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Nez Perce program creates a breed apart

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LAPWAI, Idaho - The Nez Perce Tribe has long been associated with good quality horses and horsemanship. Lewis and Clark commented on it when they made their trek through Nez Perce country in 1805 and 1806. Today the tribe has a breeding program to produce a new breed called the Nez Perce Horse. A registry has been set up and the oldest Nez Perce Horses are now just seven years old.

The program began in 1992 when the tribe was awarded a grant from the administration for Native Americans. It was to provide a "Nez Perce Youth Equitation and Entrepreneurial Demonstration Project." Three points were to be included in the program. The first was to instruct Nez Perce youth in horsemanship. Second was to begin an Appaloosa horse breeding program. Third was to begin a culturally appropriate commercial trail riding program. Rudy Shebala, a Navajo and skilled horseman who is married to a Nez Perce woman, was selected as director and he recruited 20 young people between the ages of 14 and 21 as the first group in the program. The tribe provided a minimum salary and covered worker's compensation and liability for the young people. This provided a reason to learn about horses at a time in their lives when other activities would otherwise have taken precedence. Each year since, a new group of youngsters has been hired.

The breeding program could have taken any of several options. The tribe has long been associated with Appaloosas but would be competing with established breeders if they bred Appaloosas. The Appaloosa Horse Club was founded in 1938 and a check on their records of horses registered today showed only two mares that trace back to the tribe. Another consideration was to select from wild horse herds in the thought that they might be more similar to the horses brought from Spain several hundred years ago and from which the horses of the early 1800s were related. Problems with registry and competition with established breeds eliminated this option. The option finally selected was to cross the Appaloosa with a rare, hot-blooded horse from Turkmenistan called Akhal Teke.

Akhal Teke horses are desert-bred horses from an area north of Iran. The Moors rode these horses and they had been driven out of Spain shortly before Columbus sailed. Shebala noted "We believe that the Akhal Teke is one of the ingredients of the Spanish horse that was historically introduced to our people." These were the horses that worked up to the northwest and were the horses of the Nez Perce when Lewis and Clark passed through. They are slender with elegant builds and aristocratic faces and are capable of surviving in harsh climates. The horses are also capable of long distance travel and trips of 120 miles daily for 10 days in a row. They appear skinny with long legs and backs. Shebala noted that some have hooded eyes and a metallic sheen "like sun on a brass pot." It is a recognized breed of hot-blood horse along with Arabians and Thoroughbreds. It is likely the predecessor of the Thoroughbred and research at the University of Kentucky shows DNA tests match with Thoroughbreds while Arabians do not.

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The tribal council approved the proposition to acquire Akhal Tekes to breed with Appaloosas. Less than 3,000 of these horses are known to exist and it wasn't till 1979 that the first were brought to the U.S. In 1994 only four locations in this country had breeding populations of Akhal Tekes. Shebala visited the various breeders and talked with a man in Minnesota who had imported 30 to 40 to begin a breeding program but due to family problems had not continued his plan. He knew of the tribe's reputation with horses and volunteered to donate three purebred Akhal Teke stallions and three mares and leased a fourth stallion to the tribe. The tribe acquired 33 Appaloosa mares to breed with the Akhal Tekes and the offspring would be called the Nez Perce Horse. There is now a Nez Perce Horse Registry.

The herd now numbers 92 animals and more than half are Nez Perce Horses. Of the original group of seven, one was sold to establish value (it sold for $14,000) and two others have been acquired. The others are still alive and remain part of the breeding program. Good colts have been produced from all types of Appaloosa mares with Akhal Teke stallions and some purebred Akhal Tekes are being produced as well to keep that breed alive and well on the Nez Perce Reservation. The future calls for adding another stallion, perhaps in the next year, for genetic diversity.

A surrogate mother program has been added this year to increase the number of foals from each mare. A fertilized egg is flushed from the mare and implanted in a surrogate mother allowing one mare to produce two to four young per year. Semen is also being collected and frozen from Akhal Teke stallions for future use.

The Appaloosa Horse Club has been very supportive of the tribe's efforts. To qualify as a Nez Perce Horse it can be no more than 7/8 either Appaloosa or Akhal Teke. The Nez Perce Horse retains much of the physical stature of Akhal Tekes. They tend to be rangy, long legged, and fairly narrow. The heads and necks are aristocratic and the coat has somewhat of a metallic sheen. Some are spotted like the Appaloosa and others have lost that characteristic. Purebred Akhal Tekes have more sheen to them and often have a hooded eye but body confirmation is similar.

Shebala says the goal is "to provide recreation and opportunity for our children. We want children to have wholesome lives working with horses." He added "we'd like to have a profitable breeding program and a product sought after by horsemen that will provide employment opportunities for our children."