speaks to Miriam O'Callaghan after Tiger Roll's win in the 2019 Aintree Grand National

To ease the minds of breeders and buyers severe hereditary problems are rare among horses. "We actually believe that most of these foals that have hereditary problems will die during gestation and will be aborted," says Dr. Christine Aurich, associate professor in animal reproduction and the head of the Platform for Artificial Insemination and Embryo Transfer at the Vienna University for Veterinary Medicine. This might be because a foal born in the wild would be expected to stand and run shortly after birth. "They can’t have many problems otherwise they wouldn’t survive," she explains.

It is undeniable that a horse must be in top condition to excel, but what is a racehorse without a rider? "If you look at the racing post-race records, you can see which jockey was riding the horse, sometimes you can see a horse which may have perhaps apparently underperformed with a certain jockey," says Ashley Ede, Lecturer in International Equine Industry and Business Management at the Royal Agricultural University.

"And then it might be coincidental, but all of sudden there’s a change of jockey, and all of a sudden that horse is winning". This ideology an also be applied to trainers, he adds. Now, this doesn’t mean a jockey or trainer is bad, but rather some horses just don’t jive with certain people.

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From RTÉ Podcasts, Episode 6 of Tiger Roll: The People's Horse looks at Tiger Roll's challenge for the 2018 Aintree Grand National

It is fair to say that engineering a champion is a tricky business, but there is another crucial component: food. "Feed that horse in such a manner that closely resembles its natural way of feeding, and to feed as much forage as you possibly can," says Dr. Andrew Hemmings, associate professor of Equine Science and Head of Equine Management and Science at the Royal Agricultural University. He contests the idea that feeding a horse too much forage could negatively impact race performance, in fact, the right diet might even improve a horse's temperament.

To him, success may have more to do with mental resilience and unflappable temperament. "The sort of horse that won’t go down with gastric ulcers because of stress, the sort of horse that won’t have multiple days out of training because of stress linked conditions".

While we can’t exactly book our equine friends a therapy session, Hemmings explains there are certain behavioural markers that indicate anxiety levels in horses. For example, eye blink rate: "because dopamine is also linked to anxiety, particularly in the horse, measurement of spontaneous blink rate can allow us to predict anxiety".

Throughout these conversations, a common thread emerges: genetics, environment, and equine psychology all play a role in the quest for excellence, but it’s called gambling for a reason. As Clegg astutely notes, "if it was easy it wouldn’t be a very interesting sport".


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ