Friday, 27 September 2013

Exmoor vs. Konik - which one is the better wild horse substitute

Of course neither the Konik nor the Exmoor are surviving wild horses, it is zoological commonsense that the western subspecies Equus ferus ferus is extinct in its wild type. Both breeds proved to be hardy and suited to the climate of central and northern Europe. But which of these two breeds is a better substitute for the wild horse in phenotypic and behavioural respect? The Exmoor and the Konik are the centre of two rivalling ideologies, and advocates of the Exmoor usually reject the Konik and vice versa. But the breeds do not rule out each other, and I want to take an objective look at this issue here.

Which one is a direct European wild horse descendant?

According to the current knowledge, none of them. All of the modern domestic horses apparently descend from one single domestication event in the Eurasian steppe, but they seemingly experienced female introgression on the continent. See here. This is true of any modern European domestic horse, and so also of the ancestors of the Konik and Exmoor.
The Konik is neither a hybrid population of the last Polish wild horses, as it is widely stated, nor is it a breeding-back attempt with such as a base. It is in fact a landrace descending from rural Polish ponies of mixed origin. According to Wikipedia, pre-domestic wild horses were present on Great Britain until at least 5500 years ago, so that domestic and wild horses might have met each other on Great Britain, there is still no evidence that the Exmoor directly descended from the last remaining wild horses because it shares the same limited Y chromosome diversity with many other domestic horses from around the world (see the previous entry). One could argue that domestic introgression and bottlenecks could have produced this result, but only through systematic culling of wild stallions and replacement with domestic ones in the moor, for what there is no evidence and what also would have greatly altered the population.
Although both the Exmoor and the Konik are no remnant population of the European wild horse, nothing rules out that they are themselves very original and do resemble the wild horses in several respects.

Which one has the more authentic phenotype?

To remind you, the European wild horses did not have a uniform but variable appearance, at least concerning their colour. I was basing myself on genetic and and historic evidence when I did this wild horse reconstruction:

As you see above, genetic and historic evidence suggests that 5 colour variants were present among the European wild horse: bay (like the Exmoor), bay dun (f.e. Przewalski), black (some single Koniks but also other “celtic ponies”), black dun (Konik). Dun is a dilution gene that makes the leg stripes and eel stripe more prominent and creates somatolysis in the open field. And indeed Koniks (and other dun horses) are perfectly camouflaged in such habitats. The lack of dun produces darker colours which are suited to more closed habitats, so it happens that Exmoors are wonderfully camouflaged in forested habitats. That is not to say that the Exmoor is a “forest type” pony and the Konik an “open field type” pony, because some Koniks also show darker expressions of their black dun colour which suit a forested habitat. Historic evidence suggests that the majority of Europe’s wild horses was dun coloured, but this gene has yet to be tested for the bone remains of the Holocene remains to be sure. Nevertheless, both the Exmoor and the Konik display one of five possible colour morphs within a wild population, respectively.
Because of their mixed origin, some Koniks still carry genes for a sorrel colour or white spots. White spots are also present in some Exmoor ponies, but rarer than in the Konik and breeders select against it.
Both the Exmoor and the Konik have a small, sturdy body with a robust head and a short mane, but there are also many Konik lineages with a more gracile built and long manes, resembling usual riding horses. The “beard” which is present in the Przewalski’s horse and also described for the European wild horses is prominent in the Exmoor, not so much in the Konik.

Which one has the more natural behaviour?

Because the domestication of the horse strongly focused on behavioural traits, no domestic horse has a truly “wild” behaviour; this is even evident under natural conditions. Wild horse behaviour, based on that of the Przewalski and what is described for the historic wild horses, includes shyness in the open field but aggressive behaviour against domestic horses and man in captivity, and defending themselves harshly against predators.
Koniks remain relatively tame under natural conditions, while Exmoors tend to be shyer because of their feral history. Koniks are reported to behave dominant over other horse breeds even if those are larger [1]. I don’t know about the dominance of Exmoors over other horse breeds.

Which one knows how to deal with predators?

We don’t know how much the rural ponies ancestral to the Konik had to deal with predators, but since they were husbanded, it is likely that they were largely protected. When Koniks were released in the Spanish Atapuerca mountains last year, five of them were killed from wolves.
Exmoors have been living feral in southern England for at least one millennium, and wolves did not disappear from the island before the 16th century, what suggests that they know how to deal with predators. They are also known to form a defensive circle around their foals, a common behaviour among ungulates. It was even reported that an Exmoor defended itself successfully in a puma attack in the moor [2].

How about the resistance against diseases?

Both the Exmoor and the Konik have one disease they are prone to, respectively. In the case of the Exmoor, it is a kind of horse mange (“Sommerräude” is the precise German term, I don’t know the English one). Some Koniks are prone to laminitis, especially when raised in a barn [1]. But all in all, both breeds are resistant against most other horse diseases.


The behaviour of the Konik seems to be more domestic than that of the Exmoor and they are less used to predators, but I hope that these traits will redevelop if a large enough population is released in a nature area. When the right Koniks are chosen (with a sturdy body and short mane), both Exmoor and Konik represent one of five phenotypes that likely appeared within the European wild horse, although the Konik is slightly more gracile and long-maned than the Exmoor. Doing tests for the dun gene in Holocene wild horse remains could reveal if there was a regional difference in the occurrence of dun and non-dun wild horses, and if there were non-dun wild horses at all. Genetic testing could also prevent getting animals with genes for white spots or sorrel colours into wilderness areas. Releasing Koniks and Exmoors side by side in one reserve would be no mistake in my opinion, because the breeds compensate each other: Koniks lack the bay gene but have black and dun, Exmoors have the bay gene but lack black and dun. Since the other phenotypic respects are about equally primitive if the right individuals are chosen and their ecologic capacities are about the same, and they would even compensate each other regarding the resistance against diseases, mixing them for rewilding purposes would only have positive effects (but I am suggesting to mix both breeds in general, not at all, both are unique breeds).  The majority of the animals within a Exmoor x Konik population would most likely be coloured bay dun, because bay is dominant over black and dun is dominant over non-dun – and historic and genetic evidence suggests in my opinion that bay dun wild horses were the most common within the populations.

A little game - recognizing Exmoors and Koniks only by drawings of their contours to see how different their phenotype beside the colour really is - will come soon. 


[1] Tadeusz Jezierski, Zbigniew Jaworski: Das Polnische Konik. 2008.
[2] Baker, Sue, 2008: Exmoor Ponies: Survival of the Fittest – A natural history.



  2. What do you think of the Norwegian fjord horse?

    1. The Fjord horse tends to have a taller, larger body than primitive ponies and many of them have domestic colours including cream and sorrel, but some do have an authentic bay dun colouration and a more or less stocky body, so all in all I like that breed and some individuals could be useful for creating a wild horse effigy.

  3. I think most of them are brown dun or bay dun with pangaré and primitive markings. Another interesting breed is the Icelandic horse, which preserves the tölt, a gait that facilitates downhill movement.