by Linda L. Martin
Imagine standing on the edge of a great primeval forest. You catch a glimpse of something but you can’t see it in the dense and mossy trees. Suddenly you hear a snort and the vague body of a horse seems to appear. Before you blink it is gone. Then a band of wild ancient horses crashes out of the thick woods into the grassy meadow. You stand there frozen in time, watching as these apparitions crash through the underbrush — their ears are forward; their tails streaming behind them. Their silvery coats glisten in the sunlight.
They see you and do not run away. They run toward you! Suddenly, as a herd they stop. They look at you with gentle spirited eyes and lower their heads hoping for a treat and affection. You didn’t see them at first, because their coat colors are a natural camouflage. You have just met a herd of Tarpan horses.
“Look at these wild horses,” said Mrs. Helen Dixon as she smiles affectionately. She drives her Suburban all over her Viewtown, VA, farm checking the herd every morning. Her Dixie Meadows Farm houses the only herd of Tarpan in the United States. “These are pure,” she states. “I have them DNA tested to make sure.”
When she bought her first Tarpan in 2005 there were fewer than 30 Tarpans left in North America. Most of the breeders had died and their herds were dispersed. Mrs. Dixon found as many breeders as she could and purchased breeding stock to add to her herd. She explained how one breeder, in his 90s, implored her to keep the breed going. “He begged me to keep the breed alive,” she said. That was over 12 years ago. “I finally have enough horses to start selling stallions and a few mares to people who would like to breed.”
Mrs. Dixon started with five horses from the Catskill Game Farm in 2005. She has slowly added to the herd so that there are currently 60 Tarpan horses on her farm. Most of the known Tarpans in the U.S. came from or are related to horses now living on her farm.
According to the Rare Breed Registry in order for the breed to be recognized there needs to be at least 300 horses spread among eight to 10 farms.
“People need to know how wonderful these horses are!” At 84, Mrs. Dixon is ready to pass the legacy on to more people.
Tarpan horses are the original wild woodlands horse of Eastern Europe. Their traditional range ran through Poland and Germany and eastward into Turkey and north into southwestern Russia. The existence of Tarpan horses has been documented not only through oral Germanic, Baltic and Russian tradition but also in pre-historic cave paintings found throughout Europe.
Even though Tarpans managed to survive through wars, pestilence and invasions in the wild, by 1898 expanding civilization had taken its toll on their habitat and range. It was then the eradication in the wild had been completed. Whole herds of Tarpan were either killed as nuisances or removed and given to farmers.
It was about this time that Polish Biologists determined that Tarpan were actually a separate genus from domestic horses. Unfortunately, there were no breeding pairs in zoos. In 1909 the last zoo Tarpan was dead. That left only those that were either cross-bred to domestic horses or any formerly wild horses that could be found owned by farmers in Germany and Poland.
Two German Scientists, Lutz and Heinz Heck, who were brothers, had been very successful at bringing the European bison back from extinction. They wanted to bring back the Tarpan as well. The brothers conceived of the project about 1920. The Polish government was also trying to recover the wild European Woodlands horses.
According to the American Tarpan Studbook, compiled by Ellen Thrall of the Atlanta Zoo, by 1930 the program to breed back to the wild Tarpan was underway. Since there was no way to test for DNA until 50 years later, the brothers scoured the countryside to find horses that fit the Tarpan type. They matched the traits they knew were most likely the descendants of the original Tarpans. This program was housed by Tierpark Hellabrunn also known as the Munich Zoo in Germany.
Their breeding program resulted in a horse that was about 13 to 14 hands in height, hardy, easy keepers, intelligent, gentle with unusually hard hooves that thrived in natural conditions. Tarpans are quick learners and easy to train using natural horsemanship. Before the Second World War the horses were breeding true to type, color and personality. The resulting horses were called Tarpan. Later they were called Heck Horses in Europe, but continued to be called Tarpan or the Restoration Breed of Tarpan horses when they were brought to the U.S.
Tarpan were first imported to the United States in 1952. The American Tarpan studbook and subsequent association of breeders was well underway by 1970. The studbook listed over 250 horses from the five original foundation horses from Germany. Unfortunately the association was disbanded in about 2005. The few breeders left still kept records of the horses. Helen Dixon is preserving the information she can to reinstated the breed organization.
The Dixie Meadows Herd consists of four breeding stallions from the Antiquities and Catskill lines of North American Tarpan Horses. Dixie Meadows Farm has breeding, young stock and ready-to-train geldings available for purchase. Every purchase helps preserve this very special rare breed of horses.
Mrs. Dixon is often asked what the Tarpan can be used for. “You can train them anyway you want.” Tarpan are very versatile. They can be used for light farm work, trail and pleasure, gymkhana, jumping, lesson horses, driving and are adaptable to about anything. “They are the gentlest and smartest horses I have ever known.”