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An Exploration of Hunter Under Saddle Horses vs Reining Horses: Genetic Deep Dive

Many equestrians have seen this meme floating around the internet, and, for horse folks, it’s a familiar concept. The meme is captioned “A Reiner next to a Hunter”, depicting two similar-looking horses standing side by side. Both horses are chestnuts with a white blaze, but the similarities stop there. Conformation-wise, the horses are very different - the Hunter is taller with long legs and a slight build while the Reiner is compact, shorter, and very muscular. We find it interesting that two horses can appear similar in color and often even breed, and yet be so very different in conformation and purpose. That poses a question - what really makes each of these horses so good at what they do?

Let’s take a look and compare the Ancestry & Composition results of two horses - both masters of their craft! One is Reining royalty “Spooks Gotta Whiz”, and the other is Hunter Under Saddle multiple World Champion “The Wow Factor” - both are registered American Paint Horse stallions. Using the Etalon Ancestry & Composition analysis (an in-depth comparison of the horse's genetic make-up and how it is like, or unlike, other horses within various "breeds", disciplines, and populations around the world) we’ll see what might be genetically similar or different.

Talented Reining horses must possess a few key characteristics: these horses have to be fast and strong enough to build up the speed for a long, beautiful sliding stop. Their hindquarter and shoulder conformation must have muscling sufficient to drive power and strength low to the ground and then spring back up quickly. They need to be agile and balanced, which allows them to easily perform controlled sliding stops, rollbacks, and spins. Reining horses are incredibly athletic. A top Reiner must also have the endurance to perform an entire reining routine without tiring and still have enough energy to compete in a run off.

Hunter Under Saddle horses utilize another skill set and are subject to very different criteria in the show ring. Judges in this category are looking for a horse whose gaits are more relaxed, free-flowing, ground covering, and athletic, according to the 2020 AQHA rulebook. Beth Case of Highpoint Performance Horses, multiple Congress and 9-Time AQHA World Champion said in an article by “I look at how good their legs are first. They should have a long stride, deep hock, and be slow-legged and flat up front, so they can throw that shoulder out and point their toe. They should move big, slow, flat, and deep-hocked.”

“Big, slow, and flat” movements are a world apart from the fast, quick, strong sliding stops and spins required of Reiners. So what’s beneath the surface? Let’s take a look at ancestry reports of these two champions.

Keep in mind that Spooks Gotta Whiz stands at 15.0 hands tall and The Wow Factor stands at an honest 18 hands! Both are spectacular specimens. Spooks Gotta Whiz is a 2007 AQHA/APHA Bay Reining horse, whose career highlights are as impressive as they get - Triple Crown Winner, 2010 NRHA Futurity Champion, 2012 NRBC Champion - the list goes on! His offspring's earnings have surpassed $3 million. The Wow Factor is a Bay Hunter Under Saddle Horse, with an incredible performance record himself - 2015 PtHA and APHA Unanimous World Champion, 2015 AQHA Res Congress Champion as well as 2016 APHA World and Res World Champion. He has produced Multiple World and Congress Champions and is a leading APHA sire.

Both horses are technically the same “breed”, gender and similarly colored, but display drastically different conformation and ancestry by comparison. Let’s take a look at their Etalon Ancestry results to see what inferences we can make.

When comparing both horses’ Ancestry results, the Thoroughbred shared ancestry is strikingly different: The Wow Factor’s 61.7% is considerably higher than Spooks Gotta Whiz’s 34.3%. What qualities do you see in Hunters Under Saddle horses that an increased level of shared Thoroughbred “Ancestry” may help to strengthen their abilities? Thoroughbreds are historically known to have impressive levels of athleticism and endurance as they are most often bred specifically for racing. This difference of almost thirty percent shared Thoroughbred ancestry may help The Wow Factor in the show ring with stamina and athleticism, along with height and leg length.

Furthermore, Spooks Gotta Whiz has 11% shared ancestry with the Iberian population, whereas The Wow Factor doesn’t share any detectable Iberian ancestry. Iberians include breeds such as Andalusians and Lusitanos. These horses historically were bred to be quick and flexible war mounts, and are compactly built. While they often excel in the dressage arena, a good number were bred for extreme athleticism and quick movements suitable for the traditional bull fighting. Agility, quick turns and bursts of speed are key when facing off with a bull! Could this Iberian ancestry contribute and help give Spooks Gotta Whiz the agility he needs for those spins, rollbacks and slides that make him so famous?

Both horses have similar levels of Carriage Horse and European Heavy Horse ancestry. Horse breeds included in the shared Carriage ancestry group often have powerful shoulders and hindquarters combined with a strong, broad back. These powerful shoulders and hindquarters may be key for horses in the Reining arena with movements such as sliding stops and spins. Could this Carriage Horse and European Heavy Horse ancestry also be seen at work in The Wow Factor? Perhaps in combination with the increase in Thoroughbred shared ancestry we may be seeing the total package: lengthier build, powerful shoulders and hindquarters needed to maintain free-flowing, ground-covering, and athletic gaits. This is an exploration, and an open discussion! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

As a horse owner, understanding your horse’s genetic makeup can help both horse and rider by applying that knowledge to suitability for the chosen discipline. Both horses are perfectly suited for their preferred disciples. Their genetics help make them the champions that they are both in and out of the show ring. What inferences can you make by comparing the two horses’ Ancestry results? What did you see in your own horses’ results? Let us know in the comments below.


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