Is There a Prehistoric Horse Living Today in Bend?
The Ancestor of the Modern Horse
It was their sounds – the pounding of sturdy hoofs, the calling of one band to another – that told early people the little gray horse was near. It was prehistoric France and Spain and the Tarpan horse was already grazing the valleys of Europe. It is believed they moved from the North American continent to Europe and Asia during the time of the Ice Age. Their images have been found in the prehistoric caves of France.
Replica of a prehistoric horse painting from a cave in Lascaux, France
By 3,000 B.C., the Tarpan horse had spread to southern Russia where they were being domesticated by Scythian nomads. The Tarpan was said to have had a natural athletic ability and were good at pulling carts – traits useful to those early populations who lived in harsh environments.
The name “tarpan” or “tarpani” is from a Turkic language (Kyrgyz or Kazakh) meaning “wild horse.” Today, the Tarpan (Equus ferus ferus) is thought to be the ancestor of all modern horses, Equus ferus, and to all European, or primitive or wild, horses in general.
Between 1875 and 1890, the Tarpan horse died out in the wild due to the encroachment of famers in their natural forest and steppe habitat. In 1876, the last captive Tarpan died in a Ukrainian game preserve.
The “Breeding Back” Controversy
In recent time, three attempts have been made to use selective breeding to create a horse that resembles the Tarpan phenotype. These efforts are sometimes called “breeding back.” In 1936, a Polish university professor, Tadeusz Vetulani, selected Polish farm horses that he believed resembled the historic Tarpan and started a selective breeding program. This horse breed is now called the Konik, which clusters genetically with modern domestic breeds including the Mongolian horse and the Thoroughbred.
Meanwhile, in the 1930s, Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo, and Heinz Heck of the Munich Zoo, began a crossbreeding program using the Koniks along with three breeds of horses that had descended from the prehistoric Tarpan: the Przewalski horse, the Gotland Pony, and the Icelandic horse. The Hecks believed that all living creatures were the result of their genetic make-up and that genes could be arranged to recreate certain vanished species. By the 1960s, they had produced the Heck horse.
In the 1960s, Harry Hegard, in the United States, began a similar program using wild mustangs and local working ranch horses that resulted in the Hegard horse. Hegard believed that American mustangs, who are descendants of Iberian stock from Southwestern Europe, were just as related to the Tarpans as the Koniks.
The phenotypic Tarpan today is mouse dun or gruella in color. The face and legs are darker than the body, and the mane and tail are flaxen but dark in the center where the dorsal stripe passes through. They stand between 13 and 13.2 hands tall. The head is large with massive jaws and a thick neck with a semi-erect mane. The back is short and strong with very low withers. The hooves are dark, very tough, and never require shoes.
The Tarpan has a calm disposition and are friendly and curious. They are said to be extremely intelligent, and seem to enjoy being ridden but respond more to love than force, where upon the Tarpan may refuse to cooperate. The Tarpan has the potential to excel in the field of endurance competition and several owners have entered their horses in competitive trail rides, successfully competing against larger breeds. Their sturdy conformation and strong legs enable them to carry a large adult rider with ease, and they are very agile and can cover long distances. A new breed of horse in Canada, called the Canadian Rustic Pony, was developed from breeding modern Tarpans to Welsh-Arab horses. Tarpans are said to also enjoy working with cattle and other livestock, and are presently being used in riding programs for physically and mentally handicapped riders.
The Tarpan in Central Oregon
When Harry Hegard died in 1990, fellow Tarpan devotees Gordon and Lenette Stroebel, at their Genesis Equines ranch in Prineville, Oregon carried on his work. The Genesis Equine project resembled the selective breeding of the Tarpan started by the Germans Heinz and Lutz Heck. The Stroebel Tarpan is considered to be an excellent representation of the original Tarpan. In 2007, the breed in the United States was categorized as “rare” and at that time just eighty were listed as breeding stock according to the American Tarpan Studbook Association.
Due to health issues in 2012, Mr. Stroebel had to relinquish his herd and the geldings and stallions are now living at the non-profit Equine Outreach sanctuary in northeast Bend, and the mares are at a foster ranch in Redmond. All of the geldings and non-breeding mares are up for public adoption, however, the breeding mares and stallions will only be adopted out to a sanctuary for the breed where their phenotypical resemblance to the prehistoric Tarpan can remain alive. To learn more about these remarkable horses, you can visit them at the Equine Outreach sanctuary by calling ahead at 541-389-6651. Their website is www.EquineOutreach.com.