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A herd of wild horses running free into the sunset is a romantic image that lives in every horse lover’s head.
Wild horses have long been symbols of freedom, intuition, and adventure, inspiring millions worldwide to follow their dreams.
However, are today’s wild horses truly wild? To answer that question, we have to understand the difference between “wild” and “feral”.
Wild animals have never been domesticated throughout the course of their evolution. Whereas feral animals descend from domesticated ancestors that have been selectively bred by humans for a specific purpose.
All horses alive today originate from a group of horses domesticated by humans around 5,500 years ago. Although horse populations live in the wild, these are feral or semi-feral animals and not truly wild horses.
There Are No True Wild Horses Left on the Planet
Until recently, scientists believed that the Przewalski’s horses of Mongolia were the last truly wild horses in the world. These primitive-looking horses were reintroduced to their natural habitat in 1992 after being driven to near-extinction by humans.
The theory of the last truly wild horses was debunked in 2018 when a study revealed that Przewalski’s horses are, in fact, descendants of the first-ever domesticated horses.
According to the study, the ancestors of the breed were domesticated by the Botai people of northern Kazakhstan some 5,500 years ago. As a result, we cannot consider these horses wild, even though they have lived without much human contact.
Since Przewalski’s horses are the first domesticated breed, it would seem logical that modern horse breeds evolved from these primitive equines. Surprisingly, this is not the case, as only 2.7% of horses today can trace their ancestry back to the horses of the Botai people.
There is still much work to be done until scientists can fully uncover how horse domestication happened. Some experts believe the event occurred several times in various parts of the world. However, more evidence will be necessary to validate this theory.
The Last Truly Wild Horse Breed Went Extinct in 1909
The beginning of the 20th century saw the end of the world’s last truly wild horse breed, the Tarpan. Also known as the Eurasian wild horse (Equus ferus ferus), it roamed the Russian steppe until its extinction in the wild between 1875 and 1890.
While it is generally accepted that Tarpans were wild horses, some scientists remain skeptical. Nevertheless, the Tarpan had many primitive traits, such as a small, stocky stature, primitive markings, and a grullo coat color.
After the last allegedly Tarpan horse died in a Russian zoo in 1909, there were a few attempts to bring back this ancient breed. Using part-Tarpan stock and related Eastern European horses, breeders created the Heck horse that closely resembles its extinct relative.
However, since the foundation stock consisted of domesticated horses, the breed can never be called truly wild.
Also read: 12 Most Common Wild Horse Breeds
Wild Horses Live in Groups of 3 to 22
In both wild and domestic environments, horses live in herds with a clearly defined social structure. Being prey animals, they find strength and safety in numbers. Hence why horses instinctively seek out the company of other horses.
A herd of horses is essentially a family unit in a natural setting, consisting of a single stallion, his mares, and their foals. While the stallion protects the herd, the horses generally follow the lead of the alpha mare who’s responsible for finding fresh pastures and water sources.
Most wild mares will produce one foal a year that will suckle for 6-8 months and stay with the herd for 1-2 years.
Fillies often end up staying indefinitely, unless they join the herd of another stallion. However, since colts pose a threat to their father’s status, the stallion usually casts them out of the herd by age 2.
On average, a stallion will maintain his position in the herd for two years, although some manage for as long as a decade.
As stallions get older and weaker, they will face more and more challenges from younger stallions wanting to have their own mares (Source: Rutgers).
Wild Colts Form Bachelor Groups to Stay Safe
It’s not uncommon that young stallions who left their herds form bachelor groups of 5-8. Sticking together not only keeps them safe from predators, but also gives them the opportunity to practice fighting.
Sometimes, bachelor stallions will even work together to steal mares from smaller herds! They wait until the lead stallion is not paying attention, then swoop in like a vulture to take as many mares as they can.
Wild Horses Live for 15-20 Years
Unfortunately, horses tend to live shorter lives in the wild than in captivity. Lacking the care and protection of humans, they are much more likely to perish due to injury, disease, or harsh weather.
In the unforgiving wilderness, an injury such as a broken leg means the end of a wild horse. Cruel as it sounds, horses tend to leave their injured and weak behind to ensure the safety of the herd.
Old age also catches up to horses much quicker in the wild. Over the age of 15, they become more prone to developing conditions like arthritis and problems with their hooves and teeth that will prove fatal in the long run.
We all find the notion of wild horses roaming free romantic and inspiring. However, given a choice, most wild horses would rather live in captivity than fight for survival every day.
A beautiful example of this is the story of Monty Robers and Shy Boy, a Mustang who chose humans over freedom.
Wild Horses Roam on Open Grasslands
The natural habitat of horses is the steppe, which is why they always seek out open grasslands in the wild.
Millions of years ago, the horse’s ancestors used to be forest browsers, feasting on the leaves of bushes and young trees. However, as their habitat gradually transitioned into steppes, these early horses adapted to a grass-based diet and living in wide-open spaces.
As part of this adaptation, their teeth and digestive system changed considerably. To be able to flee from predators, their legs also got longer, which in turn increased neck length.
Therefore, the horse’s nature and physiology make it hard to tolerate small spaces. Horses typically migrate with seasonal changes in the wild, although we don’t yet know much about these patterns.
Also read: 20 Best Wild Horse Quotes & Sayings
There Are Many Horse Breeds Living in the Wild
Today, there are feral horse populations living on every continent except Antarctica. The most famous free-roaming horse breeds include the Mustang, Brumby, Namib Desert Horse, Przewalski’s Horse, and Chincoteague Pony.
There are also various semi-feral pony breeds living in the British Isles. These include the Dartmoor, Exmoor, Fell, Dales, Welsh, Eriskay, and New Forest Pony breeds.
Moreover, larger feral horse populations exist in the Daube Delta region, New Zealand, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Nova Scotia.
Due to centuries of natural selection, feral horse breeds are generally very sturdy and do well in endurance races. In most countries, the relevant authorities round up feral horses every year for auction to control populations.
For example, in the United States, Mustang populations are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Due to the efforts of the BLM, the number of free-roaming Mustangs has dropped to around 70,000.