PRINEVILLE, Ore. -- Lenette Stroebel used to drive by horses on a nearby ranch and wonder about the funny-looking animals with stand-up manes, faint zebra markings and stout, rounded bellies.
Stroebel, a horse lover for decades, had never seen anything like them. Her curiosity quickly became an obsession.
"Just being a horse person, I'd say, 'What are those?' I tried to put two and two together," said Stroebel, who first spotted the horses in the mid-1980s. "I knew this was something very different."
It turned out Stroebel had stumbled onto a unique breeding project conceived more than 25 years earlier by Harry Hegardt, another horse lover. Hegardt had dedicated years to recreating an extinct prehistoric horse from diluted genes still found in American wild mustangs.
By the time Stroebel noticed Hegardt's unusual herd, he had succeeded in breeding rare horses--called Tarpans--that looked astonishingly like their ancient ancestors painted on cave walls by early humans.
"He finally hit on the right horses and started getting the right color and the right size, and then he even started getting the stand-up mane," said Stroebel, who bought Hegardt's herd in 1990 and has continued his project.
"He knew he had really hit on something."
Like its wild ancestor, which died out in the late 1800s, the modern Tarpan has a thick mousy-gray coat--called "grulla" --marked by a black stripe that runs from its head to the tip of its tail. Today's Tarpan is slightly bigger than its ancestors--about 52 inches tall--and well proportioned, despite a rotund stomach and thick head.
Tarpan hooves are so hard the horses don't need shoes--a holdover from the days when the little horses roamed Europe and the Middle East in wild herds after the last Ice Age. Early humans noticed the original Tarpans and may have even hunted them. Rock paintings of the Tarpans' distant ancestors, with rounded bellies and spiky manes, decorate the walls of caves occupied by humans 15,000 years ago.
As centuries passed, however, human expansion narrowed the horses' wild range. Farmers viewed them as pests. The last wild Tarpan, a mare, was killed when she was chased off a cliff about 1890, according to the American Tarpan Studbook Assn. in Medford, Wis.
Fascination with the breed, however, did not die out.
German brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck began in the 1920s and '30s to try to "recreate" the lost Tarpan. They hoped to reassemble the breed's genetic jigsaw puzzle as much as possible by mating horses with strong Tarpan blood, creating a look-alike.
The Heck brothers carefully selected horses--Gotlands, Icelandic ponies and Fjords--that showed similar bone structure and unusual markings and bred them together. The first "bred-back" Tarpan colt was born in 1933 at the Munich Zoo.
From there, the newly revived Tarpans spread to the United States in the 1950s. There are fewer than 100 Tarpans in the United States today, and most of them are descended from six original horses brought here from the German project.
The Stroebels, however, are challenging the established breeding traditions.
When Hegardt died in 1990, Stroebel and her husband, Gordon, bought the 20 horses he left behind and continued his unique experiment on their property, nestled in central Oregon scrubland. They eventually named their ranch Genesis Equines.
"When Harry died, we just didn't want to see the whole thing go up in smoke and the horses get sold out as riding ponies," said Stroebel.
"It was a lifetime project."
Like Hegardt, the Stroebels believe that strong Tarpan genes lie hidden in the wild mustang herds of the American West.
That's because those mustangs are descendants of horses that escaped from Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s--horses that had varying amounts of Tarpan blood. The Stroebels have continued Hegardt's quest to capture horses from the wild with a Tarpan look and breed them to draw out the ancient characteristics.
In 1993, for example, the Bureau of Land Management helped the Stroebels sort through thousands of horses to find a wild stallion in Utah that reinvigorated their breeding program.
The American Tarpan Studbook Assn., however, maintains that modern Tarpans cannot be bred from wild American stock because the mustangs are too far removed from their ancestors.
The conquistadors' horses, it says, were already removed from the original Tarpan by "centuries of genetic culling and crossing."
But the Stroebels point out that the Heck brothers, the original "recreators" of the 1930s, were forced to crossbreed their horses with the Przewalski, another ancient breed, because they couldn't get the Tarpan's classic stand-up mane.
Hegardt--and the Stroebels--have produced Tarpans with the elusive pointy manes from American mustang stock without any trouble. They also point out the original Tarpans are extinct, so an exact genetic recreation can never exist.
"We have had numerous discussions about this," said Stroebel. "It all comes down to who can create the best look-alike."
"We consider our herd an excellent phenotype of the original Tarpan, which is all that matters."
For the last 10 years, the Stroebels have struggled to keep Hegardt's dream alive. They now have 35 horses and are ready to sell their Tarpans--starting at $3,500 for a trained gelding.
"We have scraped pennies and eaten soup and cheese sandwiches for the last 10 years to keep this thing going," Stroebel said.
They have already sold about 15 geldings to local rancher Kristy Shockey, who is promoting the plucky little breed as one good for anything--jumping, riding or herding. The Stroebels were thrilled last year when author Jean Auel used their Tarpans as a model for the prehistoric horses in her latest book, "The Shelters of Stone."
A group from Wisconsin recently showed up at the Stroebels' ranch with copies of Auel's book for them to sign.
"The one thing that really impresses me about these Tarpans is they're basically almost wild, but they're not aggressive," Shockey said.
The Stroebels hope to complete a bloodline registry for their stock in the coming months and then begin selling them.
"People say, 'What do you do with these scrubby little horses?'" said Stroebel, as a half-dozen horses nuzzled her for treats on a warm spring day. "Well, look at what Genghis Khan did with little horses. He conquered the world."