Investigate Narcolepsy in Icelandic Horses

A working group in Iceland is investigating narcolepsy in Icelandic horses, RÚV reports. By gathering data and samples, the group hopes to develop a test to identify carriers. Their ultimate goal is to breed the disease out of the Icelandic horse breed.

Narcolepsy among horses is a disorder of the nervous system. It is a hereditary disease and can occur in the offspring of two genetic carriers. The symptoms are apparent early on in foals. “It manifests in the individual sort of staggering about,” explains Sonja Líndal, a veterinarian and horse breeder who is a member of the newly-established working group. “It basically falls asleep, hangs its head and becomes unsteady on its feet. We usually see it in foals right next to their mother. They usually stop, it’s sort of sudden, they fall asleep and then they run off as if they’re normal.”

Foals with symptoms are put down

Sonja underlines that the disorder neither causes the horses to suffer nor does it impact their development. However, it excludes them from typical use and activity. “It’s just difficult to find a role for them because you don’t want to use them in breeding and there are few people who will rely on them for riding so it is first and foremost a financial loss for the breeder.” She adds that foals who show symptoms of the disorder are usually put down.

Disorder possibly on the rise

In Iceland, farmers are not required to report horses with the disorder, which means there are no clear figures on how many horses are born with it. However, thousands of foals with the disease are reported each year, according to RÚV. For reference, Iceland’s entire horse population is around 80,000.

There is rising awareness around narcolepsy in Icelandic horses, and it may also be on the rise, particularly in the population that is actively bred for competition and genetic improvement, according to Sonja. That subset has less genetic diversity and is more interrelated.

“Like a Different Breed:” Icelandic Horses Isolated for 60 Years

Experts are conducting genetic research on a herd of horses that has been in isolation for 60 years in Southeast Iceland, Vísir reports. The horses are from the Skaftafell region and have never set foot (or rather hoof) in a stable. Their hooves have never been trimmed, their teeth have never been floated, and they have never been dewormed. The herd is nevertheless in great health, though its members are significantly smaller than the average Icelandic horse.

“They are small, the kinship has caused them to become very small and few offspring are born even though there is a stallion in the herd; one foal was born last year, none this year,” stated Kristinn Guðnason. The eight horses have been transported to Kristinn’s farm, near Hella, to be researched by specialists. Kristinn says he has not seen horses like these before, which he calls self-bred. Researchers hope to determine whether the horses are genetically distinct from the Icelandic horse breed.

Calmer temperament than other Icelandic horses

It’s not only the horses’ appearance that differs from the average Icelandic horse but also their spirit. “It seems their temperament is such that they take very well to a new environment. They are so good-natured and not afraid of anything, they might have that superiority over our bred horses, this calm demeanour, this calm that the people of Skaftafell also have,” Kristinn says, referencing how the region’s inhabitants have taken eruptions and other natural disasters in stride.

Hooves trimmed by lava

The herd has not received the veterinary care or grooming that Icelandic horses normally enjoy. Their hooves, for example, have never been trimmed, but it has not caused any issues. “They have never been tripped but the lava saw to that. You can see the hooves on these horses, it’s as if they’ve been kempt by the best horseshoers.”

Óðinn Örn Jóhannsson, an inspector from the Food and Veterinary Association, examined the horses earlier this week and gave them his highest grade. “They are of course much smaller but their physical constitution and condition is good. They are like another animal breed or horse breed, there’s a big difference,” Óðinn stated.