Horses have for centuries held a special place in Polish culture. Here is a tale of three horse breeds with connections to Poland.
Expanding eastward into what is now western Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, it was extremely important for the Kingdom of Poland to acquire and breed top quality horses. The vast expanses of the country and the need to defend it called for the best horses: swift and strong with plenty of stamina.
Known to Poles for centuries due to the trade along the Amber Route from the Baltic Sea to the Middle East were Arabian horses. They were also ridden by their enemies, the Turks, Tartars and Mongols. The Poles captured enemy horses and began breeding them after they recognized their superior traits. By the sixteenth century stud farms were producing large numbers of the Arabians for the military. Polish traders made forays into Turkey and Arabia to buy purebreds to bolster their stock, until Poland became known as the foremost breeder of Arabians outside the Middle East.
Poland's stock of horses was nearly depleted during devastating wars. After the Swedish invasion of the seventeenth century and World Wars I and II, Poles had to replenish their numbers by buying breeding stock from Arabia and re-establishing their programs. Following the second world war, the Soviets took most of the finest remaining specimens. Others were evacuated to the United States. Some were saved by the Poles. Today, Poland is the second largest breeder of Arabian horses next to the U.S. Never a big importer of Polish horses, after World War II Americans began to acquire the breed directly from Poland. Though no longer important for military purposes, the Polish Arabian is prized for its graceful strength and beauty.
Going substantially farther back in time, the tarpan was one of the original Eurasian wild horse species, which existed form the ice ages. At its peak it ranged from Spain all the way to central Russia. It was a very hardy smaller horse with a thick head and neck, mouse or tan colored with a black stripe down the back.
By the eighteenth century only remnant populations of pure tarpans existed and only in Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland's Bialowieza forest. Its decline was due to destruction of its habitat, cross-breeding and overhunting. Its meat was considered a delicacy. The last known wild roaming tarpan died in Ukraine in 1879. A specimen in a Munich zoo lived until 1887.
Using back-breeding techniques, the tarpan was "re-created" in the twentieth century, the result being an animal remarkably similar in appearance and characteristics to a true tarpan. Some of these animals, known as koniks or konik polski (Polish pony) have been released into the wild, in Bialowieza and other areas of eastern Europe.
Many animal breeds are commonly known by place names and Poland is no exception. Among the better-known animals with Polish place names are chickens, hogs, rabbits and horses.
Nikolai Przewalski was a Russian citizen of Polish descent, born in 1839 in Smolensk, now part of Belarus but for centuries part of the Kingdom of Poland. He joined the Russian army, attained the rank of general and specialized in geography. He taught the subject at the military academy in Warsaw. After being assigned to Irkutsk in Siberia, he was sent on expeditions to explore Central Asia by order of the czar. In 1879 he caused a sensation when he announced that he had discovered a species of wild horse still in existence in Mongolia. It was thought that herds of genuine, never domesticated wild horses no longer existed anywhere in the world. But Przewalski had indeed discovered a true link to the prehistoric past. Previously unknown to scientists, the species received the name Equus Caballus Przewalski, commonly called Przewalski's Horse in honor of its discoverer.
In appearance Przewalski's Horse is about four feet tall, about as big as a pony, but stouter with a large head and neck and a compact build. By 1900 the horses were being captured and taken to European and American zoos, often at a high rate of mortality for the animals.
Not great in numbers even at the time of Przewalski's find, the horse began a precipitous decline after World War II. The usual culprits were responsible for this, namely loss of habitat due to human encroachment, hunting, and interbreeding with domesticated horses. The last of the animals in the wild died in 1969, but some 300 survived in captivity around the world. After several years of planning, the horse was reintroduced into the wild in a national park in Mongolia. This park preserves a natural habitat of Asian steppe grassland for the horse and other animals. Currently about 300 of them live there with about 1500 in captivity worldwide. The future looks promising for the survival of the species and the name Przewalski should continue to be identified with a living link to our past for the foreseeable future.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland (Eyewitness Travel Guides) by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers