The equine industry has seen a significant shift in recent years with the rise of genetic technology, with DNA testing slowly becoming a commonplace in several countries. Currently, a lot of the interest around performance testing focuses on a few specific genes responsible for producing big muscles and sprinting speed. However, the introduction of whole genome sequencing tests by companies such as Victory Genomics (VG) is set to revolutionize the industry.
Improving Horse Welfare Through Genetic Testing
We caught up Jessica Morton, a lifelong equestrian and horse welfare advocate who conducts research for VG. Jess believes that the potential for whole genome sequencing in the equine industry is enormous, not just in terms of performance but also horse welfare. By using this type of genetic testing, racehorse owners can enter their horses in the right races depending on their genetic profile. “The welfare element is in the public eye now. For me, that’s the big potential of genetic technology,” says Jess. “You can prevent some horses from entering the wrong kind of races and stop them from dying on the racetrack.”
Informed Breeding Decisions and Maintaining Genetic Diversity
Whole genome sequencing has enabled the identification of a wide range of genetic diseases in horses. Some of these diseases increases their susceptibility to catastrophic injuries on the racetrack, which often result in early retirement or death of the horse. Using this genetic testing approach allows for informed breeding decisions to be made based on the test results, which in turn results in a reduced likelihood of disease transmission to subsequent generations of horses.
In addition, the inbreeding and relatedness coefficient between two horses can be determined through whole genome sequencing. With this information, breeders can matchmake and test horses to understand whether the foal will be healthy. This testing ultimately can determine whether there is enough genetic diversity between two closely related horses to allow them to breed, and can play an important role in saving rare breeds that are at risk of losing genetic diversity and dying out.
Ethical Considerations and Ensuring Fairness in Competitions
Whole genome sequencing can also determine the ‘purity’ of a breed based on its lineages and ancestry. This is relevant in the context of maintaining the purity of a breed’s studbook by ensuring only horses with a specific genetic makeup can be part of it. It is also important to note that there is a risk that using whole genome sequencing could create unfair advantages and violate the principles of fair play in horse racing. While doping is illegal in horse racing, using genetic technology to improve performance raises new questions about what constitutes fair competition.
Whole genome sequencing has tremendous potential in the equine industry, from improving horse welfare and performance to saving rare breeds from dying out due to inbreeding problems. However, it is crucial to use this technology responsibly and ethically to ensure that the welfare of the horses involved is always the top priority.