Sunday, 2 June 2013

What do we mean by "Tarpan"?

Numerous articles state it is dubious whether the Tarpan was a wild horse, feral horse or a hybrid population [1]. These refer to free-roaming horse populations that have been around in Eastern Europe during the 18th and 19th century. Other sources define the term “Tarpan” as being synonymous with the western subspecies of the Eurasian wild horse, Equus ferus ferus. This name originated in a Turkic language and was used by indigenous people of the Near-Eastern steppe to refer either to feral or wild horses [2]. References contradict each other if “Tarpan” was used only for wild horses or just any local free-roaming equine.  It became a trend in western scientific literature to use that word after it was first utilized in 1762, while there were still wild and feral horses living freely in eastern Europe [2].  Some contemporaneous naturalists such as Charles Hamilton Smith clearly distinguish between feral, mixed and wild horses – calling the wild horses Tarpans [3]. The populations that remained until the 19th century certainly had domestic influence, but it is also very likely that some wild, never-domesticated horses of the ferus-subspecies still were extant at that time [3]. So we have two options how to define the meaning of the name Tarpan: a) never-domesticated wild horses of the Equus ferus ferus subspecies, b) any population of horses that roamed the southern Russian steppe during the 19th century. If we decide for the second option the word Tarpan becomes zoologically meaningless, as it is only a historic umbrella term for a certain time and location. So, if the term “Tarpan” is now clearly restricted to predomestic western wild horses, statements like “It is uncertain whether it was a feral or wild horse” are flawed by the fact that Tarpans are wild horses by definition. Some historic accounts clearly describe hybrid populations, so they have to be called Tarpan hybrids, and not Tarpan in the modern sense. The authors themselves who gave account of free-roaming horses (that I am aware of) mostly did not call them Tarpan [2], with the exception of C. H. Smith who explicitly referred to pure wild horses.

Therefore, when I speak about Tarpans on this blog, note that I am referring to predomestic Equus ferus ferus, not to the particular members of just any free-roaming equine population that has been described in the 18th or 19th century.

Some domestic horse breeds, like the Konik and Heck horse, are often erroneously called “Tarpan”. This is arbitrary and zoologically wrong, do not get confused by that – the Tarpan is extinct.


[1] Castelli, Andrea: Don’t call me Tarpan. 2012. 
[2] Tadeusz Jezierski, Zbigniew Jaworski: Das Polnische Konik. 2008.
[3] Smith, Charles Hamilton: The Natural history of Horses, with Memoir of Gesner. (1814/1866)

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