Charles Hamilton Smith (1776-1859), an English artist and naturalist, delivered one of the most important and extensive descriptions of the wild horses inhabiting the Russian steppe during the 19th century. He also is the artist of the famous “Augsburg Aurochs”.
In The Natural History of horses, with Memoir of Gesner, published in 1841, Smith describes not only the appearance, but also social behaviour and seasonal migrations of the animals considered to be Tarpans. He also distinguishes between pure Tarpans and mixed feral domestic herds. He apparently obtained his information from local people and soldiers, and also argues against other naturalists saying that all free-roaming horses of western Eurasia are feral and not wild. Moreover, Smith also mentions wild or feral horses in western Europe that seem to be largely similar to those of the steppes. Down below you find the most interesting passages on the Tarpan which I typed from the digitalized version of his work on google, from page 148 to 166:
“But doubts may be entertained respecting the real source of the wild horses roaming of the Ukraine, in Europe, eastwards to the northern extremity of Chinese Tahtary: those about the Don, it is asserted, are sprung from domesticated animals sent to grass during the siege of Azof in 1696 (or, as in other authorities, 1657), which could not again be entirely recaptured. Forster was disposed to consider all the wild horses in Asia descendants from strayed animals belonging to the inhabitants; and Pallas, who had likewise travelled in Asiatic Russia, inclined to the same conclusions. He thought the horses from the Volga to the Oural the progeny of domestic animals; and again, that all from the Jaik and Don, and in Bokhara, where of the Kalmuck and Kurguise breed, remarking, that they are mostly fulvous, rufous and Isabella; while, on the Volga, he noticed them as usually brown, dark brown, silver-gray, some having white legs and other signs of intermixture. […] Now, if we examine the extent of the travellers’ own immediate means of judgment, we find that they have occasionally seen troops of wild Equidae at a distance, and been enabled to give one drawing of a living colt recently captured, besides two or three more species from living specimens or stuffed skins: surely a sweeping conclusion upon such scanty data may be convenient, but is scarcely deserving of acquiescence; particularly when we take into account, that, including the collected opinions of those upon the spot, in themselves only of conditional value, the field of obervation explored is scarcely a hundredth part of the surface whereon this zoological problem must be decided. The Russian dominions extend over most level part only: four chains, at least, of enormous mountains, whose direction is even in a measure unknown occur within the great basin of the Thiachan, the Little Altai, the Himalaya mountains, and Hindukoh; and opon them there are table lands of more than 16,000 feet in elevation, not as yet traversed by a European foot, though known to be stocked with wild horses and other animals. […] Over the whole extent of this almost boundless surface several species of Equidae are noticed, and shall we assume that these also are feral descendants of stray animals at the siege of Azof, though neither Forster nor Pallas advanced such an opinion? Surely no: nor can we deny that in the south-eastern mountain frontier of Russia, upon the inclinded plains restingagainst the chain, the original wild Equus caballus is still found; and that in the other regions of the empire stretching westward, they are likewise of the wild stock, but more and more adulterated with domestic races as they approach towards Europe, or have been long peopled by fixed residents.
Even in the south-western steppes to the Ukraine, there have been wild horses, as is attested by the earliest historians, poets and geographers […] and if the horses on the banks of the Don are of feral or of mixed blood, their origin and contamination is surely much older than the siege of Azof. Even at that period, there were still wild horses kept in the parks of Eastern Europe, like other game, for the service of the tables of the great. To admit, therefore, the conclusion, that all the wild horses of the old continent are descended from animals at some period under the dominion of man, appears a gratuitous assumption resting upon no proof, and in opposition to historical records from the time of Herodotus to our own age: it would imply the absorption into domesticity of the whole species, or of several species, in regions where such abounded wildernesses exist, in several parts still maintaining a parent stock of other domestic animals: or involve the total destruction of the original wild horses upon this immeasurable surface, where man subsequently could not prevent their again multiplying to uncountable numbers; while in Europe, the most peopled part of the old world, there were still in existence wild individuals of a race never reclaimed. […]
Now, with regard to wild horses, in the relations of the ancients and in the travels of modern writers, though we have reason occasionally to suspect they mistake the onager and the hemionus for real horses, their still remains sufficient authority for their presence in a state of nature, under one or other of their primaeval forms, as far as the south and west of Europe and their characteristics assuming the same preference for opposite habitations in plains or in woody mountains which we now perceive to be a leading distinction of the zebra and the Dauw; traits of character the more important, as they indicate a different mode of living a choice of plants, not alike both, - adissimilar temperament; and when coupled with different proportions and position of the ears, an arched or plane forhead, a straight or curved nose, a difference of colour in the eyes, of the skin, of the hoofs, the constancy of their liveries, of their marks, in a streak along the back and bars on the limbs, of dappled croups and shoulders, or of dark uniform colours, dense or thin manes and tails, although traits now mixed, feeble and evanescent, they appear to be indications of original difference of forms sufficient to be distinct though osculating species, or at least of races separated at so remote a period that they may claim to have been divided from the earliest times of our present zoology.
Wild horses, by Oppian denominated hippagri and by Pliny equiferi, are the first mentioned by Herodotus as being of a white colour and inhabiting Scythia, about the river Hypanis or Bog, he notices others in Thrace, beyond the Danube, distinguished by a long fur. Aristotle (de Mirab) indicates them in Syria, but with manners that seem to refer them to hemionus or onager. Oppian places his hippagrus in Ethiopia, and denies the presence of wild horses in Syria; an opinion entitled to credit from his local knowledge and his description of the onager, which shows that he was acquainted with both. […]
In Varro, we find that there were wild horses in Spain; the ancients generally admit their existence in Saridina and Corsica; dapper places others in Cyprus; Strabo, in the Alps; and we know that they existed in the British islands. All seem to refer to a sturdy form of mountain-forest ponies, still found in the province of Cordova, in the Pyrenees, the Vogesian range, the Camargue, the Ardennes, Great Britain, and in the Scandinavian highlands: all remarkable for an intelligent but malicious character, broad forheads, strong lower jaws, heavy manes, great forelocks, long bushy tails, robust bodies, and strong limbs; with a livery in general pale dun, yellowish brown and a streack along the spine and cross bars on the limbs, or the limbs entirely black, as well as all the long hair and mostly havng a tendency to achy and gray, often dappled on the quarter and shoulders. They prefer the cover, delight in rocky situations, are dainty in picking their food, do mischief in plantations and their cunning, artifice, and endurance is far greater of that of large horses. From many circumstances, this form of Equus may be deemed indigenous in North-western Europe, and aborigine distinct from the large black race of Northern Gaul, which once ranged wild in the marshy forests of the Netherlands, and was so fears that it was held to be untameable. It was a gaunt, ugly animal, with a large head and bristly mouth, small, pale, often blue eyes, a haggard and abundand mane and tail, which according to Cardanus, when rubbed in the night, emitted sparks of fire; the hips were high, the legs nodose, and the feet broad, flat and hidden in an immense quantity of long bristly hairs about the fetlocks: this form of horse may have extended northward as far as the Hartz […]. It may, indeed, have been a feral branch, only in part wild, and introduced with the first Gallo-Belgic colony that ascended the Danube, […].
But the ancients all agree in their statements concerning wild horses of the north-east of Europe residing, according to their narratives, from Pontus northward into regions unknown to their geography; some we have seen are described as white, and having the hair five or six inches long, characters we find verified at present in Asiatic Russia and in the wild horses of the Pamere table land. In the woods and plains of Poland and Prussia there were wild horses to a late period. Beauplan asserts their existence in the Ukraine, and Erasmus Stella, in his work “De Origine Borussorum”, speaks of the wild horses of Prussia as unnoticed by Greek and Latin authors. “They are”, he writes, “in form nearly like the domestic species, but with soft backs, unfit to be ridden, shy and difficult to capture, but very good venison.” These horses are evidently again referred to by Andr. Schneebergius, who states, that “there were wild horses in the preserves of the prince of Prussia, resembling the domestic, but mouse-coloured, with a dark streak on the spine, and the mane and tail dark; they were not greatly alarmed at the sight of human beings, but inexpressibly violent if any person attempted to mount them. They were reserved for the table like other game.” It may be that in both the above extracts the hemionus or the onager is presumed to be depicted, but the difference of mane and tail is so obvious, that such an objection cannot be entertained; and should it be said that these were merely feral horses, it might be asked in return, what a true wild species must be like to satisfy the dissentient. In our view, this form of horse is the original eelback dun of the west, and allied to the common Median horse of antiquity; the parent, by gradual subjugation and intermixture, of the mouse-coloured and sorrels still common in Lithuania; and particularly those breeds that, with the black streak along the back, have cross bars on the joints, and a black mane, tail, and fetlocks [Footnote: Rzonozynski compares the Polish wild horses (Kondziki) in size to the Samogitian (Zmudzineks), mostly with tan or mouse-colored liveries; but there being other furs, attests they were mixed in his time. He describes the manners of the stallions, and admits that they can be trained, which, indeed, is equally true of the zebra and quagga. He relates their extension over the Ukraine, and gradual decrease]. These were the wild and feral horses of Europe, as far as Bessarabia, from the earliest era to the close of the seventeenth century; and from the facts recorded, we may with some confidence conclude, that farther east, where Europe displays an Asiatic character, becoming more and more, as we adcance in that direction, wild and uncultivable, that the appearance of the wild animals, particularly the horses, have retained their original nature more and more purely as we reced from the haunts of civilization, showing marks of degeneracy only where the old human migrations have passed, but leaving the typical characters everywhere perceptible. This is the cause of which induced authors to derive all the wild horses of Asia from the stray troop-horses at the siege of Azof, then, be it observed, already geldings, yet made to replenish the steppe with a species constantly noticed before and since as abundant in a wild state in the same regions! Within these few years, Moorcroft and the brothers Gerrard, when they penetrated into Independents Tahtary and within the borders of China, met with numerous herds of wild horses, scouring along the table lands, sixteen thousand feet above the sea, and express not the least in of their having been domesticated at any period.
Whatever may be the lucubrations of naturalists in their cabinets, it does not appear that the Tahtar or even the Cossack nations have any doubt upon the subject, for they assert that they can distinguish a feral breed from the wild by many tokens; and naming the former Takja and Muzin, denominate the real wild horse Tarpan and Tarpani. We have had some opportunity of making personal inquiries on wild horses among a considerable number of Cossacks of different parts of Russia, and among Bashkirs, Kirguise, and Kalmucks, and with a sufficient recollection of the statements of Pallas, and Buffon’s information obtained from M. Sanchez, to direct the questions to most of the points at issue. From the answers of Russian officers of this irregular cavalry, who spoke French or German, we drew the general conclusion of their decided belief in a true wild and untamable species of horse, and in herds that were of mixed origin. Those most aquainted with a nomad life, and in particular and orderly Cossacck attached to a Tahtar chief as Russian interpreter, furnished us with the substance of the following notice.
“The Tarpany form herds of several hundreds, subdivided into smaller troops, each headed by a stallion; they are not found unmixed, excepting towards the borders of China; they prefer wide, open, elevated steppes, and always proceed in lines or files, usually with the head to windward, moving slowly forward while grazing, the stallions leading and occasionally going round their own troop; young stallions are often at some distance, and single, because they are expelled by the older until they can form a troop of young mares of their own; their heads are seldom observed to be down for any length of time; they utter now and then a kind of snort, with a long neigh, somewhat like a horse expecting its oats, but yet distinguishable by the voice from any domestic species, excepting the woolly Kalmuck breed: they have a remarkable piercing sight; the point of a Cossack spear, at a great distance on the horizon, seen behind a bush, being sufficient to make a whole troop halt: but this is not a token of alarm, it soon resumes its march, till some young stallion on the skirts begins to blow with his nostrils, moves his ears in all directions with rapidity, and trots or scampers forward to reconnoitre, bearing the head very high and the tail out: if his curiosity is satisfied, he stops and begins to graze; but if he takes alarm, he flings up his croup, turns around, and with a peculiarly shrill neighing, warns the herd, which immediately turns round and gallops off at an amazing rate, with the stallions in the rear, stopping and locking back repeatedly, while the mares and foals disappear as if by enchantment, because with unerring tact they select the first swell of ground or ravine to conceal them until they reappear at a great distance, generally in a direction to preserve the lee side of the apprehended danger. Although bears and wolves occasionally prowl after a herd, they will not venture to attack it, for the sultan-stallion will instantly meet the enemy, and, rising on his haunches, strike him down with the fore feet; and should he be worsted, which is seldom the case, another stallion becomes the champion: and in the case of a troop of wolves, the herd forms a close mass, with the foals within, and the stallions charge in a body, which no troop of wolves will venture to encounter. Carnivora, therefore, must be contended with aged or injured stragglers.
“The sultan-stallion” is not, however, suffered to retain the chief authority for more than one season, without opposition from others, rising in the confidence of youthful strength, to try by battle whether the leadership not be confided to them, and the defeated party is driven from the herd in exile.
“These animals are found in the greatest purity on the Karakoum, south of the lake of Aral, and the Syrdaria, near Kusneh, and on the banks of the river Tom, in the territory of the Kalkas, the Mongolian deserts, and the solitudes of the Gobi: within the Russian frontier, there are, however, some adultered herds in the vicinity of the fixed settlements, distinguishable by the variety of their colours and a selection of residence less remote from their human habitations.
Real Tarpans are not larger than ordinary mules, their colour variably tan, Isabella or mouse, being all shades of the same livery, and only varying in depth by the growth or decrease of a whitish surcoath, longer than the hair, increasing from midsummer and shedding in May: during the cold season it is long, heavy, and soft, lying so close as to feel like a bear’s fur, and then is entirely grizzled; in a summer much falls away, leaving only a certain quantity on the back and loins: the head is small, the forehead greatly arched, the ears far back, either long or short, the eyes small and malignant, the chin and muzzle beset with bristles, the neck rather thin, crested with a thick rugged mane, which, like the tail, is black, also the pasterns, which are long: the hoofs are narrow, high and rather pointed; the tail, descending only to the hocks, is furnished with coarse and rather curly or wavy hairs close up to the crupper; the croup as high as the withers: the voice of the Tarpan is loud, and shriller than that of a domestic horse; and their action, standing, and general appearance, resembles somewhat that of vicious mules.”
The feral horses, we were told, form likewise in herds, but have no regular order of proceeding: they take to flight more indiscriminately, and were simply called Muzin. They may be known by their disorderly mode of feeding, their desire to entice domestic horses to join them, by their colours being browner, sometimes having white legs, and being often silvery gray: their heads are larger and the neck shorter; but their winter coat is nearly as heavy as that of the wild, and there is always a number of certain expelled Tarpan stallions among them, but they are more in search of cover and of watery places, and the wild herds being less in want of drink and more unwilling to encounter water, being even said not to be able to swim; while the Muzin will cross considerable rivers. During winter, both resort to elevated ground were the winds have swept away the snow, or dig with their fore feet and break the ice to get at their food.
Their olfactory sense, though not delicate in distinguishing enemies at great distances, is remarkable for judging the nature of swamps, which they often traverse, particularly the south of the Lake Aral: when thus entangled at fault, their scent indicates the passable places, and the snorting of the first that finds one is immediately observed and followed by the others.
The genuine wild species is migratory, proceeding northward in summer to a considerable distance, and returning early in autumn. The mixed races wander rather in the direction of the pastures than to a point of the compass; nearer Europe, they haunt the vicinity of cultivation, and attack the hay-stacks which the farmers make at a distance in the open country. Though in many respects they have similar manners, they want the instinct of the wild: upon being taken young, after severe resistance, they submit to slavery. The Tarpans always die of ennui in a short time, if they do not break their own necks in resisting the will of man: they are moreover, said to attack and destroy domestic horses: they rise on their haunches in fighting, and bite furiously; while the mixed races, though ready to bite, are more willing to strike out with their hind feed, and neither have ever been remarked lying down. In these particulars, the younger Gmelin, who likewise travelled in Eastern Russia, corroborates our account, and he does not appear to have come to the same conclsions as Forster or Pallas; we may therefore infer, from what is here stated, that the foal observed by the last mentioned outhor, when he was on the Samara, opposite Sorothinska, caught at Toskair Krepost, was of the mixed race, or not sufficiently grown to furnish a satisfactory representation.”
Everyone is free to interpret it himself, but to me it clearly shows that the Tarpan, also in the steppes, was not a mere Konik-counterpart. His description suggests that the colour was predominantly some kind of bay dun, with some individuals perhaps being black dun, which is accordant to the genetic evidence. The attribute of being mule-like overall seems to confirm that the Tarpan was much like the Przewalski’s horse in appearance (except the apparently falling mane), and thus also resembling certain primitive horse breeds. Here you have Smith’s artistic interpretation of the Tarpans of the steppe:
|C. H. Smith's artistic interpretation of the Tarpan (public domain)|