Following the DNA Trail

My horse, Mystic, is a mystery in many ways. I have no idea when or where he was born, exactly how old he is, and what his life was like before I first set eyes on him in 2008.


One piece of the mystery is now solved thanks to Dr. Gus Cothran, director of the Animal Genetics Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

A couple of months ago I did some internet searching on horse DNA testing. I learned about Dr. Cothran’s lab, which offers DNA genotyping for identification, parentage verification, and determination of gene mutations in animals. I e-mailed Dr. Cochran, who sent me instructions for submitting a DNA sample.

Per the instructions, I plucked about 50 hairs—including root follicles—from Mystic’s tail, taped them to a form I filled out, and sent it to the laboratory along with a check for $25.

Mystic hair

While I waited for the results, I speculated on what they might be. A number of people thought Mystic might have some Andalusian in him. I thought there might be Quarter horse and possibly Arabian in his lineage.

But it was all guess work, since he was a paperless horse.

About two weeks after I sent Mystic’s hair samples to Texas, a white envelope arrived in the mail, with Dr. Cothran’s return address on it.

I opened it with curiosity and a little hesitation. By knowing Mystic’s heritage, I could no longer let my imagination run wild. Some of the mystery would be gone.

The results took me by surprise.

DNA test


The fact that Mystic had Quarter horse in his DNA did not come as a shock. But British warmblood? Brazilian breeds? What the heck?

My research on British warmbloods yielded the following information:

The British warmblood is a mix between hot-blooded breeds (like the Arabian and thoroughbred) and cold-blooded breeds (most draft breeds). They may carry bloodlines of any approved breed, as long as they meet the requirements of the type.

Uses The British warmblood can be used in all traditional English disciplines (dressage, show jumping and eventing).
Height Average is above 16 hands high.
Conformation There are no distinct characteristics, though most horses have the typical warmblooded build.
Colors All colors are accepted, with the exception of perlino and cremello.

As for Brazilian breeds, I learned there were a number of them:

  • Brazilian sport horse
  • Campeiro
  • Campolina
  • Crioulo
  • Mangalarga Marchador
  • Pampas horse
  • Pantaneiro

I checked out each breed and decided Mangalarga Marchador looked the most like Mystic. The Marchador is the national breed of Brazil and has a royal history:

In 1807 Napoleon invaded Portugal, forcing Portugal’s Royal Family to flee to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. They took their best horses with them–Andalusians from the Royal Alter Stud Farm. One young stallion named “Sublime” went to the Baron of Aldenas, owner of the Brazilian breeding farm, Campo Alegre. The stallion was bred to local gaited mares of Spanish Jennet and Barb blood and produced offspring with a smooth rhythmic gait.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if Mystic has Marchador in him.

A Mangalarga Marchador at play

A Mangalarga Marchador at play

It’s nice to know that science still leaves a little room for imagination.


For more information on genotyping or to submit a DNA sample of your horse, contact:

Dr. E. Gus Cothran, Ph.D.

Texas A&M University

College Station, TX 77843 USA

Phone: (979) 845-0229

Fax: (979) 847-8981



Joe’s Project

My friend Joe, who is studying photography at Randolph Community College (see his blog), asked if he could feature Mystic and me in a multimedia project for a class. The object was to capture someone in her or his milieu, complete with sound effects and spoken narrative. It could only be one minute long, with no more than 24 images.



I said okay, and Joe shot photos over the course of two days (hence different clothes and tack, for the sharp-eyed). He also recorded some great sound effects: crunchy driveway gravel, hoofbeats, neighs, and nickers. You’ll just have to imagine those as you read the transcript and view the slideshow below.

Thanks, Joe, for letting us be part of your project. You deserve an A.

I love heading out to the farm on weekends. I know I’m going into this world that I love. I have this beautiful horse named Mystic; I’ve had him for about three years. A big part of having a horse is taking care of the horse and grooming it. I always do that before I do anything with Mystic for the day. One of the great things about it is that I’m not only taking care of him, but I’m also creating that connection with him. I learned about natural horsemanship a few years ago. It’s really about understanding horse psychology and behavior, especially how horses behave in herds, and using that knowledge to connect with a horse and build a trusting relationship with it. Mystic is 19 years old. Horses can live into their 30s; I hope to have a lot of years with him.

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