World Champion Barrel Horse Gelding Cloned

By Stephanie L. Church,
November 15th, 2006

The genes of another champion gelding will be available in just a few years for producing future generations of equine athletes. Scientists have produced a clone from the cells of legendary barrel racing horse Scamper. A colt that has matching DNA — and thus the same genetic potential for excellence as the 29-year-old veteran athlete — was born on Aug. 8 in Boerne, Texas. The colt joins several other clones of champion geldings that have been born since April 2005 and are intended to pass on the genetic material of their donor horses.

Scamper’s owner and rider, Charmayne James, met the horse when she was 11 and the horse was considered unrideable. But she worked with Scamper, and in 1984 at the age of 14, she rode him to barrel racing’s World Championship title. The pair won the next nine World Championship titles. As Scamper advanced in age, James wanted to find a way to extend his influence on the barrel racing discipline. She had been researching the idea of cloning Scamper for about six years before hiring ViaGen, an Austin-based commercial cloning company, to perform the procedure, which cost $150,000.

“For any horse to stay at the top of their game for 10 years is absolutely amazing,” said James. “I wanted to get in and save his genetics, because if they were ever able to clone a horse, Scamper would be the horse to clone. Scamper’s conformation was unbelievable… so balanced and great feet, great legs. He had some injures, but he had such a strong will and high pain tolerance that we hope that these are things will be carried through.

“We’re headed into uncharted waters with this,” she added, “but if there was ever a horse to be cloned to help promote the sport of barrel racing (then he’s it)… and that’s where my goal in life is, is to help promote barrel racing and help people get some better, sounder, quality horses out there.”

James says the foal, which she named Clayton after the New Mexico town where she grew up and she and Scamper got their start, has conformation almost identical to Scamper’s. When she saw the colt in the stall for the first time she said, “The hair on the back of my neck just stood up. It was just an amazing feeling, and he was trying to kick at the mare and just was ornery.”

The colt also appears to express many of the gelding’s behavioral tendencies, such as a particularly sensitive place on the colt’s neck behind his ears that neither horse likes to have touched. The colt also conveys an “ornery” attitude and a strength and confidence that mirrors Scamper’s tendencies.

Clayton has a splash of white on his face that Scamper lacks, but such pigment variations are often seen in cloning. Irina Polejaeva, PhD, chief scientific officer for ViaGen, said how colors are distributed depends on the uterine environment. “The reason that you can see or might see the difference between the markings of the horse is because of their fetal development, (the pigments) they migrate around the fetus,” she said.

James thinks the markings will be helpful in distinguishing Clayton from Scamper, so people won’t be “thinking of the science fiction thing,” and will perceive the horse as a new animal.

Process Improving With Time

Polejaeva said to obtain Clayton, cloned embryos were transferred into five mares. “Not all of them got pregnant,” she said.

But cloning procedures continue to advance with each new project. “I believe that ViaGen has made such a strong investment in developing our cloning capabilities that we are having better and better efficiency in the cloning field,” said Polejaeva. “And we are working in different areas, because the cloning process involves so many different steps from the very first step when we obtain biopsy tissue.”

To produce a clone, a veterinarian takes a small tissue biopsy from the donor horse. He ships the cells to ViaGen, whose scientists grow the cells in culture before performing nuclear transfer, where they take DNA from the donor cells and insert it into enucleated eggs (eggs from which the genetic material has been removed). The resulting embryos are grown in an incubator for several days, then a veterinarian places the embryos into recipient females as he would with any embryo transfer. Dr. Mario Zerlotti was the veterinarian who performed the biopsy and embryo transfer procedures.

The culture process is something ViaGen has been working very hard on advancing, said Polejaeva.

ViaGen President Mark Walton, PhD, added, “As far as the technology itself, even though there have been a number of horses born over the last two years, really it’s still a very small number. And while we believe that the technology is very robust and we are very confident in the technology, I would say that there’s still a lot to learn, so we approach every one as though it was our first one and it was brand new.”

Looking Ahead

James doesn’t plan to barrel race Clayton, but she is excited about what the colt will pass on to progeny when he is breeding age. “You know the capability,” she said. “When you start out with a regular young horse, you don’t always know if they can stop the clock (indicating that the horse has great speed for barrels). You know that that capability is there,” along with the quirks and tendencies that the donor horse had.

James will break Clayton to ride, believing that will make him easier to handle as a breeding stallion.

As for registration, the colt currently could not be considered for acceptance into the American Quarter Horse Association. However, James said, “The AQHA and the other registries are likely to revisit this just like they did with the embryo (transfer) and the other assisted reproductive procedures. I’m almost positive they’ll be revisiting it.”