Wild horses for Europe – which breed is the best?

2011 - 08 - 09

European grasslands have belonged to wild horses for thousands of years. With the arrival of hunters and later on farmers , wild horses were pushed from most parts of Europe. They had to give way to their domestic relatives. In some areas domestic and wild horses lived side by side for thousands of years. But ultimately, the story of European Wild horses came to a bad end.

The last horse that was from supposedly wild stock died in 1905 in the Moscow´s zoo. It was Tarpan, the steppe horse from southern Russia and Ukraine. Later the name Tarpan was falsely given to all European wild horses.

Without wild horses European nature is uncomplete. That´s why experts are now preparing for the comeback of this key species. But which breed is the best choice for Europe when the last original Wild Horse died more than one hundred years ago?

Just like when searching for a substitute for the aurochs, the greatest hopes come from primitive breeds of domestic horse breeds. For several decades, the Polish Konik was considered to be the best candidate.

“From published and unpublished genetic research it is clear that the Konik has nothing to do with prehistoric horses and it is clearly of mixed origin. This is surprising, since for years the Konik from Poland has been advertised as the resurrected Tarpan,“ said Henri Kerkdijk-Otten of Taurus Foundation (Stichting Taurus) a Dutch organization that uses feral cattle and horses in nature management and natural grazing schemes, and also organizer of an international scientific ancient horse project.

“According to the latest researches, it is the Exmoor pony from a remote part of Great Britain that is the closest relative we have of the prehistoric horse. This is confirmed by other researches like bone measurements, historic documents, blood type research, haplotype research and dental researches,“ said Henri Kerkdijk-Otten and continues: „Looking at Exmoor ponies, they seem to come right of the walls of Lascaux cave. We have also noticed from experience that Exmoor ponies express more wild features than Koniks, like a natural tendency to get out of the way when people approach. These are the reasons we are slowly moving away from Koniks and we are concentrating on Exmoor ponies.“

Next research could show if the Exmoor needs some ‘tweaking’ or not. But scientists are not yet united. Some of them prefer continuation of Konik´s breeding, some want to experiment with breeding wild Przewalski’s horse with primitive domestic breeds, some prefer other primitive horse breeds – like Retuerta from Spain, Pottoka from the Basque Country or Hucul from the Carpathian mountains.

What also has become evident is that there was, and still is, regional variety within the total European wild horse population. Each region has its own landscape, climate and vegetation. Some primitive horse breeds are better adapted to mountainous areas and some to flat savanna-like landscapes. Some are better suited for wetter areas and some for drier areas. No situation is the same and that has resulted in a regional variety that is still represented in the various primitive horse breeds in the different regions of Europe.

When the best breed or breeds are finally chosen, experts will have to agree how the original European wild horses really looked like. “There is a simple fact: prehistoric horses did not all have erect manes. Complete bodies of ponies from 12.000 to 10.000 BC have been found in the frozen tundra of Siberia and they had long manes, not erect. A photo from the last Ukrainian Tarpan shows long manes.

Prehistoric cave paintings also show long manes next to erect manes. Descriptions of wild horses in Romania in the 15th and 16th century AD also point to the fact that those horses had long manes. Even Gmelini, the author who described the Tarpan in the 18th century, did not talk about erect manes, but about short frizzly manes,“ points Henri Kerkdijk-Otten.

For long years long manes were considered as a sign of domestication. But studies show another reason for having long manes. „The long manes divert rain water. Most prehistoric horses with erect manes that we see on cave paintings were part of a tundra-steppe climate and vegetation. That means very little rains and therefore not the need to develop mechanisms to divert rain water,“ continues Henri Kerkdijk-Otten.

„Also, the only illustration we have of a Tarpan with erect manes is of a young colt of about five months old. Young horses always have erect manes, so that illustration says nothing,“ added Henri Kerkdijk-Otten.

The latest genetic research shows that the original colors of prehistoric horses were bay and black. „Bay color you see in Exmoor and Przewalski’s ponies, Serbian Mountain ponies, Garrano ponies from Portugal and some other authentic breeds. The black colour can still be seen in authentic and feral horse breeds like the Asturcon (North of Spain), the original Potokka (Basque country) and the Merens (South of France) and Fjell pony (North England).

The bay color of the prehistoric horse was also influenced by a gene that was the cause of a lighter belly and a lighter to white muzzle, just like you see in wild horses depicted in the Caves of Lascaux. This gene is still present in the Przewalski horse and in the Exmoor pony and also partly in other breeds.

European Wildlife conservation organization supports the comeback of wild horses to Europe. „We prefer one breed of ‘wild horse’ for whole Europe. Researches based on DNA analysis of original wild horses’ bones and primitive domestic breeds of nowadays can suggest to us relatively fast which breed is the best for comeback to the wild or for rebreeding European wild horse,” said Dalibor Dostal, director of European Wildlife and continued: “That is why we think it is necessary to separate projects aimed at maintaining local primitive domestic breeds of horses and finding common wild horses for Europe.”

It is clear, that finding a common breed for Europe will be very difficult. Because every country and every region prefer its local primitive breed of horse with which they have shared an emotional bond for centuries. European Wildlife also has its favorite. „I hope it will be Exmoor pony, which Stichting Taurus focuses on, because it is a magnificant animal,“ said Dalibor Dostal.

Photo credit: Richard Gardner / Isifa.com

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