The Premarin Foal That Wasn’t: How DNA Helped Solve an Identity Mystery

Imagine buying a foal advertised as a Shire x Thoroughbred cross – only to find out, nearly two decades later, that he’s actually a well-bred Connemara cross. Quite a difference, but that’s exactly what happened to Liz Hill of Nashville, TN.

Buckle up, because this story is a good one.

by Amanda Chance

Planting the Seed

Photo by Erica Boultbee Photography.

To set the scene, let’s rewind a couple of decades. Liz was, like so many of us, a horse-crazy kid who wanted every opportunity to ride and be around horses. Growing up in Southern California, her parents supported the hobby but had limited funds. Anything beyond their pre-set budget of a few lessons a month was up to Liz’s own ingenuity to figure out how to fund.

Never one to be deterred by the idea of hard work, the ever-enthusiastic Liz began working at a riding school in exchange for lessons and the opportunity to ride more horses.

Her coach at the time had two draft crosses — one a Percheron x Thoroughbred and the other a Clydesdale x Thoroughbred — in training for a sport career. Liz recalls, “I was the big kid in the barn so she put me on them, and that was my first introduction to working with green horses.”

Liz quickly fell in love with the process and the horses, and at age 18 inquired about buying the Clydesdale cross. Unfortunately by that point the mare was out of budget. Liz went away to college at UC Davis horseless, but as fate would have it, she didn’t stay that way for long.

While at college, a family friend asked Liz if she had ever heard of PMU foals – young horses (often draft crosses) that were a byproduct of the production of Premarin, a hormone replacement drug. The friend advised that if Liz wanted a project, these foals could be purchased very inexpensively, and the friend also offered to board the foal at her farm for just $100 a month.

It was an opportunity Liz couldn’t refuse, and she was soon printing out pictures of various foals available at what was then called the Pegasus Rescue.

The rescue had around 50 foals available that were said to have come from a big PMU farm closure in the Dakotas, all priced at $700 apiece. Recalling how she made her final choice for picking a foal, Liz recalls, “I picked Cairo because he was black and I was an emo kid – it seemed like a great idea!”

Meeting Cairo

Photo courtesy of Liz Hall.

On Cairo’s paperwork, he was listed as a Shire x Thoroughbred cross, expected to mature to 16.2 hands. Liz was hoping to have a horse to compete in the jumper ring, and thought this foal sounded like a promising match. He should end up a good size, she thought, and had enough Thoroughbred to be athletic and sporty. That was all she needed to hear, and the deal was done on her very first horse.

When Cairo arrived, it quickly became very apparent that Liz had indeed gotten herself a project, in every sense of the word.

“He was totally unhandled and feral, definitely not halter broke, and terrified of people,” she told me. “But, you know, I was 18 years old and had nothing better to do than spend my free time gentling this horse. So that’s what we did.”

Over the next few years Liz and Cairo grew and learned together, developing a strong partnership. Ultimately he topped out at only 15.1 hands, quite a bit smaller than expected, but Liz just assumed she had gotten the literal short end of the genetics stick and didn’t think much more of it. He was still very athletic, and an even better jumper than she’d hoped.

At age 7, a pasture accident caused Cairo to break his leg in five places, but the horse proved to be resilient, coming back from that injury to eventually compete again with Liz to Fourth level dressage. Today, Cairo is 18 years old and still happily working.

A Chance to Learn More

Photo courtesy of Liz Hill.

While he’s proven to be a horse of a lifetime for Liz, she has always wondered about his ancestry and wanted to learn more about where he came from. Around Christmas of 2022, she got the chance to do just that.

Liz’s husband gifted her a ProPanel + Ancestry test from Etalon Diagnostics, hoping to help her find out a little bit more about her beloved long-time partner. The ProPanel part of the package gave Liz more information on Cairo’s genetic health, coat color, speed, temperament, and performance traits. The Ancestry part of the test, which identifies heritage, looks for close relatives, inbreeding percentage, and blood percentage — that’s where things started to get interesting.

Much to Liz’s complete shock, the test results showed that Cairo wasn’t a Shire x Thoroughbred cross as she had always thought. DNA testing revealed that he actually had a large portion of Connemara blood.

Not only that, but Etalon had found a match for one of his parents within their DNA database.

As that news started to sink in, things that hadn’t quite added up over Cairo’s lifetime finally clicked into place for Liz. His height, for one; 15.1h makes a lot more sense for a Connemara than it does for a Shire. But also his jumping ability, his gaits, and the general pony-like demeanor that he’d always had – all characteristics you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate for the cross she’d originally been told.

Etalon allows users who find close DNA matches to reach out anonymously to their owners, and Liz didn’t hesitate to send a message.

On the receiving end of that message was Janet Johnson, the current owner of Cairo’s sire, Skyview’s Triton. Still alive and well and standing at stud in Wisconsin at Dayton Ridge Farm, Skyview’s Triton is a 14.3-hand palomino full-bred Connemara.

As it turns out, while Liz had been trying to solve the mystery of Cairo, Janet had been trying to solve a mystery of her own.

The Lost Foals

Skyview’s Triton. Photo courtesy of Janet Johnson.

Janet did not own Skyview’s Triton at the time of Cairo’s birth, and she’d found a gap in his breeding records for a few years around that time. She had been searching for what she dubbed “The Lost Foals,” and was delighted to find one in Cairo.

As it turns out, much of the success of this story came at the hands of fate. Liz says, “I thank my lucky stars that my husband chose Etalon, because there are multiple companies out there he could have gone with. It just so happens that prior to me testing Cairo, Etalon had worked with a Connemara breeder in order to get more data in their database about Connemaras. Turns out, the breeder they reached out to was Janet, which is the only reason why we got the DNA match to identify him. Needle in a haystack, we got incredibly lucky!”

How exactly Cairo the Connemara cross ended up amongst a group of PMU rescue foals remains an unsolved part of the mystery. Still though, Janet has become just as dedicated to finding answers as Liz. Together they’ve tried to track down any information on who Cairo’s dam may have been and the circumstances under which he ended up at a rescue. “Together we started picking at the surface of this mystery, but we don’t know yet how he ended up there,” Liz says.

Connecting the Dots

Custusha’s Cashel Rock, Cairon’s grandsire, was a well-rounded jumper. Photo courtesy of Liz Hill.

The more Liz learned about Cairo’s sire and his ancestors from Janet, the more his life and his talents started to make sense. Skyview’s Triton competed in dressage, and his sire, Custusha’s Cashel Rock, was a well-known USA foundation sire that competed in hunters, jumpers, eventing, and even became a Breyer Connemara breed model. He was known for being a good jumper and passing that quality on to his offspring.

According to Cairo’s DNA profile, it’s most likely that his dam was some kind of stock breed (like Quarter Horse) or a draft cross. We also know that, due to the way color genetics work, his dam was most likely black or bay. It’s not a lot to go on, but Liz and Janet have been following every possible lead.

Whether or not they ever piece together the entire story of Cairo, Liz is grateful to finally know a little more about the horse that has walked by her side the entirety of her adult life.

“The fact that Cairo does kind of act like a pony, that makes a lot more sense now!” Liz laughs. “I’m just beside myself, because I never thought I was going to have any answers about who he really was. I’m so grateful that Janet was generous enough to submit DNA from [Skyview’s Triton]. If she hadn’t, there’s no way we would have connected and solved these mysteries for each other.”

This article is sponsored by Etalon Dx. To find out what testing is best for your horse, click here.