Tricia Sybersma loves Cayman’s local horses, and now she knows their family history, thanks to a volunteer study conducted by Professor Gus Cothran at Texas A&M University.
Findings of the study, which concentrates on mapping the DNA of horses in different Caribbean Islands, reveal that Cayman horses are close relatives to the Caspian horse, which is native to Northern Iran.
The small ancient breed was used to build the Persian Empire and is thought to be one of the oldest horse breeds still around. Scientific evidence traces the Caspian horse back to at least 3,000 BC, pre-dating most other common breeds of horses.
“The Grand Cayman population connects to the Caspian horse which connects it to the other Oriental breeds, but it is not distant from the Iberian cluster,” said Clinical Professor Cothran, who is involved with the Horse Genome Project, a global effort to map the DNA sequence of the domestic horse in 20 countries.
According to Professor Cothran, Iberian horses are a combination of Arabian horses and cold-blooded horses, which include true ponies.
“The Grand Cayman population is sitting in the middle of the modern breeds descendent from these three primitive groups. This could mean that the Grand Cayman horses do have primarily Spanish heritage but that some (possibly minor) cross breeding and other demographical processes over time have changed the genetics of these horses in a way that has obscured the relationship,” the study stated.
Ms. Sybersma said the entire study is not yet complete, but some of the preliminary analysis had been written involving Cayman horses. She displayed the findings at the Cayman Islands Veterinary Medical Association and Caribbean Veterinary Medical Association conference, which was held at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort last week.
“The Cayman horses are with the Caspian and their next relative would be Arabian and Spanish. Cayman and Caspian are so close, you can hardly tell who is who,” she said. Ms. Sybersma, who owns a number of Cayman horses, reached out to several universities in 2010 in an effort to find out more about the Cayman horses she had come to know and love.
“I wanted to find out,” she said. “It started as a joke, but then I was like, ‘who are these Cayman horses and why are people not using them in riding schools anymore?’ Then I wondered if maybe their DNA would tell us something that will help unravel [the mystery].”
Since 2011, when she secured the study with Mr. Cothran, Ms. Sybersma has collected hair follicle samples from 52 local horses for the DNA analysis. The samples included 20 to 30 pulled mane or tail hairs with root follicles attached.
Cayman horses have strong personalities, but are also playful and confident, hearty, athletic, and don’t need to eat much, Ms. Sybersma said. Their strong personalities have made them difficult to handle at times and, as a result, they have been traditionally unreliable candidates for riding schools.
“They are not so keen on being told what to do. They don’t really have an obedient gene … so for the riding schools they were problematic; you really have to build a relationship with them first,” she said.
Even though they can be unpredictable at times, Cayman horses are very loyal once you gain their trust, she said.
“They are looking for a relationship, they want to interact, they want to know what we are all about,” Ms. Sybersma said. “They are very companion oriented. Once you earn their trust and prove to them that you are consistent, kind and caring, and a good leader… they will do anything.”
Cayman horses are usually grey, bay or roan, and tend to be 13.3 to 14.3 hands – the unit of measurement for horses that is equal to four inches – tall, which is smaller than the typical horse. “They are close to some of the pony breeds,” said Professor Cothran.
Physical traits unique to the Cayman horse include: short backs, defined alert ears, a well-defined face, and forward facing eyes.
Ms. Sybersma said she would like to do a population count of Cayman’s horses. “I want to know how many there are, and who has them … There could be implications down the road where their blood will be very valuable to study because they have not been inoculated like North American horses,” she explained.
She has also been in talks with the local museum about doing a new display on the history of the Cayman horse.