Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Konik is not a breeding-back result

The Konik is widely publicized as a breeding-back result for the Tarpan, and there is the romantic story that this breed descends from wild horse hybrids living in Poland during 1900, and that the agriculturist and biologist Tadeusz Vetulani purged out the domestic influence in the 1930s, resulting in the modern Konik. This is a strongly romanticized version and very popular, and far away from the actual history of that breed.

It is true that the Polish game park at Zamosc had wild horses until 1806 when those were sold to local farmers of the Bilgoraj region (perhaps these wild horses already had domestic horse introgression because historic references mention hoof problems in these populations). The local farmers managed it to tame and integrate them into their domestic stock. So these local horses did experience some recent wild horse introgression, assuming those horses from Zasmosc were truly wild. Some references claim that the rural polish horses were Tarpan-influenced already, so that the affect on the wild traits in that population was not dramatic. However, this is unlikely since polish farmers did not appreciate wild influence in their herds at all (because of the resulting wild and intractable behaviour), what in fact even was one of the reasons why the Tarpan was persecuted to extinction. So seemingly the Konik did not descend from wild horses with domestic influence, but domestic horses with (possible) wild influence; and as I discussed in the previous post, European wild horses apparently left their traits in many domestic breeds of Europe. It is an unknown factor if the wild horse influence was still present in those horses when the breed “Konik” became known as such, which was about hundred twenty years after 1806.

Nevertheless, the horses of Bilgoraj and other Polish regions were very robust, varying in colour from black dun, black, sorrel and brown. They had an important role as transport animals during World War I for German as much as Russian troops, and were commonly called “Panje horses”. The Panje horses had a small, stocky body and were very strong and hardy.  In 1921, an article by two scientists named Grabowski and Schuch started the scientific interest in Panje horses as possible Tarpan descendants. As a consequence, Tadeusz Vetulani started investigating that breed and coined the name “Konik”, which successively replaced “Panje horse”. In the following years, several private and public studs were created in order to preserve and spread this Polish landrace. In 1927, Vetulani started an experiment which he believed might bring back the Tarpan by breeding them on wooded areas with few human interference. This was actually more a dedomestication experiment according to this baseline than a breeding-back attempt. He also wanted to achieve phenotypic features he considered to be Tarpan features like a white winter coat or an upright mane (there is no evidence for upright manes in European wild horses, though). Anyway, Vetulani’s stock was only one of many Konik lineages back this time. The Second World War created a lot of confusion, as Koniks were moved all over Poland and Germany during and after the war. Popielno became the new main breeding centre of the Konik (and Vetulani’s herd was only one of several founding herds), and it was decided that Popielno should perform 2 separate ways of breeding: one to continue Vetulani’s experiment (again, not by selective breeding but only by few human interference, comparable to modern grazing projects) and one for commercial sale and traditional indoor breeding. Although Popielno was the main breeding centre, it was only one of many Konik studs in Poland, and when other countries started getting interested in this breed, individuals were bought from any lineage they were available. Therefore it becomes obvious that Vetulani’s stock played only a minor role in the creation of the modern Konik population. Therefore, Vetulani did not create the breed, he merely coined the modern name of the breed.

And what about the phenotype? As I mentioned above, the ancestral Panje/Konik stock displayed a number of different colours, and black and sorrel individuals as much as such with white markings can still appear. I was quite surprised when I saw data for the withers height of these horses, because they apparently were way smaller back this time (123 cm instead of 130-140 cm). Indeed some Konik lineages actually were selected for a larger and more gracile phenotype, also with a more gracile head. As we know, the wild horse was remarkable for its small body size and the large and robust head, so actually some studs did exactly the opposite of breeding-back, and this shows in the modern Konik population. Ok, there has been selection for fixating the black dun colour over the years, but this is certainly not enough to call the Konik as a whole a breeding-back attempt. Therefore, it should not be called a breeding-back result, but a landrace instead, because that’s what it really is.
You can find a lot of very clear information on the Konik’s history in the book of Tadeusz Jezierski and Zbigniew Jaworski (“Das Polnische Konik”, Westarp Wissenschaften, 2008). This book is objective and without any preconceptions. It doesn’t forcefully try to turn the Konik into a surviving wild horse, nor does it repeat the popular stories without verification (like most other pieces of literature do). It is very well-researched and informing. Therefore you find more information on the Konik and the Tarpan at once than in any other book. I have the German edition at home, I don’t know if there is an English too.

The fact that the Konik is a landrace and not a breeding-back result does not alter the fact that some Koniks still display a phenotype that is quite reminiscent of what we know about the European wild horse (however, it is only representative for one of five possible colour morphs, what a pity that black Koniks usually get selected-out). Which Koniks are Tarpan-like, and which are not? Those with a silver gray expression of black dun, a comparably slender posture with a slender head and a long mane do not resemble what we know about the phenotype of the Tarpan IMO. Koniks with a brownish or ash gray colour expression, a small stocky body and comparably short manes are those individuals I would call “authentic” based on the evidence.

Wild horse-like Koniks
More "domestic looking" Konik
Sorrel-coloured Konik in Oostvaardersplassen (by "treverius" on flickR)

However, as I mentioned in this post, the Konik has a more domestic behaviour than breeds with a feral history such as the Exmoor pony [2]. It is interesting nevertheless that Koniks are known to dominate horses of other breeds in multiracial herds, even if those breeds are bigger than themselves [1].

The most interesting question regarding the Konik’s relationship to the European Tarpan is if there are still traces of the alleged wild horses that contributed to the Bilgoraj stock. The fact that some Koniks are very reminiscent of black dun wild horses does not necessary imply that (considering that other breeds are very Tarpan-like as well for which there is no direct evidence for recent introgression). Furthermore, considering the diverse mDNA of the modern domestic horse, probably a lot of breeds experienced wild horse introgression (no matter how recent it was). But in the case of the Panje/Konik, we should expect a much bigger Y chromosome diversity in that breeds if the wild horses of Zamosc are still present in the modern Konik, unless the farmers actively selected out male influence. I think this question is worth to be investigated, especially because the Konik was not included in the study of Lindgren et al. 2004 [3].
While the Konik is no breeding-back result, one of its derivations, the Heck horse, is (more or less). However, Heck horses are not necessarily more Tarpan-like than Koniks (or actually the opposite), but we’ll look into this in a future post.


  • [1] Tadeusz Jezierski, Zbigniew Jaworski: Das Polnische Konik. 2008.
  • [2] Baker, Sue, 2008: Exmoor Ponies: Survival of the Fittest – A natural history.
  • [3] Lindgren et al.: Limited number of patrilines in horse domestication. 2004

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