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21 August 2009
 

BEWARE OF THE CLONE TRAPS

by Tom Reed
Horse International Vol 7 2009

Horse breeding is becoming more and more a victim of fads, and the latest fad is cloning. Everything from world-class sires to moderately successful international showjumping geldings is being cloned. Whether you are a studbook official or a hobby breeder or a professional breeder you are going to have to decide if this is a bandwagon you want on jump on.

You will not find me on the cloning bandwagon. I have problems with the idea of using clones in either sport or breeding. I see clone traps everywhere I look.

With respect to sport, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) at some time in the future must convene an expert panel to consider the eligibility of clones to compete under FEI rules. I question how it can be good for sport to have clones competing. Do we really want to see an Olympic Games or a World Championship or a European Championship where the entrants could include several clones of Quidam de Revel, a half dozen clones of Ratina Z, and a couple of clones of E.T.? The requirement for sport should be that each individual horse has unique DNA. Yes, most clones will never enter the competition arena because they have been manufactured to produce sperm or ova. This is not a trap set by the FEI but by the owners of clones themselves but to be fair to clone owners the FEI should take a stand on this issue before any of the clones reach the age where they can be started in sport.

With respect to breeding I have several concerns about using clones in a breeding program. On a fundamental and philosophical level we must decide if we are to breed horses or to Xerox horses, if we are to breed horses or to manufacture horses. These are two entirely different endeavors and neither breeders nor studbooks should confuse the two activities.

With cloning studbooks and breeders risk being caught in a time trap. Gem Twist xx, the Thoroughbred gelding that had an amazing career as an international showjumper and now has a clone that will soon stand at stud, was born in 1979 and was retired from sport in 1996. Yes, Gem Twist was a world-class showjumper (Individual Silver and Team Silver Medals in the 1998 Olympics, Individual and Team 4th place in the 1990 World Championship, etc.) but he retired in 1996 – 13 years ago! Certainly the sport has changed and we can only surmise if the Gem Twist clone, named Gemini, could be as successful in 2016 as Gem Twist was twenty-five years earlier. But we will never know because it is unlikely that Gemini will ever be started in sport. Gemini was not bred to be a showjumper; he was manufactured to produce sperm.

With cloning studbooks and breeders risk being caught in the gelding trap. Many people believe geldings that are international showjumpers were the victims of bad decisions at castration time: they should have been kept entire as stallions. This is nonsense. One only has to go on the Internet and look at the recent photos of the clone of the world-class showjumping gelding E.T. to see why the decision to castrate the original E.T. was the right decision. Unfortunately several studbooks have begun to approve as sires -- without inspection! -- clones of geldings that were top-class showjumpers. This is an unwise policy decision in my view and breeders considering the use of these "cloned geldings that are now stallions", especially if they have not been subjected to the same rigorous inspection regime as other stallions, are taking on an increased risk of failure.

With cloning studbooks and breeders risk being caught in the dam-line trap. Almost every single showjumping gelding (with the possible exception of Calvaro V) that has been cloned has at best a weak dam-line. If there is anything that we have learned about horse breeding it is that the dam-line is supreme. Yes, happy accidents do happen and sometimes a super showjumper comes from a weak – or, in fact, a useless – dam-line. But that is like winning the lottery and for both studbook officials and breeders gambling should not be part of a sound breeding strategy and program.

With cloning studbooks and breeders risk being caught in the dead-end trap. Success in breeding is based on careful selection and culling of stallions and mares with the goal of continuous improvement. How can better horses be bred if we are using genetics from ten, twenty or thirty years ago? Is cloning not an admission of failure?

Finally, with cloning studbooks and breeders risk being caught in the potential catastrophic failure trap. We know nothing about the long-term survivability, fertility, and soundness of clones and their progeny. What if the use of clones in sport horse breeding results in outcomes that are profoundly detrimental to the goals of studbooks and breeders? I am not predicting this outcome but the probability of a catastrophic failure is certainly greater than zero. Cloning may or may not be a high-risk activity but it is certainly not a no-risk activity.

From a benefit-cost perspective the likely financial winners from cloning will be the owners of clones that stand at stud and are marketed aggressively to breeders who are either ignorant of the risks or are willing to assume risk of anything from normal failure to catastrophic failure.

The guaranteed winners will be the careful, traditional breeders and studbooks that do not jump on bandwagons driven by commercial interests rather than sound principles of breeding. These studbooks and breeders will protect their genetic endowments from both catastrophic failure and the incremental failures produced by time traps, gelding traps, dam-line traps, and dead-end traps.

The almost certain losers will be the naïve breeders who want to be fashionable. They are likely to be found in the next decade or two as road kill with bandwagon tracks on their backs and empty pockets in their pants.