25 October 2011

Lt.-Col. Maxwell Fielding McTaggart (1874-1936)

Some of the pithiest lines on horses--and men--came from Great Britain's Lt.-Col. M. F. McTaggart. I first read some of them in John Richard Young's still worthy books.

Now I'm finally getting around to ordering copies of McTaggart's books. From this snippet, I can say I'm truly looking forward to reading a good many of them.

Preface for Stable and Saddle (1930)

It is now nearly half a century since I bestrode my first pony, and consequently I think it may be said that I was brought up in an old-fashioned school. At any rate I absorbed whatever I was told, and accepted it as truth, and I practiced the principles of those days with enthusiasm. But as the years went on, I began to realize that all I had been told, and all that I had read, did not quite ring true. I found results so disappointing that I became determined to probe things for myself, to test theories, to examine statements, and to be satisfied with no replies that did not have a sound and logical line of reasoning to support them.

As I proceeded to take this detached line of thought; and to accept no convention until its utility had been ultimately proved, I found what a remarkable hold habit, custom, and imitation could have upon horse-owners.

To ask “Why?” was unpopular. Reasons were difficult to give, and “It has always been done that way” was a frequent reply.

Because someone has been successful in his schooling or management, it does not necessarily imply that his methods are so good that improvement is impossible.

I hold the view that change is the forerunner of progress, and that unless we are ready to examine new standpoints and to alter our views when reason justifies it, we are no longer mentally alert. Our minds must flow along in a living stream of new ideas, and not stagnate in the dark and murky pools of backwaters, or gyrate in eddies which take us nowhere but downwards.

In my investigations I have been surprised to find what influence stud-grooms and other such persons have with their employers, for no other reason than that they have been with horses all their lives.

Because a man happens to have held some view all his life, which possibly he was taught by his father, it does not mean that it is right, although it certainly may be. It can be worthy of acceptance only when supported by sound reasons.

In this short work, which I now submit to the public, I have attempted to give good reasons for every view I hold. They have all been tested by me, and are therefore not only the result of prolonged thought, but of practical experience. The book has been written in the hope that the knowledge that I have gained may help others to review their present customs, to break away where necessary from the iron conventions which surround the stable, the manege and the paddock, and to survey their own ideas and methods from a new angle.

M. F. McT.

28 August 2011

A Tidbit on the Mystery of Domestication

Here's a press release found at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-08/uoy-awh082211.php:

Ancient wild horses help unlock past

An international team of researchers has used ancient DNA to produce compelling evidence that the lack of genetic diversity in modern stallions is the result of the domestication process.
The team, which was led by Professor Michi Hofreiter from the University of York, UK, has carried out the first study on Y chromosomal DNA sequences from extinct ancient wild horses and found an abundance of diversity.
The results, which are published in Nature Communications, suggest the almost complete absence of genetic diversity in modern male horses is not based on properties intrinsic to wild horses, but on the domestication process itself.
Professor Hofreiter said: "Unlike modern female domestic horses where there is plenty of diversity, genetic diversity in male horses is practically zero.
"One hypothesis to explain this suggests modern horses have little Y chromosome diversity because the wild horses from which they were domesticated were also not diverse, due in part to the harem mating system in horses, implying skewed reproductive success of males. Our results reject this hypothesis as the Y chromosome diversity in ancient wild horses is high. Instead our results suggest that the lack of genetic diversity in modern horses is a direct consequence of the domestication process itself."
The Y chromosome is a valuable tool in population genetics, providing a means of directly assessing evolutionary processes that only affect the paternal lineage. So far mitochondrial DNA studies have failed to discover the origin of domestic horses. However, these new Y chromosomal markers now open the possibility of solving this issue in detail.
As part of the study, researchers sequenced Y chromosomal DNA from eight ancient wild horses dating back from around 15,000 to more than 47,000 years and a 2,800-year-old domesticated horse. The results were compared to DNA sequences from Przewalski horses - the only surviving wild horse population – and 52 domestic horses, representing 15 modern breeds, which had been sequenced previously.
Domestication of horses dates back approximately 5,500 years. DNA from the skeletal remains of a 2,800-year-old domesticated stallion from Siberia showed that in contrast to modern horses, Y chromosomal diversity still existed several thousand years after the initial domestication event for horses.
Professor Hofreiter said: "This suggests some level of Y chromosomal diversity still existed in domestic horses several thousand years after domestication, although the lineage identified was closely related to the modern domestic lineage."
The study was carried out in Germany by Sebastian Lippold, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The results were then independently replicated at the Centre for GeoGenetics at Copenhagen University, Denmark.
Sebastian Lippold said: "Working on ancient Y chromosomal DNA was especially challenging but the only opportunity to investigate Y chromosomal diversity in wild horses. For now we have a first idea of ancestral diversity and therefore a better impression of how much diversity has been lost. Basically this was an important first step and points to the potential the Y chromosomal marker could have in order to further investigate domestication history in horses."
Beth Shapiro, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the Pennsylvania State University, USA, carried out the analysis and interpretation.
She said: "Most ancient DNA research until now has focused on a different part of the genome – the mitochondrion – which is much more abundant in cells and therefore much easier to work with when the DNA is degraded. This has been a serious limitation in ancient DNA research, because we generally only have a good idea what happened along the maternal line. Here, we've been able to look at what happened along the paternal lineage, and, probably unsurprisingly, we see something different going on in males than in females.
"This is exciting stuff, and means we can start getting a much better picture of how events like domestication and climate change have shaped the diversity of organisms alive today."
Researchers had found that Przewalski's horse displays DNA haplotypes not present in modern domestic horses, suggesting they are not ancestral to modern domestic horses. However, while the Y chromosome data supported historic isolation, it also suggests a close evolutionary relationship between the domestic horse and the Przewalski's horse, since the Przewalski Y chromosomal haplotype is more similar to the two domestic ones than any of the ancient wild horse haplotypes.

19 July 2011

Our Fields on July 9, 2011

Here's a photo that may explain why I post so rarely during summer. We weed twenty acres by hand. So far this week, I've clipped, pulled, and stabbed something like two thousand Canada thistle and about six musk thistle. Since I get to stare at mountains and trees and horses while doing so, it's not all that much of a burden. In fact, despite the sweat and bugs, I rather enjoy it.

When we moved onto our twenty acres of clay, we knew nothing about irrigating or farming, but we knew we liked trees and didn't like chemicals. We had to spray once shortly after we moved in because the place was a thicket of Russian, Canada, and musk thistle, but since then the only chemicals hitting our land have come from paste wormers consumed by the horses.

I like natural and am actually a bit lazy, so instead of planting trees I envisioned them, and cottonwoods and willow came, sprouting in the lower field decades ago.

I took this photo just after calling the horses in from their evening grazing session. This year we've had abundant rain, abundant irrigation water, and overabundant runoff--expected and unexpected--from neighbors' fields. It's actually lush here for once and in July no less.