All domesticated horses, whatever their breed, belong to the same species, and all are descended from the Eurasian wild horse. However, there were three subspecies of this wild horse, which gave rise to different domestic types, the so-called "hot-blooded" and "cold-blooded" breeds. The first group includes the rather elegant, fast and spirited animals such as the Arabian. The second includes the massive hard workers such as the Shire horse.
Przewalski's horse (pronounced sha-VAL-ski) is the only true wild horse in the world today. It looks much the same as it did in the Ace Age. This breed derives its name from the Russian explorer, Colonel Nicolai Przewalski, who discovered specimens on the borders of the Gobi Desert. The Przewalski's horse stands between 12 and 14 hh. Usually zebra stripes appear on the limbs and there is a notable stripe on the back. Its qualities of speed and endurance , so essential in the hostile environment, have also been preserved through the generations.2
Wild horses of all three subspecies occurred in prehistoric times in immense numbers. Prehistoric man slaughtered them for food, and accumulated huge piles of their bones near his cave dwellings. Historic man went on killing wild horses because they raided crops and competed with his herds for pasture. Today only a few hundred survive in the wild, on the border of the great Gobi desert. This is the subspecies known as Mongolian or Przewalski's horse (Equus Przewalskii), from which the present day Mongolian Pony descends. It is a sturdy dun-colored to bay pony with erect mane and mealy muzzle. From it and another subspecies, the Steppe Tarpan, are thought to have descended all the hot-blooded breeds of domestic horses, including the Arabian and the Barb.1
The Tarpan (Equus ferus ferus) lived in the Ukraine and eastern Europe and became extinct in the wild around 1897. It is commonly thought to be the predominant ancestor of the domesticated horse. In the 1930s a group of dedicated breeders began a program to try to "breed back" to the tarpan from existing domestic horses. They selected breeds that most closely resembled descriptions of the original tarpan and by selective breeding produced an animal that probably gives a good idea of what the original wild European horse looked like.
The most successful and legitimate efforts were made in Poland and centered on the konik, which is thought to retain a high percentage of tarpan genetic material. The Munich zoo produced a tarpan-like horse by selectively breeding domestic horses known to have tarpan ancestry.4 There now are about 200 tarpan-like horses at field stations in Poland and others are established at zoos in Europe and the United States.3
The North American Tarpan Association is committed to preserving the Tarpan as well as promoting it's endearing traits of gentleness, strength and hardiness. To be eligible for registration as a Section 1 Tarpan, the animal must possess certain required characteristics such as the color of the hooves, coat and mane and the size. The NATA breed standard for the Tarpan takes into consideration the purpose for which it was created by Heinz Heck, as well as the standards by which Ellen Thrall created the first Studbook in 1975. Tarpans can be gentle enough for small children, or strong enough for adult riders. They are capable of going long distances without breaking a sweat. Tarpans have competed in log pulls against draft horses, and gained the respect of many with their abilities.