F: They’re seen as willing and eager. As intelligent and docile. They’re energetic, yet even-tempered. Temperamental, but not nasty.
M: Any idea what breed of horse we might be describing?
F: We are talking about the Dülmen wild horses. Until the 19th century, there were large, free-roaming herds of feral horses in Westphalia. Nobody knows where the animals originated.
M: But one thing is certain: one of those herds has survived to this day – and they’re known as the wild horses of Dülmen. The written record first mentions them in 1316, and they’re regarded as Germany’s oldest breed of horse.
F: Although the name may suggest it, the Dülmener aren’t wild in the strict sense. Wild horses have been extinct in Europe for centuries. Instead, the Dülmener is a mix of wild and domestic horse. Over time, domestic horses have repeatedly crossed into the feral herd – runaway army horses, for example.
M: Although the Dülmener aren’t true wild horses, recent genetic studies have shown that they have a relatively high proportion of wild horse genes. One sign of this is their appearance. The dorsal stripe along the spine, for example, is a trait inherited from wild horses.
F: Their original habitat was in the fens and flood plains of Westphalia. But as many of the moors were drained, more and more of their habitat was lost. The herd was at risk of extinction. In 1847, Duke Alfred von Croÿ had the last twenty or so remaining horses captured and taken to a sanctuary covering 81 acres. It’s called the Wildpferdebahn in the Merfelder Bruch, near the town of Dülmen.
M: In the past, original breeds were crossed into the herd to maintain genetic diversity, especially Mongolian or Exmoor ponies. Since the 1950s, only Konik stallions from Poland have been used. Today, the herd consists of some 300 animals, and the sanctuary stud farm has been expanded to 990 acres over the years.
F: At the sanctuary, the animals are largely left to their own devices. But once a year, on the last Saturday in May, a major event takes place. That's when horse wranglers capture the herd’s one-year-old stallions. Up to fifteen thousand people turn up to witness the spectacle – and the auction that follows!
M: Since about 1850, the stallions have been marked with the Croÿ brand after being captured. The branding iron is on display in this showcase. Today, gentler methods are used. Since 2011, the animals are no longer branded, but microchipped. Dülmen stallions are especially popular as riding ponies and carriage horses.
© Gitta Gesing
© Jürgen Peperhowe
© Gitta Gesing
© Westfälisches Pferdemuseum