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Some horses that live wild are not really wild horses in the zoological sense, and on the other hand, a wild horse subspecies in a zoo, or in private hands, may not be wild at all, which is to say they may not show wild behavior.
How wild does a horse have to be in order to be called a wild horse?
We know of several subspecies of wild horses that still exist:
1) The Mongolian, or Asiatic, wild horse, Equus ferus przewalskii 2) The Exmoor pony of Southwest England, a prototype of the wild horse ancestral to our domestic pony breeds 3) The Sorraia horse (or zebro resp, encebro of former times).
These are considered subspecies because with all three, hybrids were possible where habitats would overlap, and those hybrids were fertile.
Of these three subspecies of wild horses, two have a continuous history of living wild or semi-wild, or at least part of their population: the Exmoor and the Sorraia.
While the Sorraia has no history as a domestic breed, part of the Exmoor population has been bred in domestication for a long time, while the rest lived wild, or semi-wild.
The Mongolian wild horse has survived exclusively in zoos, and was reintroduced in its homeland after generations of captive breeding, so it does not have an uninterrupted history as a wild-living horse. However, all along, it was treated in captivity like a wild species and not domesticated, meaning it was not purposely altered through selective breeding.
Of the above-mentioned wild horses, plus the extinct East European Tarpan, only one subspecies was recognized early enough as a wild horse to get scientifically analyzed and described, with the required deposition of a specimen at an appropriate institute, to receive a zoological name: Equus ferus przewalskii, the Mongolian wild horse.
THE 3 SUBSPECIES ARE EQUAL IN EVERY OTHER ASPECT
1) They are not the product of selective breeding by Man; 2) Each had a specific geographically limited habitat; 3) Each came close to extinction at one time or another; 4) They were not pure anymore at time of rescue/preservation; 5) Each has a distinct conformation type; 6) Each has a distinct color; 7) They did not originally have white markings; 8) They are capable of surviving without the assistance of Man; 8) All have decreased genetic variability due to inbreeding.
ONLY 2 SUBSPECIES ARE ANCESTORS OF THE DOMESTIC BREEDS
Of these three wild forms, only two are ancestors of our domestic horse breeds: the Sorraia and the Exmoor.
The Mongolian wild horse, commonly called “Przewalski’s horse”, had been promoted not only as an ancestor of breeds of domestic horses, but even as the sole ancestor to all domestic horses. Moleculargenetic analyses have proven that “Przewalski’s horse” is not an ancestor of any of our breeds!
Mongolian wild horses as well as the Sorraia have their own genotype. The Exmoor typically shows one of two genotypes common in Nordic ponies, but several genotypes are present. As was stated above, none of the wild horse subspecies are pure anymore; they all have a certain amount of outside blood. Arguably, the Mongolian wild horse may carry the least outside blood.
THE EXTINCT TARPAN & OTHER SUBSPECIES
Most will have heard of the Tarpan - where does he fit in? The wild horses of eastern Europe, called the Tarpans, became extinct in the late 1800s - the last one, a mare, was killed in 1879 in what was then southern Russia. Again, zoologists did not pay too much attention to the Tarpan until it was too late, and this wild horse was never scientifically described and named. The zoological name that is sometimes used for him is therefore not valid.
In Poland, however, some Tarpan wild horses survived in a woodland that became a game preserve for a Polish royalty. Still later, the park was dissolved, and the remaining horses were captured and given to local farmers.
The last habitat of the Tarpan in Poland was a forest, in Russia it was a semi-desert steppe. One often comes across references to the “Wood Tarpan” and the “Steppe Tarpan”. It is doubtful that there were actually two different forms of the Tarpan, because in both instances, these wild horses will just have retreated to an area less accessible and therefore safer.
After decades in domestication by the farmers, when a zoologist became interested in the Tarpan and searched for descendents of those last Tarpans in that region, he was still able to find horses with lots of the characteristics of this wild horse. He obtained a select number and started a breeding program designed to reestablish the Tarpan. From that program, a breed evolved which is today known as “Polish Konik”.
There is a breed called “Tarpan”, which is not to be confused with the original wild horses. In the early 1900s, two German zoologists started a breeding program to bring back, to “reconstruct” the Tarpan. No animal, once extinct, can be bred back into existence. The Mongolian wild horse played a significant part in this breeding program, but we know today through molecular genetics that it’s not even related to the Tarpan. Other horses, mostly pony breeds, were used as well. The result is a horse that varies considerably in type, but most of all, is of course not authentic, even though it is often exhibited in zoos. The Polish Konik is more authentic than this mixture, however cleverly designed.
The Polish Konik
Through the above mentioned Tarpan program, Koniks are direct Tarpan descendents, but not real wild horses anymore. They are of various genotypes, although one genotype is in the majority, which, given the history of these horses, can be rightfully assumed to be the genotype of the Tarpan.
The Konik varies more in conformation type than the other horses we discussed above. Its color is always grulla, though.
The Sorraia horse’s genotype is very close to the dominant one of the Konik, therefore we now consider the Sorraia an Iberian variant of the Tarpan. As such, the Sorraia may well be the closest to the original Tarpan wild horses.
In North America, the mountains are often the last strongholds of the wild horses, called “mustangs”, which are actually feral horses.
There is another truly primitive horse that was discovered in Iran, near the Caspian sea, which may also be an ancestral form, that is, a remnant population of wild horses of that area. It is a small animal, but more a horse in conformation type than a pony, and could be the forefather of the Arabian. It is called “Caspian” after the region of discovery.
It seems to have absorbed considerable outside blood, though; it shows no dominant genotype, and comes in a variety of colors. It survived in the mountains, but again - probably not by choice but rather out of necessity.
SURVIVAL AND VALUE
In Iberia, the swamps were the last retreats of the wild horses, before they were drained and turned into farmland. It would be wrong, though, to classify those horses as “swamp horses” - they didn’t survive there because they preferred the swamps, they fled to the swamps to survive
Horses are amazingly capable of adapting to different habitats. From desert to marshland, from steppe to woodland, from swamp to mountain - wild horses are able to survive there if given a chance.
These primitive horses, represent a gene pool we should strive to preserve. In preserving the last wild horses, we should not only be concerned about numbers, purity, phenotype, inbreeding coefficients, etc., but also with their behavioral characteristics. Experience shows that wild behavior is hard to regain, once it was lost. Instincts need to be maintained and sharpened. Wild survival is more than weathering storms, heat and cold and living off what Mother Nature has to offer...
Hardy Oelke, is a German hippologist and author of specialized books with a special interest in wild horses; his site offers a grand compilation of knowledge, the online Sorraia Mustang Magazine, and information about an ongoing Refuge established for these horses – visit www.sorraia.org