A management model successfully used for 70 years to maintain populations of semi-feral Konik horses in their natural habitat in Poland has been described in a just-published paper.
For their review, the researchers focused on a modest population of horses who live in a sanctuary on the Popielno Peninsula. They are free to roam across about 1620 hectares, surrounded on three sides by lakes.
Aleksandra Górecka-Bruzda and her colleagues, writing in the journal Animals, said wild forest tarpan horses were last seen in the natural environment in Poland in the 18th century.
From this time, tarpans have technically been extinct, but in reality were crossbred with domestic horses.
The project of recreating tarpan-like horses started in the 1920s in Poland and resulted in the creation of the Konik polski breed.
Tarpan-like horses showing primitive characteristics such as a mouse coat with no white markings, zebra stripes on the legs, and a dorsal stripe — almost certainly crossbreeds — were selected from the population for breeding. These gave rise to the Konik horse we see today.
Since World War 2, Konik horses have been kept in either traditional stabling or in more natural conditions, in semiferal/free-roaming groups. They are sometimes referred to as forest Koniks.
Koniks have been introduced to various environments in Poland to maintain biodiversity and prevent the encroachment of undesired vegetation.
The first four mares and a single stallion were released into the Popielno area in 1955 and, from this time on, the free-roaming population has increased but remains at a stable level of about 20 individuals.
The horses are free to choose social and reproductive partners, food and location within the sanctuary. They follow daily, monthly, and yearly cycles of changing natural conditions.
But, as Górecka-Bruzda and her colleagues point out, free-roaming horses are often exposed to conditions or states that may be regarded as welfare threats or abuse.
Without human protection, the animals may suffer hunger, thirst, health problems such as lameness, and aggression from other horses or predators.
There is the potential for insect harassment, high levels of parasitism, and specific landscape formations that may endanger free-roaming horses.
“It has to be underlined that despite the excellent adaptability of horses to free-roaming conditions, one should be aware that welfare problems are to be expected in any semiferal population,” the review team said.
They outlined the management system that has been applied for 70 years.
The horses in the sanctuary are inspected daily or every other day by the breeding manager. Every individual’s birth and death date, cause of death (if known), noticeable health problems (such as lameness or injuries), and abnormal behavior are recorded.
Human intervention is kept to a minimum. Caretakers intervene only when the lives of horses are endangered and it is necessary to obtain help.
Despite such strict surveillance, various accidents and injuries have occurred that cause health problems or deaths in free-roaming Koniks.
Searching for food and its consumption take 70% of the typical equine time budget and is the main activity of adult horses, the authors note.
“Free-roaming horses enjoy choosing their diet according to individual preferences and food availability.
“Although the horses are preferential grass eaters, in seasons with high food abundance, they choose diverse plants, legumes, green and fallen leaves, tree bark, and even mushrooms.
“It has been confirmed that in semiferal horses, the intestinal microbial biodiversity is high, which is a positive effect resulting from the diversity of plant species in the diet.”
In winter, especially when snow covers the ground, Konik horses search actively for food, digging in the snow.
“Searching for food drives the horses to explore dangerous areas. They enter the marshlands where, especially in spring, the reeds have green shoots.”
Between 1959 and 2020, 17 Koniks drowned in the marshes, lakes, and canals in the sanctuary.
“Although most horses do not enter the marshes, unfortunately, some horses do not learn to avoid them.
“This is exemplified in the case of one mare, who was found in the marsh and rescued, but drowned in the same place two weeks later.”
In winters with heavy snowfall, the Koniks are occasionally provided with hay of medium nutritional value, which they must share with other herbivores in the forest.
“However, as the snow melted, the Koniks chose not to feed on hay, preferring dead plants in the forest and forest meadows.”
Body condition tends to be poorest in early spring.
“Despite the unrestrained access to grazing, which results in quick improvements in body condition in late spring, only two cases of laminitis were observed in the forest Konik horses over the last 30 years.”
They drink from natural sources of water, such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and human-made reservoirs and canals. In winter, Konik horses lick snow or break the ice with their hooves.
It was observed that, in winter, the Koniks were drinking more frequently than in summer, probably resulting from the higher content of dry matter in the forage, but the drinking sessions were shorter.
“It was observed that on very hot days, especially during periods of high insect harassment, the Koniks entered the deep woods and traveled to waterholes only once a day.”
The koniks have a 96.5% foal survival rate up to one year old. “It is important to note that the reproductive history of certain mares in the sanctuary may be very long, with one exceptional mare producing 25 foals for 30 years, with only two barren seasons.”
Most health problems over the years have related to hoof wear and parasite problems. The Koniks in the sanctuary do not get their feet trimmed and are subjected to natural processes, including wear.
Just one death has been linked to parasitism. A mare died one month after foaling and the necropsy revealed perforation of the intestines filled with roundworms and larvae of Hypoderma bovis.
It is supposed that Koniks search for and eat plants with anthelmintic properties, the researchers say.
To keep the population in check, weanlings are removed from the sanctuary, transferred to stables outside the sanctuary and habituated to humans. Then, they are sold as leisure horses or breeding stock.
Perhaps, once or twice in a mare’s life, weanlings are left in the sanctuary to eventually replace their parents.
Horses from other sanctuaries are introduced sporadically to reduce the risk of inbreeding. Only animals born wild can be released there.
The review team says the system for the management of these semi-feral populations in Poland has been applied for seven decades, and is approved at a national level.
It allows for close follow-ups of individual horses, the strict monitoring of health and welfare on a daily basis and, if necessary, an instant reaction from the caretakers in cases of emergency.
“Moreover, it prevents the ethical controversy related to the eradication of surplus animals, which are the source of overgrazing and environmental damage.”
Many individual welfare issues identified resolved themselves naturally; some had fatal consequences.
The system, they concluded, successfully minimizes welfare threats in semi-feral populations.
The full review team comprised Górecka-Bruzda, Joanna Jaworska and Marta Siemieniuch, with the Polish Academy of Sciences; and Zbigniew Jaworski, with the University of Warmia and Mazury.
Górecka-Bruzda, A.; Jaworski, Z.; Jaworska, J.; Siemieniuch, M. Welfare of Free-Roaming Horses: 70 Years of Experience with Konik Polski Breeding in Poland. Animals 2020, 10, 1094.