Cover1.gif (27046 bytes)

E p i c e n t r e
Issue 4

Konics and Tarpans

Further to Article from Independent of 27th April 2003

The article contains reports on the use of Konic ponies from Poland and Tarpans. If these animals existed then they certainly are not closely related let alone synonymous names for the same "breed".

Konic (meaning small horse) is the word used in Poland to denote any breed of what in English would be described as a pony. Professor Janikowski in "The Wild Horse in Poland" describes the Bilgoraj Konic, which lived in the forest of Bialowieza until the 18th century. But by the beginning of the 19th century the ponies, until then free living, were caught by local peasants and crossbred with the local domestic mouse-grey ponies. In 1936 Professor Vetulani of Poznan University, in attempting to breed these Polish ponies back to the original type, discovered a stallion "Tref" and a mare "Czajka". These animals possessed a similar gene as occurs in species such as the stoat and blue hare, which causes the coat colour to turn white in winter. Only the face, fetlocks, mane and tail retain the normal dark colour. The descendants of these animals, inheriting the changing of the mouse-grey summer coat into a white winter coat, are often regarded as true Konics. But modern geneticists maintain that this was the result of a new genetic mutation, not "breeding back".

The history of animal breeding in Poland has ensured that the true "Polish Wild Horse" has long been lost. Any scrub pony originating from Poland could be called, quite correctly, a Konic, regardless of pedigree since "Konic" means "Pony".

The so-called Tarpan is the "Wild Horse of Russia". The validity of the existence and description of this animal is even more vague than the Konic.

In 1907 W. Salensky in his book on the Przewalski Horse points out that the Tarpan was founded on the description of a single specimen, not full grown. The original information about the Tarpan is not only scanty but frequently contradictory. Gmelin describes a small mouse-coloured animal with short curly mane, and with the lower limbs black. The head he describes as thick but other cranial details indefinite. The tail he states was shorter than that of a "horse". P. Koppen of 1896 describes a "Tarpan" captured as a foal on the Zagradoff Steppe and when 18 years old brought to Moscow. In 1901 Matschie in a short paper states "No skin, skull or skeleton of the Tarpan is to be found in any museum in the world." It seems that the Russian Wild Horse or Tarpan may be more myth than historical or biological fact.

The modern "Tarpans" were created in Germany in the early 1960's. This was the work of the Heck brothers, both directors of two of Germany's zoological gardens at the time. The intention was to "breed back" to the Tarpan using various breeds. They clearly knew little about genetics; they obviously were confused or unaware of the differences between Genotype and Phenotype. All they could achieve was a look-alike to the description of Gmelin. Even that was imperfect since I have a photograph taken by my late wife in winter 1964 of the "Tarpan" having its mane cut to conform to the original description before the animal was put on public display. The animal would have passed for a grey dun highland pony if it had lived in Scotland.

However descendants of the Heck "Tarpans" are now being promoted and sold as primitive types; but genetically they are very heterozygous not highly homozygous, as they should be if a true primitive type. Dr. E. Gus Cothran, director of equine research at the University of Kentucky has done much research into native equine breeds of the world utilising blood protein analysis. His results show that while the observed heterozygosity for all breeds of equine averages 36%, the Skyrian pony has 57.4%, the Exmoor pony 46.9%, the Polish Konic only 41.8%. There are of course no figures for the Heck "Tarpans".

written by Alex.N.Copland