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Polish konik is sometimes also called the tarpan, since
among all contemporary breeds of horses this one is the
most closely related to wild tarpans, which were quite
frequent in Polish forests in the Middle Ages. The latter
species became gradually extirpated, some horses were
captured and cross-bred with other breeds. In the late 18th
century, last tarpans were placed in the menagerie at the
estate of Zamojski family. The success of the breeding
of Polish konik is largely attributed to Professor Tadeusz
Vetulani, who was also the author of the name for the breed.
Following his initiative, “The Reserve of Polish Konik of
the Type of Forest Tarpan” was established at Białowieża
in 1936. The breed was obtained by the regressive breeding
of horses with dominant tarpan traits. Those efforts
were almost destroyed during World War II due to the
requisition by the Germans of the whole breeding herd, at
that time counting about 40 individuals. Fortunately, after
the war some horses were regained and the breeding stud
was restored at Popielno.
Polish koniks have a number of traits typical of their wild ancestors, like dark grey coat with a black stripe down their backs, often stripes on their limbs, dense hair (especially in winter), long mane and tail, small and densely haired ears, short and thick neck, large and relatively wide head, strong hoofs that do not require horseshoes, small body size (up to 140 cm) and weight up to 400 kg. They are a long living breed, highly resistant to diseases and weather conditions, and not particular about the food. Polish koniks may live outside stables, in the open, all year long. This breed is docile, easy to train, widely used for riding lessons for kids and in hippotherapy.
At present, in Poland there are as many as several hundred of koniks in various studs, reserves and national parks. Some are used in programs on prevention of succession in grassland habitats (i.e. programs of conservation grazing to prevent tree and shrub invasion in meadows and glades), for instance in Biebrzański and Ujście Warty national parks. Outside Poland this breed is very popular in Germany and the Netherlands.
Kajetan Perzanowski, D.Sc.
Carpathian Wildlife Research Station
Museum and Institute of Zoology PAS