Preservation and Improvement

Breeders can have both in their programs

by Michael Bowling, Copyright © 1997

from Arabian Visions magazine Sept/Oct 1997

used by permission of Michael Bowling

I sometimes wish we had waited a bit longer in the preservation breeding community and used the terminology which has been developed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: ALBC refers to conserving breeds or genetic stocks, while they limit preservation to technological innovations such as cryopreservation of gametes and embryos. This might be a little easier to understand in terms of everyday language. It’s too late to change now that “preservation breeding” is an accepted term, though it’s still useful to remember that distinction: frozen semen preserves genetic contributions from individual sires. Breeding from their descendants does not constrain the individual ancestors’ genetic representation in the same way.

ALBC also distinguishes groups which have been subject to selection in the past from those (land races and feral stocks) whose value is precisely that they have not been influenced by much if any human control over breeding. Animals in the latter class have had a chance to retain ancient genes for things like prolificacy, or resistance to weather, diseases, and parasites, and should continue to be bred with as little selective pressure as possible for visual or production traits. Some maintain that, in order to allow natural selection to operate, such stocks should also be raised without worming, immunizations, foot care, and the like.

The modern “straight desert” programs, with which I am familiar only in the most general terms, may define an Arabian preservation movement which is very close to the land race model–in theory, and I daresay largely in practice, their foundation stock was at least close to horses which had been selected primarily for survival under desert conditions, not in terms of any show ring visual standard.

Most of us are working in traditions which have been highly selected in the past; what we are preserving is, as much as anything, a set of minority views of what the Arabian horse is about. This is quite in keeping with the relevant population genetics theory as it’s very well presented by ALBC [see A Conservation Breeding Handbook, reviewed in the January-February 1996 Arabian Visions]: the goal is to maintain selection as nearly as possible to the same standards employed by the historical breeders of each tradition. Most of the people I know and work with (I realize there are other people active in other preservation contexts who may see things differently) are acutely aware that, in a narrow breeding group, we run the risk of having difficulty in breeding away from faults of conformation, type, or disposition. We are just as acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each individual as we are of the distinctive character which sets our animals off from the breed at large.

As to the notion sometimes encountered that preservation breeding is not compatible with selection for improvement or with breeding “quality horses,” I think there are two separate ideas here: we want to improve our individual animals, in the sense of breeding to combine more of the best features of our kind of horse in each individual. What we do not subscribe to is the conventional notion that one can “improve the breed,” which seems to mean, in practice, “make it look more like some other breed.” Most of us are breeding within specific pedigree limits precisely because in our experience they turn out specific kinds of good Arabian horses.