When you see a horse walking quickly, what it’s actually doing is referred to as an “amble”. Fast-paced and (somewhat) elegant, ambling is akin to what we would call “speed-walking” (you can see a video of this here).
This type of movement is desirable in a mounted horse – it’s faster than a normal trot, but still slower than a full gallop, and yet the rider remains relatively stable.
So why do we care? Because not all horses can do this, and new research suggests that the Vikings may have spread horses with this ability around the world; and if you’ve ever ridden a horse, it was probably an ambling horse.
Scientists have formulated a hypothesis that ambling horses arose in Medieval England and were brought to Iceland by the Vikings, who subsequently spread the animals across Eurasia by trade.
The researchers analyzed DNA from the remains of 90 ancient horses, finding the gaitkeeper signature in horse samples from England dating back to the 9th century. They also found the mutation in early Icelandic horses from the 9th to 11th centuries. When they compared these samples to extant horses from mainland Europe, the gene was absent.
According to Arne Ludwig, an evolutionary geneticist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and an author of the new research, Vikings occupied parts of England that had ambling horses in the 9th century. In England, people needed animals that were easy to ride for long distances across terrain without roads. He believes Vikings pillaged English horses and sailed to Iceland with them.
And then, as I’m sure we all know, the Vikings continued to conquer basically everyone, taking the ambling horses with them.
“This study is a good example of how horse and human history are inexplicably intertwined,” said Samantha Brooks, a horse physiology professor at the University of Florida. “The success of the Vikings in a climate as challenging as Iceland was no doubt in part due to the advantage that the use of these horses gave them.”
This story originally appeared in the New York Times.