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Horses originally evolved in North America over a span of around 50 million years. In the beginning, they were forest-dwelling herbivores no larger than a Beagle.
Around 10,000 years ago, the ancestors of the modern horse migrated through the Bering Strait to Eurasia, where they were eventually domesticated by humans.
Horses live on every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Wild horses typically live in herds and prefer open grasslands with plenty of grazing. Whereas, domesticated horses live in environments created by humans, such as stables and pastures.
There are close to 60 million horses in the world today, most of which live alongside humans.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the wild and domesticated horse populations around the world!
There Are No True Wild Horses Left in the World
Before we continue, let’s clear up a common misconception regarding “wild horses”. Naturally, most people call free-roaming horses that have little to no interaction with humans “wild”. However, this term is incorrect, as a truly wild animal has never been domesticated over the course of its evolution.
What many refer to as wild horses today are actually descendants of domesticated ancestors. The correct terminology for such a species is “feral”.
Until recently, it was believed that the primitive Przewalski’s horses of Mongolia were the last wild horses still in existence. However, scientists from Kansas University disproved this assumption in 2018.
Their study concluded that Przewalski’s horses descend from the first known domestication event some 5,500 years ago.
The ancestors Przewalski’s horses were domesticated by the Botai people of northern Kazakhstan, according to Sandra Olsen and her colleagues. Therefore, like the American Mustangs, Przewalski’s horses count as “feral” and not “wild”.
Also read: 20 Best Wild Horse Quotes
Horses in the Wild
An interesting fact about horses is that once they are set free, horses can easily revert back to their natural lifestyle. In the wild, horses live in herds of 8-12 individuals.
By instinct, horses seek out wide-open grasslands where they can easily spot a predator approaching.
If you look closely, you’ll realize that horses have adapted perfectly to living on the plains. They have long legs ending in a single hoof and no collarbone, which allows ten to run fast. Moreover, their eyes have moved to the side of their heads, giving them near 360-degree vision.
The internal anatomy of horses also reflects their natural diet and lifestyle. Horses have a long and intricate digestive system with a large cecum that enables them to ferment and break down grass. What’s more, their relatively large hearts and lungs further aid them in running away from predators.
Where Can You Find Feral Horses?
As mentioned above, feral horses live in the wild untouched by humans but descend from domesticated ancestors. Horses that live in a natural state but occasionally interact with humans are called “semi-feral”.
You can find feral horse populations in North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Feral horses once belonged to humans and were released or escaped to form free-living herds.
Today, feral horses are found all over the world, and many countries have one or more free-roaming herds.
The most well-known feral horse breeds include the American Mustangs, the Australian Brumbies, the Namib Desert Horse, and the Welsh Pony.
In fact, Australia has by far the largest feral horse population in the world. More than 400,000 Brumbies roam the continent, living mostly undisturbed by humans.
The United States also has a large feral horse population with around 86,000 Mustangs still on the range and 50,000 in holding facilities.
Horses in a Domesticated Environment
According to scientists, horses have been with us for around 5,500 years. During that time, we have developed ways to house, care for and train these animals so they can live content lives alongside us.
A horse’s domesticated environment commonly includes stables, fields with fences, and paddocks. Stables are typically 12′ x 12′ enclosures located inside a barn, alongside a tack room, feed room, wash room, and other facilities.
A stable must always have some kind of bedding the horse can lie on, such as straw or woodshavings. Ideally, it must also allow the horse to see and touch other horses, as they are social animals that need to interact with each other.
During daytime when the weather is good, horses are usually turned out onto grassy fields or paddocks. As a rule of thumb, around one acre is necessary to sustain one horse.
Fields must always have a water source and somewhere horses can shelter against the elements, such as trees or a walk-in stable.
Good horsekeeping involves recreating the horse’s natural environment as closely as possible. In the wild, horses live in herds with 24/7 access to grazing. Therefore, we must never keep a horse alone or house them indoors for long periods of time.
Which Country Has the Most Horses?
While horses live in almost every corner of the world, they are not distributed equally across the globe. Generally, countries with temperate climates have more horses than countries with extremely hot or cold weather.
China has the most horses in the world with a horse population of 7.9 million. It is followed by the United States with 7.2 million, Mexico with 6.2 million, and Brazil with 5.9 million horses.
In contrast, countries such as Greenland, Norway, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria have between 0 and 50,000 horses.
Interestingly, one particular country has approximately equal horses to its human population! Since horses play a central role in Mongolian culture and daily life, they are an essential asset to most families.
Mongolia has more than 3 million horses and 3.3 million people, meaning there is one horse for just about every person in the country!