Sarah Baldwin's triple clones
of her jumping star, Pacifico.
Photo: Erpelding Photography
The commercial cloning of horses has been a reality for eight years, but the sight of a cloned horse still takes people by surprise. Even for those who footed the considerable bill for the process.
"There's a lot more general awareness of cloning, but people are still surprised that you get the same really high quality horse as the original," reports Kathleen McNulty, who's been there since the technology became availability to the sporthorse world. She owns Replica Farm, the authorized sales agent for the Texas-based ViaGen, which holds the worldwide patent on cloning horses for commercial purposes.
The oldest and probably still most famous cloned sporthorse is Gemini, the younger twin of show jumping legend Gem Twist. Gemini is 5 now and in Europe for the Young Jumper Championship.
Closer to home, Mark Watring's Grand Prix jumper Sapphire has a clone in Sapphire Z, who will turn 4 in February and lives at Mark's stable in the Los Angeles area's Hidden Valley. "Mark is extremely excited about him," says Kathleen, a co-owner of Sapphire Z. Registered with the Zangersheide studbook, the Holsteiner is a "gorgeous animal," she reports. He's been free-jumped and is earning familiar reports. "He jumps just as well as his donor." When Sapphire Z is old enough to compete, Kathleen expects his performances will convert any remaining skeptics and trigger intensified interest throughout the West Coast.
Sapphire Z, a clone of
Mark Watring's Grand Prix jumper, Sapphire.
Sapphire Z may share that role a few years later with clones of Sarah Baldwin's jumping star Pacifico. The San Diego-based rider and trainer actually wound up with three youngsters who just turned 1.
Meanwhile on the East Coast, a chance to compare clones with bred offspring exists at Blue Chip Farm Sporthorse Incubator in New York, where McLain Ward's two-time Olympic medalist, the Belgian Warmblood mare Sapphire, has two 3-year-old clones. One of them has already produced a foal, by Capone I, via embryo transfer. Simultaneously, Sapphire produced two babies, carried by surrogate mares, by Heartbreaker and Presley Boy, who arrived earlier this year. The mare's part owner Tom Grossman cloned Sapphire primarily to ensure her lines would be available for breeding. To the extent possible, their plan includes raising and training the cloned youngsters the same way Sapphire was handled and trained and see what happens when it comes to performance possibilities.
A Slow Sell Stateside
The U.S. has been a little show to embrace cloning, Kathleen observes. Cloned horses are relatively common in Europe, so much so that some clients are primarily motivated by the desire to produce a performance horse. Originally, the now $165,000 process was used to create breeding opportunities for a horse that couldn't do it himself, usually a gelding. Breeding, Kathleen notes, is a "slam dunk" reason for cloning because clients are assured a genetic match to the donor horse.
Cloning to produce a horse with equal performance capabilities is a gamble because the training process adds a variable that's impossible to replicate. Yet, that's what is starting to happen in Europe and Kathleen expects it won't be long before that motivation appears in the States.
In the english disciplines, show jumpers and dressage horses have led the way in using this technology. Ecuadorian-owned Che Mr. Wiseguy was the best-known eventing horse to produce clones when two were born in 2010. The discipline joined the party in a big way with the September revelation, in Horse and Hound Magazine, that a clone of Tamarillo was healthy and happy at three months after gestating in secrecy at Replica Farm in New Jersey. The gelding Tamarillo was British eventer William Fox-Pitt's partner in wins at the biggest events, the Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials, but he was injured while contesting the 2004 Olympics and is now retired.
Because of its cost, cloning will never be a threat to the breeding industry, Kathleen asserts. "It's never going to replace conventional breeding. We don't ever expect it to do huge numbers. It's a tool in the breeding box: a way to preserve bloodlines that are either lost or watered down."
How It Works
Cloning is costly because it's complicated. The process is called somatic cell nuclear transfer and starts with the extraction of a healthy tissue sample, usually taken from the donor horse's neck.
The tissues are shipped to ViaGen's lab in Texas, where they are cultured. DNA is extracted from these cells and transferred into eggs from which the genetic material has been removed. These eggs are incubated for a few days, then implanted, via embryo transfer, into a recipient mare. Eggs with the donor's DNA are implanted into a few mares to counter the reality that embryo transfer, even with "normal" eggs, typically has a 30% conception rate.
This occasionally results in more than one foal: in Sarah Baldwin's case with Pacifico, it resulted in three. "Most owners hope for extras," says Kathleen.
Economics dictate that only very valuable horses will be cloned, and the cost of buying an extra foal or two is relatively small, she explains. When Sarah picked up Pacifico's younger twin, she had only planned to take one home. In the end she couldn't resist bringing them all back to California.
The final step of the cloning process is a test confirming that the foal's DNA matches that of its donor. "It's a very complicated process that includes the guarantee of a live, healthy foal that has to pass a lot of inspections," Kathleen explains. "It's not a process that can be mass-produced."
Healthy tissue can come from horses of just about any age, Kathleen notes. The first project Replica Farms was involved with was a 31-year-old pony named Rainbow Connection. The resulting youngster, Rainbow Reflection, represents her originator just as accurately as those cloned from younger horses, she reports. ViaGen has even created clones using tissue taken from horses that have been dead for a few days. "That's not the way we want to be doing it."
Gene banking is an option Kathleen encourages every horse owner to consider. In this process, living tissue is extracted, cultured and frozen for future use. That cost is $1,600, plus $160 a year to store the DNA. "If people have a horse they really love, I encourage them to be proactive about this. I get so many calls in the middle of the night, when their horse has coliced or is in the midst of a health crisis. It's much better to bank tissue samples when everything is good."
The position of various horsesport governing bodies is evolving. Most recently, the American Quarter Horse Assn. lost a legal battle to prevent cloned horses from being registered. The AQHA argued that their members should be able to make this decision, but the courts denied that as a violation of anti-trust laws. The AQHA is appealing the decision but Kathleen thinks it will be a hard sell. The 280,000-member AQHA registers horses produced by artificial insemination and embryo transfer, which she feels opens the door for the acceptance of horses produced by any another artificial means.
In 2012, the International Equestrian Federation reversed its original position and now allows cloned horses to compete. The United States Equestrian Federation has never prevented horses from competing at its sanctioned events, but leaders have had reservations. Initially, Kathleen relays, some worried that allowing clones to compete at the highest levels might put sub-par performers in the field. "But McLain Ward is not going to show up on a Sapphire clone unless that horse is of the same quality as the original," Kathleen points out.
As a relatively new technology, cloning will likely make its biggest mark in the future. Already, though, it's produced a remarkable ride for Kathleen. "It's been really great to be involved at a time when everything is so new and fresh and changing."
For more information, call Kathleen McNulty at 908-310-2125 or visit www.replicafarm.com.