Our Tarpan Horses ~ A Rescue Herd
Bred to resemble their prehistoric ancestors, the Stroebel tarpans have a distinct tannish-gray color, thick hides and a dark dorsal stripe that runs along their backs. They stand about 4.5 feet tall and can carry about 200 pounds. Livingood Ranch is host to this rescue herd.
This herd, which has been a little known part of Central Oregon's equestrian landscape for the past 50 years, almost disappeared last spring when its previous owner dropped the horses off at Equine Outreach's ranch in Bend and the rescue group's owners struggled to find them a new home.
But Ramsay's mother, Helen Aldrich, learned of the tarpans' plight and convinced her daughter to give them a permanent home on her Princeton ranch. Working with the herd's previous owner, Ramsay said she plans to continue breeding the horses so their story can continue for generations to come.
“It's been an incredible opportunity," Aldrich said when she came by to pick up some of the tarpans from a foster home just south of Bend. “Otherwise these horses would have been lost and (that's unfortunate because) we lose so many things."
According to the American Museum of Natural History, only three types of prehistoric wild horses — the forest horse of central and northern Europe; the takhi or Przewalski's horse of Mongolia and northern China; and the tarpan of the area surrounding the Black and Caspian seas — survived a series of extinctions that followed the last Ice Age and overhunting by prehistoric humans, who painted the horses on cave walls.
The last wild forest horses lived in Poland until they went extinct in 1800. The last tarpans living in the wild died off in the latter part of that century while the last tarpan held in captivity died at a Russian zoo in 1909. Takhis are officially listed as being endangered because only a few thousand of them survive in captivity.
But more than 30 years after the last tarpan died off, the breed got a second chance on life when German zoologists Lutz and Herman Heck put forth a theory that they could bring back extinct animals by selectively breeding their descendants for characteristics the earlier generations possessed. They tested this theory in the late 1930s when they mated a few types of domesticated horses with wild takhis to create the Heck horse.
While their theory was never proven - Heck horses are merely domestic horses that look like tarpans but do not have any of their genetic qualities - the Heck brothers' experiments were copied twice: once by Polish professor Tadeusz Vetulani who in 1936 cross-bred domestic horses that traced their lineage back to the final wild tarpans kept in captivity, and a second time by American Harry Hegardt in the 1960s.
Hegardt tried to re-create the tarpans by breeding wild mustangs and farm horses at his Central Oregon ranch, according to an article from the Associated Press. They stayed on Hegardt's property for almost 30 years until it was time for them to find the first of their two most recent homes.
Relocating the herd
During the 1980s, Gordon and Lenette Stroebel often drove past Hegardt's property on the way to their ranch in Prineville. They developed an instant fascination with these horses and adopted the herd when Hegardt died in 1990.
The Stroebels cared for the herd and often put the horses on public display. They continued the breeding program Hegardt put in effect and sold some of their horses to private individuals and hobby farmers for a few hundred dollars apiece.
But after experiencing some health problems in early 2012, Stroebel, 72, decided he had to find a new home for his tarpans so he could preserve their legacy and continue the work he and Hegardt had done for the past five decades.
“If I went to the other side of the grass," he said, pondering his mortality in an earlier interview, “that would have been the end of the tarpans."
Unable to find this home on his own, he dropped the horses off with Equine Outreach that May.
Joan Steelhammer, founder of Equine Outreach, said she took in a total of 28 horses — a group that consisted of five studs, one of which had to be put down after it injured itself, and 24 mares — and found temporary homes for them on her main ranch in Bend and at other farms across the region.
“Taking on that many mouths to feed was a daunting task," Steelhammer said.
Though an even more daunting task was the challenge Steelhammer faced when it came to preserving the herd's legacy.
“We can't breed because we are a rescue group," she said, explaining animal rescue groups have a fundamental duty to reduce the population of animals that need homes - most often by sterilizing them or encouraging their sterilization - and running a breeding program contradicts this duty.
Steelhammer's predicament, as reported in The Bulletin in February, caught Aldrich's attention.
“She just happened to come across the article one day, called us and said do you still have the tarpans?" Steelhammer said, recalling her first interactions with Aldrich and Ramsay.
“It was kind of like a miracle when I got that phone call," she said — finding a new home for the tarpans means their story can continue a few more generations.