[Visual History of Korea] Jeju horses, originating from the ancient kingdom of Tamna

[Visual History of Korea] Jeju horses, originating from the ancient kingdom of Tamna

(Crows pull the mane of a Jeju horse at the Jeju Horse Pasture in Hallasan, Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang)

For most of its history, Jeju Island was better known as the Kingdom of Tamna (2345 BC – 1405).

Tamna was one of the nine neighboring enemy countries of Silla (57 BC – 918 AD) at the time. Silla even built the tallest wooden pagoda in Korean history with each level of the nine-story pagoda dedicated to defending the nine enemy states. The wooden Hwangnyongsa Pagoda was completed in 645, standing 80 meters tall, before it was burnt down by invading Mongols in 1238, records show.

Tamna Island became part of the Goryeo Empire in 1105, then incorporated into the Joseon Kingdom in 1404.

Fossilized footprints of Jeju Island’s precious native horse, Natural Monument No. 347, have been found. Jeju native horses have an unusually long forelock, covering the front of their face like bangs, and horse feathers, the long hair that partially covers their hoof.

(A newborn foal with shiny hooves rests in front of its mother at the Jeju Horse Pasture in Hallasan, Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang)

(A newborn foal with shiny hooves rests in front of its mother at the Jeju Horse Pasture in Hallasan, Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang)

The Jeju Human and Animal Footprint Fossil Site, Natural Monument No. 464, along the coastal areas of Seogwipo City, is the fossil site responsible for the earliest use of the scientific name “human footprint” and a new discipline of hominid ichnology in geology.

A primary school teacher discovered the fossil site during one of her frequent visits to the rocky coastal area. Fossilized footprints emerged as the waves constantly pounded against rock layers of ancient volcanic deposits, uncovering ancient horse hoof marks in fossils buried under centuries of ash and volcanic rock.

Researchers have discovered more than 500 human fossil footprints and a diverse set of fossil footprints of birds and animals, including horse and human footprints co-existing during the same period. The radiometric dating technique showed the fossil footprints around 7,600 to 6,800 years ago, since which time there have been at least three volcanic eruptions on Jeju Island depositing volcanic ash all over the island.

The ancient horses of Tamna evolved when hybrid vigor occurred among them in the 13th century after the establishment of large horse farms.

Genome analysis has shown that Jeju’s native horses are a unique and distinct breed, evolved on the island, with hybrid vigor resulting from interbreeding with 160 horses that were brought over by the Mongols in 1276. The Mongols occupied the island for 100 years. years after driving out the Sambyeolcho army in 1273. The Sambyeolcho soldiers had rebelled against King Goryeo Wonjong’s decision to surrender in 1270.

(Young Jeju horses with shiny hooves play at the Jeju Horse Pasture in Hallasan, Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang)

(Young Jeju horses with shiny hooves play at the Jeju Horse Pasture in Hallasan, Jeju Island. Photo © Hyungwon Kang)

Tough, intelligent, and healthy Jeju horses were animals sought after by the Mongols who took over 30,000 horses from Jeju Island during their century of occupation from 1276. During the Yuan period ( 1271-1368), Jeju stallions were castrated to tame them. for easy riding before being sent off the island, while the mares were left on the island for breeding, according to Jeju veterinarian and horse researcher Dr. Jang Deok-jee.

Tamna horses, abalones, and citrus fruits were three obligatory gifts for King Joseon once the Tamna Kingdom was fully incorporated into the Joseon Kingdom in the 15th century.

Jeju horses, which are still very primitive animals with wild instincts, are able to read human body language and facial expressions, like a companion dog. Although not the fastest horses on the race track, they are known for their endurance and dominance over larger horses such as thoroughbred horses that were brought to the island by the Japanese army and police in the early 1900s.

Horseshoes were introduced to the island with the arrival of thoroughbred horses, but they are not used on Jeju horses – with their hard hooves that naturally evolved for walking on rocky volcanic islands, they don’t need horseshoes, according to Jang, an authority on Jeju horse history.

Jeju horses typically have a gestation period of 340 days with a rapid time to heat of around 20 days. “Some mares give birth to their foals on the exact date of each year! says Jang.

Running around with poor coordination, the foals attempt to kick the air, enjoying their freedom after 340 days of being cramped in their mother’s womb.

(Jeju horses, which have unusually long forelocks and horse feathers that partially cover their hooves, run on Jeju Island. Photo © Kang Hyungwon)

(Jeju horses, which have unusually long forelocks and horse feathers that partially cover their hooves, run on Jeju Island. Photo © Kang Hyungwon)

The diverse genome of the Jeju horse allows for a wide variety of colors within the breed. They appear in 50 different shades from black to white. Natural selection that spanned millennia, along with the human-directed injection of 160 Mongol horses in 1276, gave hybrid vigor to the Jeju horse breed, explaining variations in coat colors.

At 119 centimeters to 122 centimeters tall at the withers, Jeju horses are small compared to thoroughbred horses which are 163 centimeters tall. Yet despite their size, Jeju stallions are known to dominate, even over larger thoroughbred stallions. There used to be organized horse fights, where two stallions would bite each other until one ran away. The Animal Welfare Act 2008 banned all horse fighting.

The size of Jeju horses made them highly desirable to mainlanders, especially the king and his officials.

During the Joseon period, one Jeju horse was worth the same as three human slaves. Due to high demand, government officials who were sent to the island sometimes took horses without the barn owners’ consent. These prized Jeju horses were, in turn, often used by government officials to bribe high officials.

Kim Man-il (1550 – 1632) was a Jeju native who owned the most horses in the entire Joseon Kingdom. While Kim happily donated many horses to King Joseon, corrupt officials still commandeered Kim’s horses by force. Kim would often cut off an ear or blind an eye from a horse to keep breeding stock on the island. His efforts proved successful, as his descendants continued to run his horse farm for the next 200 years, continuing to supply horses to the king and his army.

After the introduction of agricultural machinery, Jeju horses were threatened with extinction. However, in 1986 the Korean government designated 64 Jeju horses, 55 mares and nine stallions as a protected species and the Jeju horse population has now returned to healthy numbers.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

Briana R. Cross