Yakutian Horses Evolved To Thrive In Extreme Conditions

Proving not all horses are created equal, the Yakutian breed of horse has adapted in fascinating ways that allow them to not just survive, but thrive in the extreme cold of their native climate.

Native peoples and their horses differ in various parts of the world, but one fact remains the same throughout: they can all thank the horse for their survival throughout history.

Just a few days ago, the temperature fell into the low 40s in my area of Florida.  Since I own a 32-year-old Paso Fino inherited from a good friend, I was worried his aging bones would not tolerate the cold. I certainly wasn’t tolerating it well.  Moreover, it was raining before the temperatures dropped, adding more cause for concern; wet cold is worse than dry.  Sure enough, Jasper (my second horse) was shivering a bit in the wet air.  Out came the light waterproof blankets, just to raise their body temps a hair or two. 

Cold weather takes on a different definition for me as a native Floridian than someone living in our northern states.  We experience different types of cold, and temperatures and climates vary; the idea of winter snow is foreign to me.  But what is truly foreign is the winters experienced in places such as Siberia.

Nikita Gretsi was kind and patient enough to give me a mental picture of what he and his horses were/are experiencing during their epic journey across Siberia.  The idea of riding in five feet or more of snow for days on end when temperatures fall to 40, 50, and even 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit seems incredulous.  60 above zero has me grabbing for a jacket, or at the very least a sweater.  

Granted, it takes a tough person to even entertain the idea of such a ride…but what about the horses?  

Artyk and White, the two Yakutian horses hauling Nikita across the icy earth, are native to the geography of the Siberian Sakha Republic also known as Yakutia – part of the Russian Empire where below zero temperatures are considered normal.  On the flip side, temperatures in the summer are currently climbing with a record show of heat; climate change is rearing its ugly head everywhere.

Deep drifts of snow preserve the spring and summer vegetation, and a Yakutia horse will dig through as much as five feet of snow to find food during the winter. They are off-road four-wheel-drive horses, in my opinion.

Yakutian metabolism adjusts to the seasons – in the fall they accumulate fat reserves, in winter the metabolic rate is lowered, and in spring the carbohydrate metabolism increases to incorporate the fresh green grass into their diet. (UnarovMV • Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

A Yakutian horse averages about 13 hands and has characteristics of other northern breeds, such as Shetlands, Fjords, and Icelandics.  Short in stature and heavy in build, they sport heavy manes and tales, as well as coats.  Their coats are dense and their legs are short in comparison to body size.  A characteristic of the breed is its short neck, broad back, and low withers.  The hooves of the breed are dense without cracks.  Their colors tend to be gray, but other colors are also evident.

In addition to work and transportation, they are also bred for meat and milk.  A few Yakutian horse producers are talking about producing them for just such a market – a realization that was difficult to process, considering our ongoing fight with keeping horses from slaughterhouses here in the US.

There are three subtypes of Yakutian horses. The Northern is considered to be the purest bred Yakut and is also known as the Middle Kolyman or Verkhoyansk. It is usually gray with what is considered primitive markings (dorsal stripe and Zebra markings on legs). Bay and duns are also found in this type.  The second is the Smaller Southern type, considered to be pure but less valuable.  The third subtype is the Larger Southern type, which has been cross-bred with other breeds and can be found in central Yakutia. 

A Mongolian invasion by Ghengis Khan at the beginning of the 13th century forced native people to flee, migrating to Yakutia with their horses. That meant enduring 800 years of non-stabled existence in winters where temps have fluctuated as low as 94 degrees below Fahrenheit.  Winters in Siberia are long – eight months of extreme cold.  Mother Nature gives the horses, as well as all wildlife and human inhabitants, about four months to prepare for the worst weather imaginable. Yet the Yakutian horses thrive in their environment.

Research reveals all horses are not created equal beyond even stature and color.  Yakutian horses have anti-freezing compounds in their genetic makeup; this is something normally only found in certain plants, fish, algae, and insects as well as northern animals such as Polar Bears.   According to Wikipedia, Yakutian horses show increased production of anti-freezing compounds. Their metabolism adjusts to the seasons; in the fall they accumulate fat reserves, in winter the metabolic rate is lowered, and in spring the carbohydrate metabolism increases to incorporate the fresh green grass into their diet.

Frostbite is further avoided by reducing the volume of blood circulating during times of extreme cold.  This is due to an increased response of genetic networks involved in oxidative stress, vasodilation, and blood coagulation. “Genetically they show indications of convergent evolution with other inhabitants of the far North, like mammoths regarding their adaptation to the extreme cold.”

So what are anti-freeze proteins?  Antifreeze proteins (AFPs) or ice structuring proteins (ISPs) refer to a class of polypeptides produced by certain animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria that permit their survival in temperatures below the freezing point of water. AFPs bind to small ice crystals to inhibit the growth and recrystallization of ice that would otherwise be fatal.[3] There is also increasing evidence that AFPs interact with mammalian cell membranes to protect them from cold damage. This work suggests the involvement of AFPs in cold acclimatization.[4] (Source: Wikipedia)

Without the anti-freeze proteins, people can only add layers of clothing – though scientists are studying the anti-freeze proteins found in ticks and snow-fleas. I can only imagine the results of that research.

However, evolution may need to take a reverse course due to climate change. Scientists are now saying the Arctic, experiencing record high temperatures, may start to have more rain than snow. 

The Yakut or Yakutian horse is used for transportation and field work such as haying – and in spite of their production of meat and milk, they are considered sacred. 

I believe that Nikita Gretsi’s journey with Artyk and White will create more interest in the Yakutian breed as a cross-country horse, especially in cold climates. One of the world’s oldest and enduring breeds of horses, they deserve recognition. 

Onward Artyk and White!

Ian Robinson's horse Katchula, a white Yakutian, sleeping in the snow.  A dense green forest is behind him and he is loaded for a long ride.

Ian Robinson’s Yakut horse Katchula sleeping in the snow. This behavior allows the Yakut breed to conserve energy and stay warm in extreme cold conditions. To learn more, read the story of Ian’s trip across Siberia at the Long Riders Guild website.

Update, 02.11.22: It was brought to my attention there are a couple of facts about the Yakutian horse that I did not uncover in my research. The additional information was provided by CuChullaine O’Reilly, founder of the Long Riders Guild.  Click here to read the complete story of a Siberian ride made by Ian Robinson on a Yakutian horse named Katchula on the Long Riders Guild website!

ADDITIONAL FACT #1: Yakuts are able to semi-hibernate! Have you ever known a horse of any breed able to do this?  (Though my 30-year-old Paso seems to be sleeping a lot…maybe that counts too!)

The Yakutian horse has a layer of sub-dermal fat and fur that is hollow and holds in heat. They are able to go into a semi-hibernation state; their heart rate slows down and they conserve body heat by only breathing a few times a minute. 

ADDITIONAL FACT #2: They also have an amazing sense of smell which helps while foraging.  They exert as little energy as possible during the winter months when temps go well beyond zero degrees.  And yes, they do sleep as much as possible. Maybe they dream of warmer days. O’Reilly related how Katchula would suddenly drop to his knees and sleep for twenty minutes before moving on. See the photo below of Katchula doing just that.

All horses are amazing, but the Yakutian horse is truly a complex work of nature.  Our thanks again to CuChullaine for sharing this extra knowledge so generously with Team HRL and you, dear readers!

Barb currently resides in Central Florida with her three horses; when she’s not writing or riding for HRL, she loves to read and travel. horseandriderliving@gmail.com