Tarpan Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below
Tarpans, in the late 1800’s, lived in a virgin forest near Bialowieza (Northeast Poland) and in the steppes of what is the Ukraine today.
(It must be noted that since the Tarpan is extinct, it follows that there are no photos available. We have used images of Sorraia horses, that closely resemble the extinct horse so as to provide a pictorial idea.)
The Tarpan was brought to the attention of researchers and zoologists at a time when horses still roamed wild in great numbers across the vast and mostly uninhabited steppes of Eastern Europe. However, he never was taken seriously enough to be studied, and scientifically described. Only after it was too late, after the last one had been killed, did zoologists started to fight over him in regards to whether he was a true wild horse or just a feral horse.
The Tarpan was mentioned as a true wild horse by so many independent sources, and his phenotype was so different from the domestic horses of his country, that there can be no doubt that he was indeed a true wild horse in the zoological sense.
When crossed with domestic horses, his phenotype would always come through, and such crosses were easily recognized from other domestic horses.
So much did the crosses with the Tarpan look like the Tarpan, that one such individual was given to the Moscow zoo in 1884 and was considered to be, and was exhibited as such. Yet when v. Falz-Fein, a zoologist and expert from South Russia, later visited the zoo and saw the horse, he declared him to be clearly a crossbred.
In the late 1800s, Tarpans lived in a virgin forest near Bialowieza (Northeast Poland) and in the steppes of what is the Ukraine today. In 1812, the last were captured in Poland, in the Ukraine, and the last one was killed in 1879. Another report (Heptner) dates the extermination at 1918, and yet another even claims the horses lived until 1924 in the mountains of the southern Ural.
Descriptions of the Tarpan by those who saw these wild horses in the flesh differ considerably. This may be because some of those describing him were evidently not horse experts, and another reason might be incorrect translations. Somewhat differing regional variants could also be an explanation.
It should be mentioned that the Russian expert v. Falz-Fein (1919) declared the “reconstruction picture” of the Tarpan by Antonius (1913) for the Zoological-Botanical Association in Vienna to be inaccurate, and rather similar to the - completely different - Mongolian wild horse.
As mentioned, descriptions of the Tarpan differ. Sometimes a concave head profile is mentioned, which may have led to the assumption by some zoologists that the this horse had been the ancestor of the oriental horses (the best-known of which is the Arabian). This is a bold theory, because it is built on only three remaining skulls, one of which is known to be of a crossbred, anyway. One of the most-distributed sketches of a Tarpan clearly shows a convex profile.
The above-mentioned v. Falz-Fein said the Tarpans had convex noses. He compared them with the Mongolian wild horse (of which he had a herd on his “Askania Nova”) and described them to have been lighter in built, longer legged, with a smaller head and a more pronounced dorsal stripe.
Even all information combined does not give us a definite picture of these East European wild horses. A further aspect is the very large habitat of the Tarpan, ranging from northern Poland to the Black Sea, which makes regional variants rather likely. Some researchers differentiate between the Wood Tarpans and the Steppe Tarpans. We can be reasonably sure, though, that the Tarpan was a light horse of grulla color, probably between 13 and 14 hh.
Horses that are known to trace directly back to the Tarpan are Polish Koniks. Today, they are more and more simply called “Tarpans”, which is not correct. But Koniks can give us a pretty good idea what the original looked like, even though the Konikis are not pure Tarpans.