The Rolling Stones once sang ‘wild horses couldn’t drag me away’. Though Mick Jagger and co probably didn’t realise it, the chances of them actually finding any wild horses in order to find out whether that was true or not are extremely slim, owing to the fact that there aren’t really many, if any, genuinely wild horses left in the world. To some, it might all be a matter of semantics, given the fact that the difference between a ‘wild’ animal and a ‘feral’ one is the manner in which either they or their ancestors have ever existed.
That is to say, a ‘wild’ horse is one that has never been tamed or adapted for use by humans. In other words, if a horse’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was once used by a human and then released into the wild, any of its children, grandchildren great-grandchildren and so on would still technically not be wild on account of the fact that the horse was once adapted for human use. If the animals itself or the breed that it is a part of had once been domesticated, it counts as a feral animal rather than a wild one.
What Makes A Horse Wild?
In large countries such as Australia or the United States of America, there can often be horses running wild over vast plains, giving the impression that they are entirely wild in their nature. These aren’t horses that are in a field, being given food and drink on a regular basis by a farmer or other person. These are horses that don’t have a ‘home’ so to speak, instead roaming the land free of any such encumbrance on their time. They are a flashback to a time long ago, when thousands of horses will have done the same thing.
Hundreds of years ago, many of the horses were caught and tamed. They were put to use on the likes of farm work or for transportation. Some were ridden bareback, others were introduced to the saddle or had hardness to them in order to pull things along. Over the generations that followed, those horses came to like working with humans, become so tame as to be thought of as being domesticated. Some times, they were eventually released back into the wild, but they were no longer wild horses in the same way as they had been before.
Feral, Not Wild
Instead of being wild, it would be more accurate to describe the horses sent back into the world, having been domesticated, as ‘feral’. They are untamed, growing used to the tougher living conditions that they have to endure, but come from a lineage that had had to work with humans before their current existence. If you were to see a group of horses running through the land, the chances are that they are feral rather than wild. To put in more succinctly, a feral horse is one that comes from a domesticated stock but that roams freely.
Is it just a matter of semantics? Possibly. Ultimately, though, it is important to give a fair description of what it is that you’re talking about and feral horses are ones that come from stock that was once domesticated before straying or escaping, with all of its future foals then also avoiding being domesticated but having it in their genes. There are also some that are feral, but that can be handled by humans and are therefore known as ‘semi-feral’. They tend to live in groups, known as ‘herds’, ‘mobs’ or ‘bands’, being led by a dominant mare and featuring immature horses of both genders.
For a time, it was believed that Przewalski’s horses were the last wild horses in the world. Found in Mongolia, they were once thought to be an ancestor of the domesticated horse but are in reality a distant cousin. Their mitochondrial DNA is suggestive of the idea that the two horse types diverged from a common ancestor more than 500,000 years ago. There are some big differences, such as they have 66 chromosomes compared to the 64 that domesticated horses have. They are called ‘takhi’, which is the Mongolian word for ‘spirit’.
They are small and stocky, heavily built and bearing a large head with short legs. There is a dark stripe that runs from the mane along the backbone, becoming a dark, plumed tail. Their bellies are yellow-ish and they have zebra-like stripes on the backs of their knees. Once ranging throughout Asia and Europe, nowadays they are limited to re-introduction sites in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan and are considered to be an Endangered species. As with donkeys and zebras, they need to drink lots of water and the food that they eat tends to be of extremely low quality, such as grass and shrubs.
Are They Really Wild?
In 2018, news broke that disappointed many in the equine-loving community. An article was published by Reuters revealing that the ‘World’s last remaining wild horses aren’t really wild after all’. In it, a new genetic study found that no genuinely wild horses exist in the world. Researchers found that Przewalski’s horses actually descended from horses that were domesticated in Kazakhstan about 5,500 years ago by those in the Botai culture. This was confirmed by University of Kansas zoo-archaeologist Sandra Olsen, who is one of the researchers that had worked on the investigation.
She said, “The world lost truly wild horses perhaps hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but we are only just now learning this fact, with the results of this research.” The horse, which was named after a Russian who worked to describe them in the 19th century, is believed to derive from 15 individuals that were caught a century ago. The result of the research is that the last breed of horses that was believed to be genuinely wild has actually been shown to be feral. That means that, in reality, there are no truly wild horses anywhere on the planet that we know of.