Where did the wild horse go?

By Henri Kerkdijk Otten
10 - 01 - 2012

Wild horses have been an intricate part of the wildlife of Europe since hundreds of thousands of years. During historical times, wild horses have been described by contemporaries from the ancient period, untill the 19th century AD. Herodotos, the Greek historian of the fifth century BC talks about wild living horses somewhere in present day Belorussia. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist living in the first century AD, describes that vast herds of wild horses were living north of the Alps.

Truly wild horse species?

There is no doubt that wild horses should have their rightful place in Europe’s nature areas today. It becomes a lot more complicated when the question arises which horse breeds to choose as a truly wild horse species.
The first problem is that one of the last wild horses of Eurasia, the Tarpan, is seen by many biologists and ecologists as the ecotype to be used in the whole of Europe. This is however an oversimplification of the historical truth. The Tarpan was a wild or possibly feralized horse ecotype that lived on the steppes of the Ukraine and southern Russia. Information regarding the species is scanty. There have been attempts to breed back the Tarpan, but they reflect the personal vision of individuals, about what a Tarpan should look like. From archaeozoological research, written sources and ancient genetics, we know now that none of the so called bred back Tarpans actually derives from the ancient Tarpan and that they show marked differences in phenotype. This is further complicated by the fact that the sources about the Tarpan somewhat differ in the details when it comes to describing the animal.
Another problem is the fact that the Tarpan represents just one ecotype in a certain region at a certain place in time.

To breed or not to breed

It doesn’t make sense to automatically translate the Tarpan to the whole of Europe. The appearance of animals is determined by their genetic make-up but also by the environment they live in. It should be further noted that the notion of a ‘breed’ is a typical human notion that has developed in the last hundred and fifty years and it mostly describes a static situation. There is however nothing as fluid as evolution. Zebra stripes that seem handy on the steppes to confuse predators have no meaning in a forested environment. From all the archaeozoological remains studied and from examples like ancient color genetic studies, it becomes clear that the appearance of horses changed constantly and varied widely in the course of time and according to the various ecoregions they inhabited

Przewalski the only??

The alternative would be to simply choose for the only recognized wild horse: the Przewalski horse. However, Przewalski horses did split from Equus Caballus Caballus some time ago, so they present another type of Equine. Przewalski’s have also developed in a certain climate and vegetation, ancient Przewalski remains have not been found in Europe and to complicate matters further, the present day population is derived from only twelve founding animals and some of those founding individuals were not pureblood Przewalski, but crossbreds with domestic horses.

While these facts might come as a shock to some, it actually means that we have the unique opportunity to widen our horizon and see things from a fresh perspective. The question that is raised in the title can be answered as follows; wild horses never left and they never died out in Europe. They changed according to circumstances… we just have to know where to look.
European wild horses; wild is defined by wilderness
The question then becomes; what constitutes a European wild horse? In my opinion some important criteria are:
• overall hardiness,
• fit for purpose,
• adapted to local circumstances,
• has been living feral or in the wild for at least quite some time
• shows some uniformity in conformation,
• does not show clear domestication marks and
• the horses are seen by the public as wild horses.

Unknown to many, a lot of horses in Europe fit those criteria. And in total, all those ecotypes represent a unique diversity of wild and feral horses spanning virtually the whole of Europe.

I hereby present an overview of wild or semi-wild living horse ecotypes in Europe, I will not describe all the characteristics in detail, but suffice to say that all breeds or ecotypes fit the criteria and are ‘fit for purpose’:
• Asturcon: wild living pony in nature reserves in the northern mountains of Spain. Part of the Northern-Iberia group of wild horses.
• Bosnian mountain pony: primitive pony type. A completely wild population lives in the wilderness area around Livno and Kupres in the southwest of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
• Cabalo Galego: galician pony that lives in several feral herds in Galicia, in the northwest of Spain. Exactly the same ecotype as the Garrano. Part of the Northern-Iberia group of wild horses.
• Camargue horse: has been living wild in the marshes of the Rhone delta, southern France, since time immemorial. Supposedly resembles ancient horses.
• Dartmoor pony: lives in feral herds in Dartmoor nature reserves. Original Exmoor-like ecotype that has been crossbred with Shetland pony
• Dülmener wild horse: one population that lives in a small reserve in the west of Germany. Original of wild medieval stock. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Exmoor stallions have been bred in and since the nineteen-sixties, Konik stallions have been bred in exclusively. Ecotype therefore equals Konik, but with small differences and more variation.
• Exmoor pony: population lives wild in Exmoor national park and in other nature reserves in the UK, Benelux and Germany. Described since the 11th century AD as a wild horse. Primitive type.
• Giara pony: lives in a feral state in the wild areas of Sardinia. Primitive type.
• Hucul/Hutzul: primitive pony from the Carpathian mountains of Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine and Hungary. Some populations run wild in Hungary and Ukraine.
• Icelandic pony: hardy pony originating from Iceland. Has successfully been used and partly rewilded in some nature reserves in the Northwest of continental Europe.
• Karakachan horse: mountain pony from the mountain regions of Bulgaria. Exactly the same ecotype as Serbian mountain pony. Some small and totally wild populations live in Pirin mountains and in the Central Balkan mountains.
• Konik horse: lives feral in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Latvia, England. A few strong populations live in the Netherlands, in the Oostvaardersplassen, in riverine areas and other nature areas. Bred back Tarpan according to the vision of one man and created using domestic stock. Successfully rewilded or feralized.
• Letea Forest horse: living wild in the Letea forest in the Danube Delta, Romania. Descriptions about the wild horses exist since a few centuries.
• Losiņo: small population rescued from the brink of extinction. Small feral living populations in the mountains of northern Spain and further south in Castillia y Leon province. Part of the Northern-Iberia group of wild horses.
• Garrano: lives wild in the Peneda Geres national park in northern Portugal. Lives in a feral state in other nature reserves in Portugal. Part of the Northern-Iberia group of wild horses.
• Monterufoli pony: lives feral in a nature reserve in the Pisa Province of Italy. Thought to come from wild stock.
• New Forest pony: lives in feral herds in the area of Hampshire, England. Original Exmoor-like ecotype that has been crossbred with a multitude of horse breeds.
• Pentro horse: a primitive old breed living feral in the marshes and wetlands of southern Italy. Extremely endangered.
• Pottoka: lives feral in the Basque mountains, for example in the Pagoeta nature reserve. Purest forms live in northern Spain. There are also feral herds in the Basque region of France. Part of the Northern-Iberia group of wild horses.
• Retuerta: a genetically and historically isolated small group of horses that live totally wild in the Donaņa National Park in southern Spain.
• Sanfratellano: lives feral in the Nebrodi nature park on the Italian island of Sicily. They actually share some bloodlines with the Camargue horse.
• Serbian mountain pony: primitive pony from the Republic of Serbia, that is of exactly the same ecotype as the Karakachan horse of adjacent Bulgaria. A small population lives totally wild in the Stara Planina nature park. More will be rewilded in the near future.
• Sorraia: from Portugal. Bred back Tarpan according to the vision of one man and created using domestic stock, mainly of the Lusitano group of horses. Currently living under domestic conditions.
• Welsh Pony: a feral population of about 180 animals roams the Carneddau hills of North Wales. Other feral population can be found in the eastern parts of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

The above represents a rather impressive list of horse ecotypes and it is strange to see that the general public knows so little about most of them. It would be a shame if we would lose those valuable horses, because at least some of them truly represent ancient ecotypes and genes. More research is currently being done and still has to be done. Until we know more, we should at least try to protect those breeds.

If a European-wide rewilding scheme ever wants to reach its optimum, then we should take advantage of this enormous wealth of biodiversity and genetic diversity and start using them in those areas where they belong.

And of course… let nature take its course from there.