The history of white horses is given a little illumination today, in a study released in Nature Genetics on July 20, 2008.
A picture of the late actor Clayton Moore in his Lone Ranger costume with his stunt horse Silver. Hi ho Silver! Away!
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White horses undoubtedly have a special place in ancient history. The pure white horse has been associated with magic and kings and heroes and even the good guy in cowboy serials of the 1950s. Mythical versions of white horses are found in the flying horse Pegasus from Greek mythology and unicorns from the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. An early reference to white horses is found in the writings of Herodotus, who reported that white horses were held as sacred animals in the Achaemenid court of Xerxes the Great (ruled 486-465 BC).
White Horses are Gray Horses?
Lipizzaner Stallion at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna
Photo Credit: Brian Scott
White horses don't start out that way. They are born with dark hair that fades to white as the horse matures; the hair of such horses turns pure white between about 6-8 years old. White horses are often called gray horses because the coloration is an aging process. Normal skin coloration of horses is black, and the white hair gives the horse a gray visual appearance. Many gray horses have skin discolorations; some are speckled and some have red blotches called "blood marks."
Gray horses occur in various percentages among several horse populations of the world, including Arabian horses, Shetland ponies, Icelandic ponies, and of course the famous dancing Lipizzaner horses, among others. According to a new study led by Leif Andersson of Uppsala University and reported in Nature Genetics on July 20, 2008, the gray/white coloration is caused by a specific genetic mutation recognized in all gray/white horses, and never seen in any non-gray horse. This means that all the grays descended from a single ancestor horse, probably an Arabian horse and at least 1,000 years ago--at any rate, before Iceland's ponies were developed as a separate horse population.
Photo Credit: David Blaikie
That the selection for white hair was intentional seems likely, given the deep historic cross-cultural mythology associated with white horses. Research by Andersson and colleagues bolsters this argument, providing data that shows that the pigmentation variations within the horses is associated with melanomas--skin cancers. Between 70 and 80% of gray horses older than 15 years have melanomas, shortening their lives by several years. The existence of white horses in many different populations, despite their propensity to develop skin cancer and die young, is certain evidence of human interference.
Source and Further Information
See More on White Horses for information on white horses in ancient history.
Rosengren Pielberg, Gerli, et al. 2008 A cis-acting regulatory mutation causes premature hair graying and susceptibility to melanoma in the horse. Nature Genetics Advance Online article published 20 July 2008. DOI doesn't appear to be working as of yet. See Nature Genetics