Cloning opens many new and previously unexplored possibilities for the equine business. But does it really make a difference for the sport? Is cloning legal in Europe? And is it morally and ethically problematic or completely harmless?
Cloned horses are no rarity in showjumping. "In 2012 the FEI lifted the ban on cloned horses in international competition. Almost a decade after the first cloned horse was born in Italy, Promotea." reports the law firm European Equine Lawyers.
"After introducing A.I. to increase stallion productivity, embryo transfer to increase the production of high value mares, it seemed interesting to allow reproduction from champion horses who had been gelded and were excluded from the genetic progress." says Eric Palmer, CEO of Cryozootech, who have been leading in cloning sport horses since the early 2000s.
There is currently no "European legislation on this subject, leaving the decision whether cloning of horses is allowed or not to the member states. How long this situation will last is unclear, as well it is unclear whether the view of the European Parliament will change throughout the years or not." write European Equine Lawyers.
"The view on cloning of animals differs substantially throughout the world. The EU tries to ban cloning completely while the United States and China are fully allowing it. The FEI and most studbooks have a liberate view on cloning as well, making it possible to register clones and to compete with them internationally."
One of the first sport horses cloned by the team of scientists at Cryozootech was the world-famous stallion Quidam de Revel in 2015, his clone named Quidam de Revel II Z. However none of the clone's offspring have very impressive results to show so far. Joris de Barbander, owner of the successful breeding stable Stal de Muze, argues: "The oldest are only five or six. So six year olds, they are not going to be jumping 1.50 when they are six, do you find more six year olds by Quidam himself who were jumping better? The foals of the clone were the same horses as Quidam. The semen was the same as Quidam’s, I had a lot of foals by Quidam, and the ones by the clone, they were similar."
Eric Palmer of Cryozootech explains that "owners of stallions ordered clones of their stallions: Quidam de Revel, Levisto Z, Chellano Z, Jazz, Zandor Z. Other owners of mares wanted to duplicate them, mostly for reproduction purposes: Ratina Z, Poetin, Famm." When asked about the benefit of breeding foals from famous stallions or mares breeder Joris de Barbander says however: "There are already 3000 foals of Quidam so another fifty by the clone would not make any difference, so I sent him back."
And he goes even further: "I am not such a fan for clones, it depends which horses you clone. If you clone Quidam, it’s stupid because he has had all the chances you can imagine for a stallion, so to make a clone of him, it makes no sense. But if you clone a gelding, or a stallion that missed his breeding career, it can be a nice thing in breeding. But is it really necessary? No. We can breed horses in a completely normal way. If you look at Thoroughbreds, they don’t use any artificial way of breeding, and they have a good breeding program. Do we really need these clones? I don’t think so, but if people want to make clones, why not – everybody gets what they want. We don’t need them, no, but I use them, yes, because they were there. I’ve never cloned a horse myself."
Eric Palmer, head of Cryozootech; Image: horsemagazine.com
It is estimated that the number of cloned horses worldwide is fairly small, 2012 there were only about 100–200 cloned horses in total. Due to the popularity of the technique the number will be much higher eight years later and cloning horses is offered as a commercial technique of horse breeding in many countries such as parts of the European Union, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South America.
An in-depth article from BEVA, an equine veterinary association, aims to get to the bottom of the ethical implications that cloning could have: "Investigation into public attitudes to animal cloning found that ‘moral assessment is the most important factor behind the level of support’; that people were concerned about ‘violation of the integrity of animals that cloning might constitute’ and that ‘cloning, seems to cross an invisible border between the natural and the unnatural’."
The author M. L. H. Campbell writes further: "Whilst the concept of (inviolable) human dignity pervades religion, medicine and law, there is no proof that animals themselves have any concept of ‘dignity’. We might consider that there is nothing dignified about an animal kept under an intensive farming system being used for medical research, or being carried in Paris Hilton's handbag." And adds: "Yet these moral objections are no better defined for animals than they are for man. Most ARTs [Assisted Reproductive Technology] violate nature, yet the public seem only really to object to cloning: embryo transfer; artificial insemination and IVF do not inspire a similarly visceral response."
It is however recognised by the scientific community that current cloning techniques can result in a variety of animal welfare problems. These include numerous illnesses in the clones and issues during the pregnancy. The BEVA article states: "One of the prime factors behind the European Commission's decision in late 2013 [...] is the fact that farm animal cloning is viewed as a risk to animal welfare. This was made clear by Renate Sommer, German MEP, who stated that the prohibition was based in concerns about 'the negative effects on animal welfare' and that 'prohibiting cloning is a matter of European values and principles'."
Cloned polo ponies; Image: horsemagazine.com
M. L. H. Campbell also raises a different side of the ethical debate: "One argument around the ethics of cloning which applies to horses and racing dogs, but not to farm animals species, concerns sporting ethics. [...] Concerns that cloning confers an unfair competitive advantage are, at the least, unproven. In the one report on racing cloned animals against their noncloned peers, the cloned animals’ performance was mediocre. The FEI does not record clones competing under its rules and does not have data on the competitive success of clones compared with nonclones. However, to date, there has been no media coverage reporting that cloned horses have won important FEI events."
While the cloning of horses, especially successful mares and stallions, has become a commercial technique over the past 15 years, it has not made a mark in the way one might think at first. While there are clones out there who perform considerably well, it is yet to be seen what the impact of cloning will be on the horse sport.
Read more on this controversial topic in the articles we used as sources: