REPORT on the Rescue and Breeding of the Hucul Horse
(TIS - HUCUL CLUB, Prague, 18.4.1999)
The Hucul horse (hucul or sometimes hutzul) is the most direct descendant of the European wild horse, the Tarpan (Equus ferus seu gmelini), which used to be widespread, even in the central and western parts of Europe, as late as the beginning of the Common Era. Gradual environmental changes and constant persecution, especially from the agricultural settlements, first caused the tarpan to retreat to the eastern and northern parts of the continent, and later led to its complete disappearance. The last tarpan mare was hunted down in the steppes of southern Ukraine in 1879. The only remains of tarpan are one full skeleton in the Zoological museum of the Science Academy in Petersburg and onen skull in the Institute of Morphology of the Science Academy in Moscow. What lives on, however, is the direct genetic heritage in the blood of the semi-wild descendants of the tarpan, of which the hucul is one of the purest.
Although the hucul horse derives its name from the Carpathian herdsmen of Rumanian-Rusin extraction, the so-called Huculs (hucul means rebel or outlaw in Rumanian), the breed's origin is far older, as it was already known (practically in its current form) to the mountain tribes of Dhaks several thousand years ago, long before the Slavic settlement of Europe began. The breed occurred in the entire bow of the Carpathian range, i.e., in the west all the way to the Beskydy Mtns. Classical sculptures depicting the battles of Roman emperors Domitianus and Traianus with the mountain Dhaks show on the fringes small, hucul-type horses that were used in the mountains to support the Dhak warfare. While the tribes finally did succumb, in 105 AD, to the onslaught of regular Roman armies, they continued to breed their little horses, quite unchanged.
The oldes literature data concerning hucul distribution are more than 400 years old. Hackl, referring to older literature, mentions it as the mountain tarpan (Bergtarpan). Thanks to the fact the the main area of hucul distribution was distant from the main routes of Asian invaders to Europe, the original blood of huculs (of tarpan origin) remained genetically almost untouched by cross-breeding (as opposed to the Polish Konik, which shares the tarpan origin with the hucul). Since time immemorial the hucul was kept half-wild and very hardy, especially on the Carpathian "poloniny" (high-elevation mountain pastures). Some, rather ill-advised attempts at its "improvement" by crossing with other breeds began only some one hundred years ago. Luckily, the well-established genetic foundation of the hucul thwarted these attempts from the very beginning, so that the only remaining outward signs of them are a fairly common admixture of brown in the coat colour and the rarely occurring white markings on the legs.
It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the Austro-Hungarian army began to take more interest in the hucul. When a special commission of the War Ministry learned about the special qualities of this horse, mainly its hardiness and longevity, the first hucul stud was established in Luczin (today's Rumania), starting with 10 typical hucul mares (of the so-called Bukovina type). Though abolished for a period, in 1876 the stud was re-established and later expanded. The stud kept stallions of several lines (mostly extinguished today) such as Stirbul, Myszka, Czeremosz or Taras. Those were later replaced by more recent, still existing lines, e.g., Pietrosul, Hroby, Ghoral, Gurgul and Oushor. Note: The Prague Hucul Club is most involved with the Gurgul line, which originated in eastern Slovakia and is typical for our country.
After World War 1, as part of the war indemnities, the Luczin breeding herd got divided between the newly established victorious countries (Czechoslovaki, Poland and Rumania). Czechoslovakia received 33 breeding huculs in 1922. Those were later settled in a newly established stud in Turja Remety at Podkarpatska Rus. That stud operated until the beginning of World War 2. As the number of huculs increased, other studs were supplied with them, mainly for military purposes, because at a time when an army's mobility depended primarily on horse power, in difficult terrain the hucul horse was unmatched.
Hucul horses suffered enormous losses during both world wars, losses that could never be recouped, especially once the army (and later forestry as well) began to go motorized. The interest in horse breeding vaned, and not just in Czechoslovakia. From the area of the former Soviet Union, for example, the hucul horse disappeared altogether.
In 1950, the State Forestry Directorate attempted to resurrect the breeding of huculs at the Muran plain, but this attempt failed within 20 years.
Enter TIS - Association for Protection of Nature and Landscape, which founded the Hucul Club in 1972, to save first of all the remains of the Muran hucul herd. In the beginning, four older hucul mares and one stallion of the Gurgul line were acquired and placed in borrowed quarters at Zmrzlik, Prague - Reporyje. The younger members of TIS (which is the oldest ecological organization in the Czech Republic) took the very real danger to the hucul as a personal challenge, and today [written in 1999], after 27 years of unbelievably hard work, we can say that they succeeed in preventing its complete extinction. From the last 300 individuals on the planet some thirty years ago, the number of hucul horses increased by some 1,000 animals, so that at the end of the second millennium there were about as many huculs as there are Przewalski horses (kertags). Hucul Club alone raised more than 200 foals, several of which were sold back to Ukraine. The conservation effort was gradually joined by Poland, Rumania, Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, and after the split of Czechoslovakia, also the Slovak Republic. In 1994, at Balice manor near Krakow in Poland, the Hucul International Federation (HIF) was founded, with Hucul Club a founded member. Thanks to the efforts of Hucul Club, the hucul breed has been declared part of the FAO protected gene pool in 1979 and acknowledged a genetic resource of the Czech Republic in 1993.
Several TV shows and short films (two Japanese and one Polish) about the work of the Hucul Club were made, various radio shows aired and press articles published in many countries. Yet the entire foundation of all this publicity was built up only by ecology specialists, without any kind of economic safety net for the organisation (in stark contrast to all other HIF member countries), because both TIS and, by extension, Hucul Club were much out of favour with the communist regime. (In fact, TIS was forcibly disbanded and Hucul Club was only saved in the guise of horseback tourism, under the auspices of TJ Aster, part of the former CSTV the state-sanctioned Sports Federation. However, the professional world already knew about Hucul Club efforts. Joy Adamson, the famous author, supported them by granting to Hucul Club the royalties from her book "Born free" and later also some of the revenue from a film. Professor Jacques Yves Cousteau when visiting Prague in 1992 saw the sights from a Hucul Club carriage drawn by a hucul stallion, and Norvegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland attended a demonstration of hippotherapy with hucul horses at the Agricultural University in Prague during the World Ecological Congress. Hucul Club also organised two state-wide conferences on the issues of hucul horse conservation (in 1975 and 1982), followed by an international conference in 1997.
Hippotherapy (also know as riding for the disabled) began in Hucul Club in 1976, under the specialist medical supervision of prof. MUDr. K. Lewit. It was a first for central and eastern Europe, and Hucul Club continues to provide (as well as teach) this treatment to this day. The huculs are also utilised in horse trekking, camping, and ecological education. All these activities, to which the purebred hucul horse is particularly well suited owing to its sound disposition, intelligence, hardiness and trusting nature, not only help to keep the breeding herd usefully occupied (becuse the hucul is not suited to be just a part of a zoo exhibit), but also contribute to meeting the upkeep and breeding costs. These expenses, only in the Czech Republic, unfortunately, still rest solely on the shoulders of volunteers.
As of 1999, Hucul Club kept 85 purebred horses at two establishments, one at the Aster farm at Zmrzlik, Prague 5 -Reporyje, and at the Raj-Laka stud located in the Protected Landskape area Kokorinsko. The yearly outlay for the work are a little over CZK 3 million. The further direction of breeding and utilisation of the hucul depend on the circumstances; however, mainly because of differences in opinion among various officials, mainly in the agricultural sector, what is emerging resembles more mere "hobby keeping" than a true breeding program. To rely on individuals who keep only one or two animals, often under unsuitable conditions and without access to open pasture, is not a long-term solution. It would be sad if the rescue operation - of a kind that succeeds perhaps once in a generation - should collapse only for the lack of professional understanding and economic means.
Chairman, Hucul Club, Prague, 1999.