Understanding Horses: Equine Communication and a History of Feral Breeds

Learn the simple tricks to understanding horses and the history of feral breeds that still roam free today.
By Les Sellnow and Carol A. Butler
December 12, 2012
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An alert horse will have both its head and ears in an upright position.
Illustration © Elara Tanguy used with Permission from Storey Publishing
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Understanding horses is easy to do with this informative compendium of all things equine by Les Sellnow and Carol A. Butler. Knowing Horses (Storey Publishing, 2012) answers hundreds of questions about behavior, physiology, breed characteristics, training, sporting events, and the long-standing relationship between humans and horses. In this excerpt, learn about equine communication and the history of feral breeds. 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Knowing Horses.

As do all social creatures, horses communicate in a variety of ways. They are certainly great communicators at feeding time — nickering, pawing, and moving about the stall when they hear the rattle of feed buckets.

Horses employ numerous distinct vocalizations, and being highly visual animals, their body language clearly indicates feelings and intentions. For example, when two stablemates are reunited after being separated, they may nicker softly, and nuzzle and sniff each other with ears pricked forward.

When horses meet, they may stand nose to nose and blow into each other’s nostrils to exchange scents and evaluate their relationship to one another. When two strange horses meet, they might put their ears back and lower their heads. As they sniff each other, one or both might stamp a foot or squeal as they establish who’s who. They may also move stiffly, expressing tension or apprehension.

Horses primarily communicate with posture, position, and movement. The way a horse stands can tell his herdmates to be on alert or to relax and graze. Head up and ears pricked indicate that something’s up. A hunched shoulder or haunches turned toward another horse (or human) means “stay away” or “watch out.”

A gentle licking or chewing motion is understood as “I’m not threatening you.” Horse trainers look for that signal to indicate that a horse is thinking about and accepting the current lesson.

Wild Horses  

Mustangs, Brumbies, and How to Pronounce “Przewalski” 

Eons ago, large numbers of truly wild (never domesticated) horses roamed the globe. Changing climatic conditions spelled their doom in some places, while in other parts of the world, humans had the biggest impact, first hunting and then domesticating the horse. Now the few herds that live in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world are feral, meaning that they descended from domestic horses that escaped or were released from captivity. For the horses who survive harsh weather and tough conditions, whether on the range, in the mountains, or on an island, the distinction is moot, as it is for most people. Wild horses will always embody the spirit of freedom.

Q: What happened to all the wild horses? 

A: Horses (or their prehistoric ancestors) once roamed all over the globe, but by the eighteenth century, only two types of truly wild horses could still be found anywhere in the world. One of them, the Tarpan Horse of the Russian steppes of Eastern Europe, was hunted to extinction shortly thereafter.

The remaining type, called the Przewalski Horse, a native of the mountains and steppes of Mongolia, barely escaped extinction. A few hundred captive-bred Przewalski Horses survive in zoos and in managed areas where they have been reintroduced. They retain the yellowish-tan body and dark dorsal stripe characteristic of Eohippus, the earliest horse.

Q: Where do wild horses live in the United States? 

A: At the turn of the twentieth century, there were an estimated 2 million wild horses in the United States. As of 2009, approximately 33,000 wild horses lived on federal lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. These designated areas are considered able to sustain 27,000 horses, so managing these herds is an ongoing issue for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal agencies.

A few small managed herds also live on islands on the East Coast and in Canada .

A History of Feral Breeds 

Feral horses live in the wild but are descended from horses who were once domesticated. All herds of so-called “wild horses” in the world today, except the Przewalski Horse of Mongolia, are technically feral, even though they may have roamed free for hundreds of years. This is in contrast to the only true wild equine, the zebra, which has never been domesticated as a species.

The Last Truly Wild Horse 

The Przewalski (pronounced sha-VAL-skee) Horse is an endangered subspecies (Equus ferus) of equine that, like the zebra, has never been successfully domesticated. Native to the Mongolian-Chinese steppes, it is the only remaining genetically wild horse, although it now exists only in captivity. It has 66 chromosomes, while the modern horse has 64. Przewalski Horses live in family groups and behave in ways similar to feral herds.

Colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky (1839–1888), a Polish explorer and naturalist who was curious about these seldom-seen equines, set out in the late 1870s on an expedition to find them. Przhevalsky was able to provide a skull and a hide to scientists at a museum in St. Petersburg, and L. S. Poliakov is credited with making the scientific identification in 1881. The subspecies was named after the colonel, using the Polish spelling of his name.

Przewalski Horses are short and muscular, smaller than most domestic horses, with heavy heads, dun coloring, and short, stiff manes. Although a few horses survived in zoos, in 1969 they were listed as extinct in the wild, due to a combination of interbreeding with domestic horses, being killed by hunters, and changes in their habitat that deprived them of resources necessary to survive.

A successful breeding program started with only 13 horses eventually resulted in the reintroduction of the species to managed areas in Mongolia. They adapted and bred so successfully that their status was reassessed and changed in 2008 from extinct to “critically endangered.” As of 2008, there were about 1,500 Przewalski Horses in existence, mostly in zoos and breeding facilities.

Q: Where else in the world are wild horses found? 

A: Horses at one time roamed over many parts of the world, but today only small feral herds remain in a few places. Some are maintained as tourist attractions because of their long history and special status as cultural icons. Below is a list of some places where horses still run wild:

Australia. Horses were introduced by English settlers in 1788, and now Australia has more wild horses than any other country — over 400,000. The presence of the Brumbies, as they are called, is controversial. They are featured on the ten-dollar note, but they are also blamed for having a significant impact on cattle production and on native plants and animals.

England. Many thousands of years ago, horses roamed between what is now Europe and the British Isles before the English Channel cut through the land bridge between them. From those ancient herds descend the nine types of ponies that are considered native to the British Isles. Today a few small, semiferal herds of Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies live on nature reserves.

Ethiopia. A very small herd of Kondudo horses has been living in the Ethiopian mountains for at least 200 years. It is said that more than 100 years ago, the Emperor Haile Selassie tamed his first horse from that herd when he was a young boy.

France. Images of horses in Paleolithic cave paintings give evidence that a herd of small Camargue horses has lived in a wetlands area at the mouth of the Rhone River since prehistoric times. These horses are a protected cultural attraction. Some are ridden and used to manage herds of bulls.

Japan. The Misaki pony is a rare breed that is thought to have descended from horses brought to Japan by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago. Considered a national treasure, about 100 individuals live in protected feral herds.

Namibia. A herd of 100 to 150 wild horses has lived in the Namibian desert for almost 100 years, trapped in the area by mountains and fenced-in farmland. They are probably descendants of horses brought by South African troops during World War I. The population dropped to about 70 horses in 1999 during a drought, so now in times of need, the animals are fed and watered by local farmers in cooperation with the Environmental Ministry of Namibia.

New Zealand. Exmoor ponies imported from England between 1858 and 1875 were crossed with local horses to produce a breed called the Carlyon. Some formed the beginnings of feral bands in the Kaimanawa Ranges, where coloring reminiscent of the original Exmoor ponies can still be seen. By 1996, the population had risen so dramatically that the horses were considered a management problem and an environmental threat. Public opposition thwarted a plan to cull the herds by shooting, with the result that horses are annually mustered and auctioned to the public by the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Preservation Society.

Portugal. A remnant band of the ancient Sorraia horse was discovered surviving in the wild in the early 1900s by Portuguese scientist Ruy d’Andrade, who brought them to his ranch. Only a couple hundred individuals exist, mostly in private hands, and the breed is considered endangered.

Q: What animals prey on horses? 

A: Most feral horses are more likely to meet an untimely end through accident or injury than by being eaten, though lions and cheetahs do prey on horses in Africa. In North America, wolves probably preyed on wild equines many years ago, but horses and burros no longer have any large natural predators in most habitats, other than mountain lions that occasionally prey on foals in some parts of the American West.

Believe it or not, highly aggressive Africanized bees can be a serious danger to horses, especially those who are tied up or corralled. Even loose horses aren’t necessarily safe, as large numbers of disturbed bees may pursue a fleeing victim for a quarter of a mile or more and sting him to death. The venom itself isn’t enough to kill an adult horse, although hundreds of stings are common and can be lethal to a foal or weakened animal. Instead, the bees tend to enter and attack the nose and mouth, causing the membranes to swell until they limit the horse’s breathing, potentially causing suffocation.


This content has been excerpted from Knowing Horses © Les Sellnow and Carol Butler, Illustrations © Elara Tanguy used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Knowing Horses.


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