What is a Tarpan Horse?

Tarpans are a small horse originally bred to try to recreate the ancient woodlands wild horses of Eastern Europe. These modern Tarpan  horses are generally mouse dun or grulla in color. They have blonde manes and tails that contain a black dorsal stripe that continues from the forelock along the back through the tail. In addition, They have zebra like stripes  usually found on the upper legs. The very best of the Tarpans have no white markings and strong black hooves that rarely need trimming. Tarpan manes are very thick and when trimmed will be two toned and stand up.

Catskill  Gisela and 2014 foal

In the summer Tarpan colors range from a light silver gray to darker gray with black points.  In the winter their coats turn the color of straw.

Foals are born a light almost white color and change several times until they reach their true color by about three months.

The average height of Tarpan horses, at the withers, is between 12 and 13 hands. However, some Tarpans stand as tall a 13.3 hands in height. In general Tarpans are not prone to colic or founder when kept on free range grass with plenty of natural fresh running water. They are considered easy keepers.

Modern Tarpan Horses, also called Heck Horses or Heck Tarpan in Europe, are used in all disciplines of horsemanship . “You can train them for anything you want”, Helen Dixon of Dixie Meadows Farm would say when asked. They are in fact very versatile. Owners of  Tarpans  in North America have used them for pleasure riding, showing, driving, light farm work, jumping, endurance, school or camp horses, trail riding,  gymkhana, pony rides and  in petting zoos.

Origins of the breed:

Ancient Wild Tarpan originally ranged from from Eastern portions of Poland, Germany, Austria in Europe to Turkey and north into the Steppes of Russia. They were often called the peasant horse and ran wild on Medieval estates. When the estate workers needed a beast of burden to take wares to market or gather fire wood, one account said, the horses were often caught as foals and tamed for use then returned in the winter to run with the estate herds.

Because at one point it was against the law in Medieval Europe for peasants to ride horses, the small horses were perfect when trained to pack or pull carts. One theory is that because the horses were often hunted for meat along with other game, the feistiest and least tamable provided the most challenge to hunt. That left the more easily trained to be tamed for use by the peasants.

Pleasant Hill Solstice and His Mares

Indeed the Tarpan horses that were not running wild and wreaking havoc to farmer’s crops in the 1800’s were used for light harness farm work, driving, and on occasion riding. Sometimes these farmer peasant would breed domestic horses to Tarpan to have more economical small beasts of burden.   The result was that by the time scientist knew what they had was actually an ancient horse that had survived for centuries, many had been killed as nuisances or mixed with domestic horses.

The efforts of the scientists, especially Germans Heinz and Lutz Heck, was to try to save and restore the ancient  horses before they became extinct. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of DNA testing for the horses prior to 1970. Thus, there were no DNA samples of actual ancient Tarpan found to compare with the modern recreated Tarpan. So the scientist of the time bred for specific traits of the wild ancient Tarpans.

The resulting breed, called Heck Tarpan in Europe, turned out to be a small intelligent curious horse with  a great gentle sense of humor and all the vigor of its ancient wild counterparts. Including the ability to  forage in woodlands and swampy areas and being easy keepers on a steady diet of green grass. These modern Tarpans were the result of  breeding Gotland, Icelandic Horses and Polish Wild Horses, then mixing them with horses of Tarpan descent in private hands. This work began in Poland and Germany about 1920.

The first Heck Tarpan Horses were imported into the United States in 1956 from The Munich Zoo.  The First Breeders of Heck Tarpan horses in the North America were the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, The Houston Zoo in Texas, and Catskill Game Farm in New York. Later zoos such as San Diego, Baltimore and the Atlanta Zoo all had Tarpan  breeding programs. It wasn’t long before zoo keepers and patrons alike saw the unique temperament of the Tarpans. Then private breeders bought horses from the zoos.

By 1972 there were  enough Tarpan mares and stallions  of breeding age in the United States to form the North American Tarpan Association. This organization was headed by Ellen Thrall who worked as the Equine director of the Atlanta Zoo. The organization grew in the  first 30 years.  Then in 2003 a large number of  Tarpan horses were purchased by breeders in Canada and exported from the USA. As the ages of US owners increased numbers of owners declined.  That dramatically affected the Tarpan populations.

Helen  Dixon of Dixie Meadows Farm bought her first Tarpans from the Catskill game farm in 2005. By 2006 breeding stock of Tarpan Horses in the USA had dwindled to less than 20 most of whom were now in the possession of Helen Dixon. When Ellen Thrall died most of the the breed organization dwindled. Except for a few breeders in Canada and Mrs Dixon in the USA.

Recent Tarpan Conservation Efforts in North America

Today the Modern North American Tarpan or Heck Horses have no specific DNA test for the breed because there are so few of them. As of 2019 there are still less than 100 Tarpan in the United States.. The majority of them have been the result of the Dixie Meadows Tarpan Breeding program.  Tarpan Horses are tested for parentage and color and can be compared with other confirmed registered ancestors.  On the odd chance that a breed test is done, breed markers often show for Icelandic horses and occasionally other known breeds from Eastern Europe.  Recently, it has also been noted that as early as 1961 the introduction of the Prezwalski’s horse into the breed also introduced a double recessive cream color.

Helen Dixon with Foundation Stallion Catskill Lutz

Dixie Meadows Farm founder, Helen Dixon, bought her first Tarpans and began breeding these amazing horses in 2005. She searched the East Coast of the USA from Georgia to New York to find as many of these special horses as she  was able. She started and managed a responsible preservation breeding program for the horses until her death in February 2019.

Through  Mrs. Dixon’s conservation efforts at her Viewtown, Virginia Farm,  she had plans to offer, to select breeders, stallion & mare bands for the first time in 2019.

There are two main lines of  Tarpan Horses on Dixie Meadows Farm. The Antiquities Line from Georgia and Alabama  and  The Catskill Line from the original importers  of the Tarpan Horses, The Catskill Game Farm.

Dixie Meadows Mares

There were several requirements Mrs. Dixon had before releasing a band that included these rare mares and stallions.  This included that potential new breeders could prove that they had ample sustainable land and a reasonable investment in the horses that included a purchase price  that would prevent  the horses from being flipped at auction. In addition  all of the horses and proven offspring would be eligible and expected to be dna verified  registered.  That potential breeders would agree not to cross the horses with other breeds or tarpan types that were not from the Heck Bloodlines.

Becoming a breeder of Tarpan horses in North America  presents a unique opportunity for those wishing to be involved in preservation breeding  and helping to ensure the Tarpan Horse for future generations.

Breeding groups and young Tarpan horses are available now. Serious inquiries may see the available horses by appointment.

Linda Martin
Herd Historian, Dixie Meadows Tarpan Horses
Linda L.Martin copyright©2019 All rights reserved.

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