I’ve just published a chapter called “Inventing the Wild Horse: the Manmade History of the Takhi and Tarpan from 1828–2018” in Horse Breeds and Human Society: Purity, Identity and the Making of the Modern Horse, edited by Kristen Guest and Monica Mattfeld (Routledge, 2020). I went overboard writing this and outstripped my word count so had to chop off all the pre-1828 information. So here’s the first half of that account, from 3500 BCE to 1828 – excuse the slight overlap in wording!
THE CREATION OF THE WILD HORSE – c.3500 BCE
The domestication of a species creates two new categories: the newly tamed animal and its shadow self, the wild animal. Traditionally, the wild animal has had limited value beyond its meat or skin in the West, as it competes with humans and their domestic animals for resources or damages manmade landscaping efforts or livestock. The story of two proposed subspecies of wild horse, the Tarpan of the western Eurasian steppes and the Takhi of the eastern steppes, is a saga of colonialism, scientific advances and nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of racial purity and “breed”, in which, for western scientists, the wild horse came gradually into focus from fleeting, secondhand sighting to dissected specimen to be defined and redefined both taxonomically and culturally. The question of what exactly a wild horse is was also reformulated and posed repeatedly, and the distinctions between wild and domestic blurred. The last twist played out in February 2018 in the era of rewilding.
The earliest evidence of horse domestication dates from c.3500 BCE in a cluster of settlements named after the nearby Botai village in northeast Kazakhstan, occurring closer to recorded memory than most other major domestications. Archaeologists found a nitrate-rich area that was perhaps a corral and longer lower-leg bones than those of local wild horse skeletons. Equine teeth at the site showed signs of bitwear, although some scholars still dispute that this is comprehensive proof of domestication. The clinching evidence has been the discovery of mare’s milk proteins in Botai pottery; nobody milks a wild animal.
This geographical location corresponds to the reduced territory of wild horses during this period. Abundant evidence from fossils, bones and frozen ancient specimens shows that the early members of the Equidae family evolved in the Americas before crossing the land bridge into Eurasia as Equus and establishing themselves successfully in a wide territory by the early Pleistocene. However, by the beginning of the Holocene (9600 BCE), the population had fallen until it disappeared in parts of Europe. Between 5500 BCE and 3750 BCE it once more expanded into central and western Europe, likely utilising forest clearances initiated by Neolithic hominids, perhaps showing that the fate of the wild horse was already intertwined with human interventions. Most horses, however, seem to have been located in open landscapes on the steppes (where they encountered the Botai) and the Iberian Peninsula: researchers have found that the ancestors of today’s domestic horses originated entirely in these two Holocene refugia and that modern horses draw most of their haplotypes from Eastern Europe and Siberia. Palaeogeneticists believe that humans went on recruiting wild horses into the domestic population, although these results have been complicated by later hyperselective breedings which drastically reduced the variation in patrilines of most modern horses. Domestic horses do show both positive and negative changes from ancient wild horses: humans appear to have selected for genes involved in the development of bone and muscle and the level of fear response while also adding harmful mutations.
THE WILDERNESS YEARS – c.3500 BCE–1719 CE
Tracing the existence of the wild horse in the period following domestication is a frustrating process, partly because the horses themselves largely avoided people, partly because the people most likely to see them in remote areas were usually illiterate, and partly because the horses do not seem to have been considered very important in either Eastern or Western written culture. In the east, they are far more rarely mentioned than the Khulan or wild ass. They appear in scattered reports from across the Eurasian continent and northern Africa but these texts are complicated by the lack of distinction between wild horses and what could be feral domestic horses, or even other species such as zebra or gnu. Distinctly wild horses also seldom feature in art after the Bronze Age, although there are striking early works like the Maikop silver vase found in the Caucasus in 1954 and belonging to a culture dating to 3700–3000 BCE, and an ivory carving found in Iran in 1905 and dating to 2700-3000 BCE.
Classical authors provide the earliest written sources concerning wild horses at the western end of the steppe and in Europe. Herodotus mentions wild horses near the River Bug in Scythia (an area now in Ukraine) who turned white in winter, and Pliny includes “equiferi” in his list of animal species. Wild horses were brought to Rome for beast hunts and also spotted in “Hither Spain” by Varro and the Alps by Strabo. Pope Gregory III forbade the consumption of wild horses in Germany in 732AD, and wild horses are recorded in the testament of the Kievan Rus’ prince Vladimir II Monomakh (1053–1125) near Chernigov in northern Ukraine; in Germany by Albertus von Großen (1193–1280); in Denmark in the twelfth century; in twelfth century Silesia where Duke Sobeslaus used them to improve his own stock; as game in Westphalia (1316); in the Vosges Mountains, where Rösslin described them in 1593 as “much wilder and shyer than the stag … yet when they are tamed, which is accomplished with great toil and trouble, they make the very best horses, that equal those of Spain and Turkey”; in Lithuanian and Prussian woods (1518); in Ukraine (1600-1673) and at multiple “tierparks” in Prussia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries where, in at least one instance, they were hunted by Teutonic knights for their hides. Grand Master Prince Albrecht von Hohenzollern (1490–1568) kept wild horses on his hunting estate. A hunt for wild horses was arranged in the forest of Białowieża in what is now Poland in 1409; poachers were fined 360 grosze for killing wild horses there in 1588.
Imagery is harder to find. A mid-tenth-century fresco in St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev shows a wild-horse hunt. Hans Baldung’s sinister series of three woodcuts of wild horses viciously attacking one another in a forest c. 1534 is a rare later European depiction. Most intriguingly, Pope Calixtus III issued a prohibition on Spanish people taking part in rituals in “the cave with the horse pictures” in 1458, although it is unclear which cave he meant.
By the end of the 1500s, reports of European wild horses coalesced and became more detailed as the horses themselves were increasingly contained in game parks. The wild horse described is usually mouse grey with a dark mane and tail and stripe down its back (“eel stripe”) but considered unfit to ride due to a “soft back” or temperament problems.
At the eastern end of the steppe, wild horses appear in art found at the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 BCE–1046 BCE) burial site at Anyang. The earliest surviving written mentions I could find of a wild horse at this end of the steppe is in a 113 BCE Chinese account of a “heavenly horse” who was found keeping company with wild horses in Dunhuang at the southen end of the Gobi desert. Some horned wild mares were seen near Qinghai lake in northwestern China during the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE). The next source is the Tibetan monk Bodowa c.900 CE, followed by the 1637 presentation of a wild horse from a Mongolian nobleman to the emperor of Manchuria.
Wild horses were also recorded in North Africa by Leo Africanus (c.1494–c.1554) who said they were captured and consumed by locals, and Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) claimed that there were black coated, pale-eyed wild horses in the forests of northern Gaul in the sixteenth century, but also that they gave off sparks when rubbed, which sounds implausible.
TAXONOMY AND COLONIALISM – 1719–1785
The eighteenth-century development of natural history led to a vogue for the classification and cataloguing of species, bringing more definition to the wild horse. The catalyst was a series of Russian expeditions into the Eurasian steppes as part of a longer process of colonisation begun under Ivan the Terrible in 1550. The first, from St Petersburg to Peking in 1719–1722, included a Scottish doctor named John Bell who gave an extremely detailed account of the wild horses he saw near the River Tom in Siberia. He described them as “of a chestnut-colour, which cannot be tamed, though they are catched as foals.” They were hunted by the Kalmucks, he said, for their meat and skins. Just a few decades later in 1750, a grand hunt in a “wilderness” near Lyau-tong was organised for the Emperor of Manchuria, in which 200–300 wild horses were captured or killed. Twenty-one years later, a Manchurian dictionary names the animal as the “Takh”, describing it as the ancestor of the domestic horse. The Ancient Mongolian variation “Takhi” is now used for the eastern steppe horse.
Bell’s sighting and the Manchurian dictionary entry were not enough to qualify wild horses for a spot in Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1735). Other prominent naturalists were also sceptical. Buffon published the fourth volume of his Histoire Naturelle in 1753 and noted that while there were small free-roaming horses in China he did not believe that the “wild” horses in Tartary or Mongolia were any different to the local domestic strain. Despite reports from Scotland, Muscovy, Cyprus and Maio (an island in Cape Verde), he maintained that there were no wild horses left in Europe due to human hunters or settlers.
A further Russian expedition to the area south and southwest of the Urals between 1734 and 1737 included both a sighting and a naming of the western steppe wild horse; the local term “tarpany” was used by expedition member Petr Ivanovich Rychkov, but his findings were not published till 1762 in his Topografia Orensburgskaia. In a 1733–1743 Siberian expedition, the German naturalist Johann Georg Gmelin heard reports of wild horses near Ekaterinburg.
Students of Linnaeus were involved in the next wave of Russian expeditions undertaken between 1768 and 1774. These were organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences and led largely by foreign-born scholars from Germany (Peter Simon Pallas and Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin, nephew of Johann Georg), Sweden (Johann Peter Falck, who had worked as a tutor in Linnaeus’ home and was accompanied by a German student of Linnaeus called Johann Gottlieb Georgi) and Baltic Germany (Johann Anton Güldenstädt). The sole Russian leader was Ivan Lepekhin.
The expeditions had a two-fold purpose: the scientific exploration of landscape, flora and fauna, and the assessment of the newly acquired land for agricultural purposes and colonial exploitation. The Tarpan were of considerable interest, and the Academy’s explorers travelled largely in the western end of the steppes, tracking the expansion of Russia’s territories under Catherine the Great. It seemed that the Tarpans were also on the move, driven away from familiar habitats by locals who were fed up with them stealing mares, killing domestic stallions and raiding fodder supplies.
Samuel Gmelin’s wild horse chase took him to Bobrovsk, near Voronezh, where he saw a small herd of six horses who promptly “galloped away with unimaginable speed.” Locals helped him catch and kill two stallions and two mares. His expedition produced what, despite several increasingly fanciful later depictions, was the only illustration of a Tarpan taken from life. His description of these mouse-coloured, small, short-tailed and “crisp-maned” horses was used by Antonious in 1912 to designate this “subspecies” of wild horse as Equus gmelini.
Pallas was not at first convinced that the free-roaming horses he encountered en route to Samara in 1773 were truly wild, recording, “they are chiefly the produce of some bewildered Kirguese and Kalmuck horses, or of the stallions of the Nomades belonging to this district, with either single mares or whole herds they have carried off.” But in 1780 he included wild horses in the list of “quadrupeds of Russia and Siberia” he sent to the British scientist Thomas Pennant for inclusion in his A History of Quadrupeds, convinced that “some of them seem really to be the original wild races.” He eventually distinguished between chestnut, bay and dun horses in the steppe north of the Black Sea and the brown, silver-grey and dark brown horses with white markings near the Volga at the east end of the sea, which he linked to the Cossack horses who had escaped at the siege of Azov (1641). Güldenstädt also found quantities of wild horses on the Azov steppe; the Nogai people were busy eliminating them.
Meanwhile, the wild horses of Eastern European game parks were also disappearing. The physician Belsazar Hacquet (1739–1815) saw them on a Count Zamoyski’s estate three miles from Zamość in southeastern Poland, describing them as black-brown and untameable. He said they were sometimes taken to Lvov for baiting. The Polish poet Kajetan Koźmian (1771–1856) also remembered small but strong mouse-grey wild horses at Zamość in this era.
In 1785, the Dutch naturalist and physician Pieter Boddaert (1730–1795) created the category of Equus ferus in his Elenchus Animalium, and the wild horse was official. Boddaert names Pallas, Gmelin and Pennant as his sources, describing Equus ferusas having a mouse-grey coat, a short, curly mane, short tail and long ears: “Habitat in Arabia, Tataria in Xensi, Chinae, in Woronesk [Voronezh], Russia.” He did not mention the forest horses of Eastern Europe or the Takhi.
 Kwok, R. “Evidence for ancient horse ranch uncovered” Nature, 5 March 2009. , accessed 6 June 2018.
 MacFadden, B J. Fossil Horses: Systematics, Paleobiology, and Evolution of the Family Equidae. Cambridge University Press. 1992.
Sommer, R. S., Benecke, N. , Lõugas, L. , Nelle, O. and Schmölcke, U. (2011), Holocene survival of the wild horse in Europe: a matter of open landscape?. J. Quaternary Sci., 26: 805-812. doi:10.1002/jqs.1509
 Warmuth V, Eriksson A, Bower MA, Cañon J, Cothran G, Distl O, et al. (2011) European Domestic Horses Originated in Two Holocene Refugia. PLoS ONE 6(3): e18194.
 Cieslak M, Pruvost M, Benecke N, Hofreiter M, Morales A, Reissmann M, et al. (2010) Origin and History of Mitochondrial DNA Lineages in Domestic Horses. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15311.
 Wallner, Barbara et al. “Y Chromosome Uncovers the Recent Oriental Origin of Modern Stallions”. Current Biology, Volume 27 , Issue 13 , 2029 – 2035.e5
 Schubert M, Jónsson H, Chang D, et al. Prehistoric genomes reveal the genetic foundation and cost of horse domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2014;111(52):E5661-E5669. doi:10.1073/pnas.1416991111.
 Bököyni, S. The Przevalsky Horse. Translated by Lili Halápy. Souvenir Press. London. 1974. p. 64.
 Oppian in Cynegetica said there was a “dread overweening tribe” of “hippoagros” or “Wild Horses” in Ethiopia with tusks, split hooves and a mane that ran from head to tail. Loeb Classical Library, 1928.
 Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 7.
 Smith, Charles Hamilton. The Natural History of Horses: the equidae or genus equus of authors. 1841. Edinburgh. W H Lizars.
 Varro. De Re Rustica. Loed Classical Library, 1934, book II.
 Strabo. Geography. Book IV Chapter 6 published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition,1923. p 263.
 Hehn, V. Cultivated Plants and Domesticated Animals in Their Migration from Asia to Europe. Historico-Linguistic Studies. London. 1885. p38.
 Hehn, V. Cultivated Plants and Domesticated Animals in Their Migration from Asia to Europe. Historico-Linguistic Studies. London. 1885. p38
 Hehn, V. Cultivated Plants and Domesticated Animals in Their Migration from Asia to Europe. Historico-Linguistic Studies. London. 1885. p38
 Jezierski T and Jaworski Z, Das Polnische Konik, Westarp Wissenschaften-Verlagsgesellschaft, Hohenwarsleben, 2008. pp. 9-10.
 Clutton-Brock, J. Horse Power. Natural History Museum Publications, London, 1992. p28.
 Samojlik T and Jedrzejewska B. “The Bison: Rich Treasure of the Forests” in Conservation and Hunting: Białowieża forest in the time of kings. ed. by T. Samojlik. 2005.
 Bököyni, S. The Przevalsky Horse. Translated by Lili Halápy. Souvenir Press. London. 1974. Picture section.
 Bahn, P and Vertut, J. Journey Through the Ice Age. University of California Press. 1997. p. 16.
 Linduff, K M. “A Walk on the Wild Side: Late Shang Appropriation of Horses in China” in Prehistoric Steppe Adaptation and the Horse, edited by Levine M, Renfrew C and Boyle K. McDonald Institute Monographs, Oxbow Books (distributors), 2003.
 Waley, A. “The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana” in History Today.
 Hendricks, B L. International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
 Bouman I and Bouman J, “The History of Przewalski’s Horse” in Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 7.
 Ibid. p 8. There may always be more texts that haven’t reached Western wild horse scholarship yet.
 Africanus, L. The History and Description of Africa. Translated by John Pory. London. vol III, Hakluyt Society. translation 1600, this edition MDCCCXCVI.
 There are also mentions of wild horses in Arabia, although Arabia sometimes seems confused with “Tartary” even at quite a late date, for example, by Thomas Bewick in his History of Quadrupeds, where a description of the behaviour of wild horses “in Arabia” closely echoes that of John Bell. “Desert” is often used for “steppe” during this period.
 Moon, D. “The Russian Academy of Sciences Expeditions to the Steppes in the Late Eighteenth Century.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 88, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 204–236. JSTOR, JSTOR, . p.205
 Bell, J. Travels from St Petersburgh in Russia to Various Parts of Asia. 1719-22 originally published 1763. Edinburgh. William Creech, sold by John Murray, London 1806.
 Mohr, E. The Asiatic Wild Horse. Translated by Daphne Machin Goodall. J A Allen & Co., London. 1971. p. 27.
 Bouman I and Bouman J. “The history of Przewalski’s horse” in Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 8.
 Boyd L and Houpt K A, Przewalski’s Horse: the history and biology of an endangered species. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994. p. 87.
 He writes at length about the feral American mustang though, believing that they were stronger, lighter, and more nervous than most domestic horses, but also more beautiful because they were not subjugated by man.
 Vermeulen, H F. Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska. 2015. p196.
 Gmelin, J G. Voyage en Siberie. Translated by M. de Keralio. Desaint, Paris. MDCCLXVII. vol 1 p.47.
 Moon, D. “The Russian Academy of Sciences Expeditions to the Steppes in the Late Eighteenth Century.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 88, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 204–236. . pp204-212
 Clutton-Brock, J. Horse Power. Natural History Museum Publications, London, 1992. p 28.
 Smith, Charles Hamilton. The Natural History of Horses: the equidae or genus equus of authors. 1841. Edinburgh. W H Lizars. p146.
 Jezierski T and Jaworski Z, Das Polnische Konik, Westarp Wissenschaften-Verlagsgesellschaft, Hohenwarsleben, 2008. p 12.