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A More Comfortable Ride

Vikings likely were the ones to spread horses with the ability to amble, a new genetic analysis says.

As Discover's D-brief blog notes, horses typically walk, trot, or gallop, and but trotting — which it calls the "Goldilocks gait" in terms of speed versus exertion for the horse — is uncomfortable for human riders. But some horses, like Icelandic ponies, can pace or amble, which gives a smoother ride, the Guardian adds.

This ability to amble has been linked to a premature stop codon in the DMRT3 gene and a previous genotyping study of nearly 4,400 modern horses representing 141 breeds found that this variant has spread throughout the world. This week in Current Biology, Arne Ludwig from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and his colleagues say, based on their analysis of ancient horse DNA, that Vikings likely transported ambling horses from the British Isles to Iceland.

He and his team examined whether the variant was present among 90 ancient horse samples, which dated back to between the Copper Age and the Middle Ages. In addition to finding the variant among Icelandic horses, they also uncovered it in two medieval English horses from Jorvik, now York, an area that had been settled by Scandinavians during the 9th century. This led the researchers to say that Vikings likely came across ambling horses in Britain and later brought them with them to Iceland. They add that Vikings possibly also introduced ambling horses to Asia via their journeys to the Caspian Sea and the Middle East.

University College Dublin's David MacHugh tells the Guardian that, for an ancient DNA study, Ludwig and his colleagues' work included a number of samples, but he adds that finding the variant in two ancient English horses doesn't necessarily mean the variant originated there.