Konik is Polish for “little horse”, which is a pretty apt name for this endangered and ancient breed. Koniks (sometimes spelled Konigs) are considered the breed closest in genetic makeup to the extinct Tarpan – so much so that Koniks were used in the recreation of the Tarpans. Unfortunately, no DNA exists of an original Tarpan, so it can’t be compared to recreated Tarpans, Koniks or the Sorraia of Portugal, which is nearly identical to the Konik.
Koniks are a good “missing link” breed between the notoriously untamable Tarpans, Equus ferus ferus, and Equus ferus caballus, the relatively docile domestic horses and ponies of today. Koniks have been renounced for thousands of years for their incredibly good temper. Natives reportedly would walk out into the fields in the spring, capture a Konik for agricultural work and then release them when work was done at the end of harvest time.
Koniks are easily recognizable from their coloration and chunky build. They average 12.3 – 13.3 hands in height, have level backs, a straight profile of the head and a sturdy frame. They have thick manes and tails, which are relatively low-set. They have remarkably healthy legs for a rare breed and usually very tough hooves. “International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995) notes that Koniks were able to keep their weight even when they had to work and could only eat native plants.
Some people think Koniks are quite plain, but others think they have a unique charm. They usually are a mouse-grey dun known as grullo, but can change to a silvery grey in winter. Some Koniks appear to be brown dun than grey dun. Others can have various colors all throughout their manes and tails, such as having white at the base and grey, black and brown hairs intermingled. They do have the Tarpan characteristics of a dorsal stripe and stripes on the legs. However, Koniks lacks the Tarpan’s upright mane — although there is some controversy over how upright a Tarpan’s mane was and if it fell over after sticking up for a couple of inches.
It is thought that Koniks lived in what is now Poland for over 5,000 years. Since they were small and “common”, they were often passed over when much larger horse breeds were introduced to the area. It is thought that most were wiped out for meat and to make room for larger, flashier horses. Wars also took their toll. The Nazis took most of the remaining herds to Germany to use for experiments. When Germany fell, the starving human population ate all of the Koniks. By 1945, there were a mere 15 Koniks left, discovered in Poland.
There is an attempt to save the breed in several small reserves throughout Europe, including a wildlife reserve in the Netherlands, the Oostvaardersplasse . This refuge had 778 Koniks in 2007. There are also small herds in Great Britain, most notably in Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire.
“International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds.” Bonnie Hendricks. University of Oklahoma Press; 1995.
Horsetalk.co.nz. “Konik Horses – Rare Breed Proves Crucial to Delicate Ecosystem.” http://www.horsetalk.co.nz/horsesinhistory/konik.shtml
Wicken Fen. “The Konik Ponies of Wicken Fen.” http://www.wicken.org.uk/wickenfen/ponies/index.html