For grand-prix competitor Mark Watring, of Hidden Valley, California, the opportunity for horse cloning was too intriguing to pass up. He had achieved international success—including an individual gold medal at the 2003 Pan American Games—with the Holsteiner gelding Sapphire. But he regretted that the champion show jumper, now 18, would never have the chance to produce offspring with the same athletic potential.
“Every rider has that special horse—the one they’ve had success on and built a special bond with,” Mark says. “Most of them stay in the family—they aren’t sold—once they’re done competing. So you’ve got that 28-year-old winner out in the field, and when you look at him you can’t help but wonder ‘what if we could do that again?’”
In the not-too-distant future, Mark will be able to begin answering that question. After much investigation and research, he and his partners, John and Debi Bohannon, decided to clone Sapphire in 2009. Last February, Saphir, a colt who is genetically identical, was born using horse cloning. “I’m ready to ride him already,” Mark says. “I’m very excited about it” and what the future may hold.
An Emerging Technology
Saphir is one of approximately 75 cloned horses who have been produced since the first equine clone—a mule named Idaho Gem—was born in May 2003 in the United States. Champions in cutting and barrel racing, former Olympic competitors, polo ponies, top Quarter Horse race winners and a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Horse of the Year have all been cloned. They are testimony to what can be accomplished through the advances in modern science. Yet the ethics of cloning still raises debate. And even among those who support its use, several important questions await answers. For instance, is a cloned horse truly identical to the original, and will he be able to demonstrate the same athletic ability?
ViaGen, the Austin, Texas, firm responsible for cloning Sapphire, is aiming to furnish answers through its work. The privately held company was founded in January 2002 to provide commercial bovine, equine and porcine gene banking, cloning and genomics services. In 2003 it acquired the rights to the cloning technologies developed by the Roslin Institute, the research facility in Edinburg, Scotland, where Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996.
ViaGen cloned its first horse in 2006. Today, it is responsible for approximately 55 of the cloned horses living in the world, according to Candace Dobson, ViaGen marketing associate. Among them is Gemini—the 2008 clone of grand prix show-jumping legend Gem Twist. Among Gem’s many lifetime accomplishments, the Thoroughbred gelding earned two silver medals at the 1988 Olympic Games and was named World’s Best Horse at the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, Sweden. He was cloned by his lifelong trainer Frank Chapot, who now owns Gemini and plans to stand him as a stallion. “The biggest part of our business is the geldings that people would like to have back as breeding stallions,” Candace says.