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Use and characteristics of the Tarpan
There were certainly small wild or feral horses roaming freely in parts of Eurasia right up until the nineteenth century, and occasionally locals would capture and sell a Tarpan from the wild. They were also hunted for their meat. Experts of the time decided these horses were distinct from domesticated horses due to their small size and other distinguishing features. These unique characteristics helped to identify them when zoos or collectors elected to buy a Tarpan. The last identified captive Tarpan was somewhere between 13 hands 3 inches (55 inches/140cm) and 14 hands 1 inch (57 inches/145 cm) high. It had a dorsal stripe and shoulder stripes, both of which were considered “primitive” markings, and a thickish mane that fell to one side.
Origin and history of breeding Tarpans
Tarpans were first recorded by European naturalists at the end of the eighteenth century. The animals initially received various Latin names, including Equus ferus ferus (“wild horse”) to distinguish them from the domesticated horse (Equus ferus caballus). Zoologists believed that the Tarpans had once roamed freely throughout Europe and Asia, and speculated that there might have been different types, such as the forest Tarpan and the steppe Tarpan. Historians in ancient and medieval times had made many references to apparent wild horses, and some of the descriptions seemed to match the little wild horses that could still be seen in various places. They would fight or flee if approached by humans and were frequently described as “mouse-coloured”. Some said that they looked and even sounded different to domesticated horses. What is known is that they had been hunted for food since ancient times and by the late nineteenth century they were nearly extinct. The first conservation attempt to save them was in the eighteenth century when the Polish government arranged to have animals with alleged Tarpan ancestry homed in reserves. The animals were eventually given to farmers, and the Tarpans interbred with their domesticated horses. Some of these were the ancestors of Konik ponies, which are now sometimes viewed as a modern version of the Tarpan. The last wild Tarpan is said to have died in 1879 when an attempt was made to capture her, and the last Tarpan in captivity died in 1909, although dates for this event vary. Throughout the twentieth century, attempts were made to “recreate” the Tarpan, including a long breeding programme by Professor Lutz Heck of the Berlin Zoo and Heinz Heck of the Munich Zoo. They used Koniks, Przewalski horses, Icelandic horses and Gotland Ponies to produce a Tarpan-like animal called the “Heck Horse”. From the 1930s onwards, Tadeusz Vetulani also began a breeding programme which created the modern Konik pony.
Tarpans in equestrianism
Modern Tarpan-like breeds such as the Konik and Huçul are used in conservation grazing projects. It’s now known they have the same DNA as domesticated breeds. However, whether their Tarpan ancestors were truly wild or feral is still debated!