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The Gotland pony, or russ, is the only breed of pony native to Sweden. Photo: iStock

5. Conclusions

The role of horses in the Nordic society has changed over time

Traces of horses in the Nordic countries have been found as far back as 3000-2000 B.C. The horses have had different purposes depending on the country they resided in and the period in history. They have been used for warfare, transport of goods and people, and especially farming and forestry, until the invention of cars and tractors made the need for their work obsolete. Today horses are often considered a hobby animal, but for many people in the Nordic countries they are their liveli­hood. Some Nordic horses are a commercial success through popularity in gait competitions or trotter racing. However, most of the native horses were agricultu­ral work horses that are now rebranded to therapy assistant animals and leisure horses because of their gentle nature. Use of horses in ecosystem services, such as grazing, and especially in maintaining traditional biotopes important for biodiversity and culture, is increasing. 

The Nordic native breeds are in need of conservation efforts

There are 14 horse breeds native to the Nordic countries, of which 10 are considered endangered or critically endangered. These breeds need active conservation measures to safeguard them, but there is hope for the future. Most of the countries provide some subsidies for conservation of the endangered native horse breeds, but not to native breeds that are commercially successful. Some subsidies are provided per foal born, while others are for keeping young horses. The only country that is not providing subsidies is Iceland. However, as the Icelandic horse is far from endangered, and prosperous worldwide, it is also not needed. 

Statistical information concerning the equine sector is insufficient

The commonality between most of the countries is that there is a branch of the government that provide advice regarding breeding, while the breed associations are responsible for carrying out the actual breeding efforts. However, obtaining accurate numerical data on the Nordic native breeds for this report proved challenging. The data is scattered, and the frequency of census data registration varies considerably. Data sources can also provide different estimates, which makes it difficult to assess the correctness of the data. DAD-IS has great potential for impact on decision making, however, several of the Nordic countries have shortcomings in updating the DAD-IS -database.

There is a lack of systematic gene banking of native horse breeds

Overall, there is lack of established gene banking activities for the native Nordic horses. While there is some use of artificial insemination that might lead to storage of semen, there is no regular and methodological sampling of semen or embryos for gene banking storage for most Nordic native breeds. Finland is one of the few countries who have a proper gene bank for their native Finnhorse. Fortunately, establishment of gene banking for the Icelandic horse and Faroese horse have begun. This is especially important for the Faroese horse that is considered critically endangered.

We need to understand genetics to make informed breeding decisions

In addition to the population data, not all phenotypic characteristics of the native breeds have been mapped yet, especially in a cultural and socioeconomic context. Maintaining the genetic diversity both between and within breeds (both commercial and native) is essential for the survival of the different populations in the future. Furthermore, understanding of the underlying genetics of disease and performance traits will result in more informed breeding decisions for both commercial and native breeds.

The equine sector positively contributes to economic growth

The equine sector contributes to economic growth in many of the countries. For example, the sector has contributed to a turnover of 22.5 billion DKK in Denmark. In Finland, estimates of the horse industry's employment impact range from 6,500 to 15,000 person-years. In Sweden, the equine sector is a large and growing part of the economy and the interest in owning horses increased during the COVID-19 pandemia (2020-2022).

Conservation of the native breeds is dependent on private owners and voluntary work

Although most Nordic countries contribute with some form of subsidy or governmental branch responsible for conservation of native horse breeds, most of the concrete conservation work of the native horse breeds is carried out by voluntary private horse owners. Conservation of native breeds, which may not generate as much income as commercial breeding activities, can therefore be an economical burden for those involved. Economic incentives for keeping and using native breeds could lead to positive ripple effects through increased activity in horse enterprises using native breeds, for example in tourism, animal assisted therapy or ecosystem services.

There is hope for the future

The versatility of the native horse breeds means they can be used for various activities, and their mild and patient temperament make them suitable for riding lessons, animal assisted therapy and various leisure activities. Use of horses in ecosystem services, such as grazing, and especially in maintaining traditional biotopes important for biodiversity and culture, is increasing. This has increased the societal interest and significance of the native breeds and gives hope for the future.