Eternal symbols of freedom, wild horses have captured the hearts of many over the past centuries. Wild horses galloping across the land is a romantic image that we see in countless literature and art pieces.
The most common wild horse breeds are the mustang, Przewalski, Brumby, and Welsh Pony. These breeds still roam the wild in parts of the world, such as Europe, America, and Australia. However, the only true wild horse breed is the Mongolian Przewalski’s Horse.
What most people call “wild horses” are actually feral or semi-feral animals living in a natural setting.
The difference between a wild and feral horse is that feral horses were once domesticated but have returned to their natural lifestyle in the wild. However, wild horses have never been domesticated and are genetically different from other equines.
Here are 12 common wild and feral horse breeds:
The only true wild horse breed on the planet, the Przewalski’s Horse, is native to the central Asian steppes. Przewalski’s horses are a rare and endangered breed, with only about 2,000 animals left worldwide across zoos and nature reserves.
Also known as the Takhi, these horses are hardy survivors that can live through extreme heat and cold. They are typically 12-14 hands with a stocky build and short legs. Dun is the only possible coat color in the breed, with primitive zebra markings on the legs.
Although the exact origin of the Przewalski’s Horse (Equus przewalskii) is controversial, most scientists agree that they’re a different species to the domestic horse (Equus ferus caballus). DNA evidence supports that the two species diverged around 45,000 years ago and have been evolving separately ever since.
The behavior of wild Przewalski’s Horses is similar to that of feral horses. They form herds consisting of a stallion, his mares, and their foals and migrate throughout the year. The breed has adapted perfectly to its harsh environment, with horses seen digging out forage from under ice and snow to survive the winter.
At one point, Przewalski’s Horses were extinct in the wild, with only a few animals left in zoos. The species was reintroduced to the Mongolian wild in the 1990s, and efforts to increase numbers are currently ongoing.
Also read: 6 Oldest Horse Breeds in the World
The Konik is a Polish wild horse breed that lives in semi-feral conditions in nature reserves across Europe. Once they were thought to be the descendants of a now-extinct true wild horse breed, the Tarpan, but genetic studies disproved this theory.
All Koniks have a blue dun (grullo) coat with primitive markings such as a striped back and zebra-striped legs. They have a stocky appearance and stand between 12.3 and 13.3 hands.
The Konik has originally descended from native horses of the Biłgoraj region in Poland. These hardy animals played a role in the First World War, where they provided transport for the Russian and German military.
The breed was also involved in creating the Heck Horse, which is an attempt to produce a breed that resembles the ancient Tarpan horse. Konik’s were also crossed with Thoroughbreds to create a more athletic-looking riding horse.
Today, there are around a couple thousand Konik horses in the world, living with little human interference in nature reserves. Besides their homeland, they can also be found in the Netherlands, Spain, Belarus, Latvia, and the United Kingdom.
Mustangs are one of the most famous Native American horse breeds in the world. They are the symbols of the American West and pioneering spirit with an inspiring story that captured people’s hearts around the world.
Due to countless horse breeds’ influence over the centuries, Mustangs can be of any color and body type. A Mustang horse’s average height is between 14-15 hands, with a maximum of 16 hands.
Mustangs have descended from the first horses that arrived on the American continent with Hernán Cortés in 1519. Many of these had Spanish blood and either escaped or been released by their owners onto public lands. The stray horses then formed feral herds and developed into the hardy and intelligent Mustangs we know today.
After a lot of conflict with local ranchers, in 1971, the U.S. Government has released a law that protects free-roaming horses and burros as living symbols of the American West. Population numbers are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who organizes annual round-ups and offers suitable horses for adoption.
The stamina and loyalty of the Mustang is legendary. They are a rival breed of the Arabian horse on endurance competitions but will tackle any discipline.
Brumbies are the most common wild horse breed in Australia. Their story is parallel to that of the American Mustang, as they also arrived on the continent alongside settlers and are the symbols of pioneering spirit.
There’s no uniform color, height, or type in Brumbies, as they have descended from a mixture of many horse breeds. Brumbies are extremely hardy animals with a strong survival instinct. If captured, they can become versatile riding or workhorses.
The first horses to arrive in Australia were imports for farm and maintenance work. They came all the way from England with the very First Fleet in 1788. Because only the strongest animals could survive such a long journey, the foundation stock for the Brumby included exceptionally healthy and resilient horses.
Similar to the Mustangs, many Brumbies also escaped or strayed away and formed their own feral herds. As horses have no natural predators in Australia, their numbers grew from 3,500 to a whopping 160,000 in just three decades!
Given their debated role in the Australian ecosystem, Brumbies haven’t enjoyed the government’s protection until recently. They are a common sight in the Northern Territory or Queensland areas and roam free in national parks throughout the country.
Namib Desert Horse
This rare wild horse breed lives free in the Namib Desert of southwestern Africa. Despite harsh living conditions, these attractive-looking horses can maintain an ideal body condition throughout the year.
Due to their warmblood breeding, Namib Desert Horses have an athletic, muscular body with good conformation and strong bones. They are most often bay, but chestnut and brown horses also occur. Dorsal striping is common in the breed.
The origins of the Namib Desert Horse are still unclear. They have most likely descended from German cavalry horses that escaped into the desert during the First World War. However, genetic studies found closer relations with the Arabian horse.
Because they’re an invasive species on this continent, some people argued that the horses should be removed to protect native herbivore habitats. While this resulted in the sale of more than a third of the population in 1992, a few herds have been allowed to remain.
Today, they are roughly 100-200 feral horses in the Namib Desert. In the public’s eyes, they symbolize the country’s history and are also great drivers of tourism. Namib Horses have also been the subjects of scientific studies that observe their effects on the local ecosystem.
This wild pony breed roams the island of Assateague by the eastern shore of the United States.
Although Chincoteague Ponies have a horse’s proportions, many people call them ponies because of their small size (13.2 – 14.2 hands). They can be of any solid color, but pinto ponies are most popular.
Contrary to the common belief, Chincoteague Ponies haven’t actually descended from the horses of wrecked Spanish ships. It’s a much more likely story that their ancestors have been released onto the island by 17th-century colonists.
Due to scarce forage and the harsh natural habitat of Assateague Island, the original horses have shrunk and developed into hardy ponies able to survive on minimal food. The feral herds living on the Virginia side are rounded up annually, and some ponies go to public auctions. This is what the locals call “Pony Penning”.
Owners of Chincoteague Ponies praise the breed for its intelligence and willingness to work. If trained well, they can make fabulous hunter, trail, and driving ponies.
Also read, are horses native to North America?
The Camargue is a wild horse breed native to the picturesque marshlands of the Rhône delta in southern France. Feral herds have existed in the region for thousands of years, and over time they became ingrained in the local culture.
Camargue Horses are always gray and stand between 13.1 to 14.3 hands. They have a compact body with a large head, tough hooves, and full manes and tails.
These free-roaming horses belong to one of the most ancient breeds in the world. They were present in the Camargue region way before Roman times. According to genetic studies, Camargue bloodlines can be found in many modern Spanish horse breeds, meaning they have indirectly influenced American horse breeds.
Also read: 8 Native French Horse Breeds
The Camargue Horse has adapted perfectly to its marshy environment. Their hooves are large and wide, which makes it easier for them to walk in water. They are an intelligent, agile breed with great stamina, making them ideal for many equestrian activities.
Camargue horses were traditionally used by the Camargue cowboys known as gardians. Other than taking part in local cattle herding events, the Camargue Horse is also talented in dressage and endurance riding.
The Nokota is a wild horse breed originally from the badlands of North Dakota in the United States. Although nearly wiped, there is a stable population maintained at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Nokota Horses are often blue roan, but black and gray colors are also common. There’re two types of Nokota horses, the smaller “traditional” (14 – 14.3 hands) and the “ranch type” that resembles the original stock (14.2 – 17 hands). Some Nokotas can perform an ambling gait known as the “Indian shuffle”.
The foundation stock for the breed included Native American, Spanish, Thoroughbred, and draft horse breeds. The Nokota developed during the 19th century when local ranch horses mixed with the already free-roaming feral herds.
After their near-extinction in the early 20th century, the only surviving herds lived in the newly created Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In 1986, the Kuntz brothers purchased several horses from the park to preserve the breed and later founded the Nokota Horse Conservancy.
Currently, the national park aims to maintain a herd of 70 to 110 horses and sell off excess stock. When trained under saddle, Nokota Horses show particular talent in endurance and western riding and many English disciplines.
Sable Island Horse
This hardy wild horse breed lives on the sandy Sable Island off Nova Scotia, Canada. After battling humans and their harsh environment for hundreds of years, the horses have earned the right to live undisturbed on the island.
People often mistake the breed for a pony because of their small size of 13 to 14 hands. However, this is due to scarce food supply on the island, and the horses do grow taller when fed a nutritious diet. The most common color in the breed is bay, alongside black, chestnut, and palomino colorations.
Although the story of horses swimming ashore from shipwrecks is a romantic one, the breed’s actual origins are much less exciting. The ancestors of the Sable Island Horse were taken to the island on purpose in the 18th century. This foundation stock was a mixture of Spanish, Barb, Breton, and Norman breeds.
The intention for this early population was to raise and then sell the horses to the public. To increase their quality and value, Thoroughbred, Clydesdale, and Morgan horses were taken to the island in the early 19th century.
In response to a public appeal, the Canadian government pronounced the Sable Island Horses fully protected from human interference. There’re currently 400-500 horses on the island serving as a tourist attraction and observational study subjects.
Also read our guide on the Sable Island wild horses: Meet the Wild Horses of Sable Island
Wild ponies have existed in Wales since at least 1600 BC, way before the Roman invasion of Britain. The modern breed can be divided into sections A, B, C, and D, each with its own unique characteristics.
The 4 types of Welsh ponies are the short Welsh Mountain Pony (max. 12.2 hands), the taller and refined Welsh Pony of Riding Type (max. 14.2 hands), the stocky Welsh Pony of Cob Type (max. 13.2 hands), and the large Welsh Cob (min. 13.2 hands). These muscular ponies are often bay, black, chestnut, or gray, but dilution colors also occur.
Welsh Ponies have descended from the ancient Celtic Pony and were already a distinct type in the Middle Ages. Over the last few centuries, Arabian, Hackney, and Thoroughbred bloodlines have influenced the breed, clearly visible in the graceful Section B Ponies.
The native habitat of wild Welsh Ponies has always been the marshy, mountainous terrain of Snowdonia. The harsh living conditions have shaped the breed into extremely hardy and efficient survivors.
Feral pony herds still roam the rolling hills of Wales across many reservations and are interesting subjects for wildlife photographers. In the sport horse industry, Welsh Ponies excel at show jumping, dressage, cross-country, and competitive driving.
This Portuguese wild horse breed had been living undiscovered until the early 20th century. Scientists believe they belong to one of the most ancient horse breeds still in existence, with studies currently investigating their exact origins.
Sorraias are easily recognized from their Iberian looks and grullo coloring. They stand between 14.1 and 14.3 hands and display primitive markings such as a dorsal line or striped legs. Foals can even have zebra stripes on their backs!
The breed has likely evolved from prehistoric horses native to the Sorraia River basin. During the New World conquest, Sorraias were taken to the American continent, where they influenced several forming breeds. DNA analysis has recently proven that they’re closely linked to the modern Mustangs.
Until 1920, Sorraias had lived in feral herds on the Portuguese lowlands, isolated from the rest of the world. The exception was a small group of local farmers who regarded the horses as more of a nuisance but sometimes used them for agricultural work and cattle herding. The breed was eventually rediscovered by the Portuguese zoologist Dr. Ruy d’Andrade.
As there are only a few hundred Sorraias left, conservation efforts are currently ongoing to protect this unique breed. In the United States, a group of breeders is working on preserving colonial Sorraia bloodlines by creating a new breed, the American Sorraia Mustang.
New Forest Pony
One of the native moorland ponies of the British Isles, this wild pony breed has been roaming the New Forest of southern England since ancient times. Besides being an integral part of the forest’s ecosystem, these ponies can also be captured and trained up to elite competition level.
Although there is an official breed standard for the New Forest Pony, mares and geldings set loose in the Forest can be of any breed. The ponies have a maximum height of 14.2 hands and are predominantly bay, gray, or chestnut.
The oldest remains of a pony found in the New Forest date back 500,000 years BC. The breed shares a common ancestor with ancient Celtic ponies such as the Pottock and Asturcón. More recently, Shetlands, Arabians, and other modern breeds mixed with the herd living in the New Forest, but only the offspring of purebred parents can be registered in the studbook.
Today, the ponies live in semi-feral conditions and are rounded up each year to receive a health check, identification, and youngstock to be selected for sale. The majority of New Forest Ponies belong to a group of locals who have the right to graze their animals on Forest lands and are called the “commoners”.
The New Forest Pony is a hardy, intelligent and versatile breed. They can be ridden by children and adults alike and perform well in many English disciplines and gymkhanas and driving.
Other wild horse breeds we haven’t covered include: