The Nooitgedacht-Iberian Project: Spanish/Andalucian (PREs) and Lusitano’s to the rescue

One of the rarest unique breeds of the world, the Nooitgedacht, are however currently between a rock and a hard place…. In genetic terms a stable genetic populations should have at least 50 genetically different individuals and currently the Nooitgedacht only has 38. The Nooitgedachts that have been registered  since its inception are numbering just over the 6000 mark according to SA Studbook data (that is less than average120 animals/annum born over the last 50 years). Of these 70% are inbred and of those 35% have become inbred in the past three generations. The maximum in-breeding co-efficient for a stable population is around 6%, but in the Nooitgedacht this number has risen to 9% for the population as a whole. For the already in-bred section of the Nooitgedacht population it has escalated to 13% (almost double the permissable amount).

Why is in-breeding co-efficients an issue?

All populations have undesireable genetic traits, hidden away as resessive genes. This means that some horses can be a carrier for these unwanted genes eventhough they do not themselves show it visually. The problem with in-breeding is that these unwanted genes can be concentrated to the point that in-breeding deterioration starts to occur from which point it is very difficult to save that population. The deterioration can be seen (as is the case in other breeds and species) with lower conception rates,  bad mothering characteristics, greater number of abortions, drop in longevity, weakend growth of foals (smaller size) , congenital diseases and lowering of disease resistance. But maybe the worst consequence of in-breeding is the loss of genetic diversity and in the long run the extinction of valued  genetic traits. To top it all its not only the level of inbreeding in the Nooitgedacht’s total population that is alarming but also the rate at which it is currently occuring.

Semi-open (Up-grading breeding system) Studbook – how does it work…

Because of this small genetic pool the Nooitgedacht still has a semi-open studbook. This device is heavily reliant on the correct functioning of the Selectors Panel, genetic database and knowledgeable breeders. 

Horses  that are not registered Nooitgedachts may be presented to the Selector’s Panel. Selectors then decide (using a tried an tested system similar to European systems) whether a horse (not previously registered as a Nooitgedacht) may be entered into the appendix studbooks as a Base Animal. In order for this “new” blood to eventually end up in Main Studbook Proper, subsequent off-spring must be bred to Studbook Proper animals for at least four generations(assuming the new blood is bred to SP animals in subsequent generations); permitting that the subsequent offspring also passed Selections.

A Nooitgedacht may only breed if they themselves passed Selections and received their Nooitgedacht brand (that looks like a line drawing of the Basuto traditional hat). The risk is on the breeder when bringing in “new” blood. Subsequent offspring may fail Selections and then the breeder starts from scratch if they need to bring in “new” blood. This is not to say that the horses that failed selections are bad horses, just that they do not fit into the Nooitgedacht Breed Standard of excellence. A few breeders have brought in new blood very successfully over the years ; but the Arabian influence in some bloodlines have become somewhat,  phenotypically, too dominant.

Modern era of Genetics

In recent times Prof EG Cothran(international) and Dr E van Dyk(South African breeds) ,whom decoded the Equus Caballus’s genome, did genetic studies on horse breeds of the world. It is interesting to note that the Nooitgedacht (though related to the Basuto and Sa Boerperd) has strong connection with Eastern European warmbloods. We may be as bold as to claim to be the the first proudly South-African Warmblood breed. This connection can be explained by the up-grading breeding of some studs (Daydream Stud) using available Warmblood stock with no genetic relation to the Nooitgedacht. This was not such a far fetched idea since the Hantam-horses can trace their lineage back to a thought to be German Warmblood stallion referred to as Piet in historic accounts. He was noted to have the pangare colouring (Yellow muzzles and flanks on a dark bay/black base coat).

As mentioned previously, this move toward bringing in genetic diversity was positive. Eventhough it may not be totally in keeping with the Cape Horse tradition, it should be mentioned that it was the best option available back in the day when genetic science was still in its infancy. In this day and age we can easily measure and quantify the genetic compilation of ancestry within new breeds ,like the Nooitgedacht ,and then proceed accordingly using scientificly recognised principles.

Luckily we have been forwarned by scientists about the in-breeding situation, that can potentially be disasterous. And thus started the search for what type of breeds would make the best genetic donors. Scientists, Geneticists and Veterinarians were tasked by the Nooitgedacht Breed Society to research viable options for this project as well as recommendations on how to approach the fusing of the new genes with the old. Needless to say this can become a very technical discussion but to keep it simple: the Andalusian (because they were a great influence on the Cape Horse and thus Basuto) and Lusitano (because they are of similar ancestry to the Andalusian) were identified as the best breeds to bring in totally “new” bloodlines and hopefully resulting in new anker-bloodlines (provided they prove their worth).

The SA Boerperd, Basuto and American Quarterhorse would also be good donors (and some studs have used these breeds in the past), except for the fact that they share similar ancestry. This in of itself is not a great issue (and some breeders prefer to use these breeds for upgrading purposes), except that some Nooitgedacht bloodlines tend to be saturated of oriental traits and there needs to be a correction made toward the Iberian continuum to remain true to the Cape Horse heritage. In keeping with the breeds that made up the Cape Horse in the first place, the Iberian breeds are a natural ally in the bid to diversify the genetic pool without compromising on traits that makes the Nooitgedacht  unique.

Mr Hennie Ahlers went to Spain in the early 90s  in search of suitable stallion-candidates. They identified the PRE (Purra Raza Espanol) Andalusian stallion Evento (GP Olympic dressage representative for Spain at two Olympics) as the best Iberian stallion to import at the time. Plans were made but they never managed to secure the deal to import Evento. What a devestation it must have been to be so close but still so far.

During the late 90s and early 2000s there were imports made into South Africa,of Andalusians and Lusitano’s of varying quality; and the Iberian-project was shelved somewhat. The past 5 years however a renewed interest in the Iberian project saw the light, especially after genetic and genealogical studies confirmed we are in a pivotal moment in the Nooitgedacht’s history. Genetically speaking we are on a road to devastation when the situation continues without intervention.

Some breeders (Breivilo Stud – Braam Olivier) immediately ventured to find the best Iberian stallions they could find in SA and they already have a few Lusitano crosses (born of different stallions) reaching adulthood. The first generation crosses are promising, and the following generations will be the sieve that seperates the chaff from the kernels.

We are also very fortunate to have an Evento grandson, Calvero Esclavo FM, imported by Candice Hobday recently. He is a PRE (Pura Raza Espanol) Andalucian stallion with a very promising career as a competitive dressage horse and stallion. The Nooitgedacht-cross foals by him are of excellent quality and adds height without compromising on Nooitgedacht-type. He also has a great aptitude for upper level Dressage and this will surely be to the Nooitgedacht’s benefit in the long run.

Obviously the same stringent process for up-grading breeding will be applied to the horses coming from the Iberian project, even more so than using local breeds. The new blood must deserve their place in the Nooitgedacht Studbook. The proof in the pudding lies in the eating…. And hopefully in a few years time we can look back on this as a positive endevour to save the Nooitgedacht from inevitable genetic decline.

Breeders partcipating in this project do so at their own risk with no guarentees that the new blood they introduce will be accepted even 2-3 generations down the line. . All breeders keep their pure stock pure and only create a seperate line from the  Iberian stallion/mare they decide is good enough to be introduced.The breeders that have been involved in this undertaking are all registered, active, ethical breeders with years of experience and a traceable trackrecord.

It is still early days for the Iberian-Nooitgedacht Project but all signs point toward it being a very positive way to handle the Nooitgedacht’s precarious genetic position.

The public will be treated to exceptional competition horses with amazing temperament and hardiness. Iberian-Nooitgedacht crosses that do not make the cut to be taken up in the Nooitgedacht Studbook will be registered as Nooitgedacht Sport Horses. Eventhough they may not breed and be taken up in the main Nooitgedacht studbook they will definitely be sought after competition horses (with a bit more height , Iberian flair and aptitude for Dressage and even Jumping). The perfect serious-amateur-competition horses and ponies. The ones that do make the cut will have a long road to Studbook Proper, but in the end the long process will ensure the Nooitgedacht stays preserved with adding some genetic diversity.

The Iberian Project