We think of horses as domesticated animals, and no wonder since we've been breeding them for millennia for everything from hunting and jumping to herding and ranch work to pulling plows and heavy carts. Over the centuries, some horses have gone feral, like the famous American mustang, the Camargue horses of France, and the brumbies of Australia. We call them wild, but technically they're not. However, unlike the equids we're used to seeing on farms or roaming over hillsides, the Przewalksi's horse is a truly wild horse breed, having never been domesticated by humans.
The Przewalski's horse, native to the steppes of central Asia, is the last completely wild horse species in the world. It is also endangered. So to kick off the Year of the Horse, here are 10 cool facts about these special horses and what's being done to protect them.
1. The Przewalski's horse is a subspecies of Equus ferus and is considered the closest relative of the domestic horse. It is cousin to zebras and the wild ass, which all fall under the Equidae family. The split between Przewalski's horse species and the ancestors of domestic horses happened somewhere between 120,000 and 240,000 years ago.
3. The Przewalski's horse nearly disappeared into extinction. Very few in captivity made it through WWII and the last wild individual was spotted in 1969. The species was listed as extinct from the wild in the 1960s until the 1990s, when one surviving individual was found in the wild and other bands of captive-bred horses were reintroduced with continuing success. Currently, there are about 300 horses living in the wild and around 1,500 individuals in captive breeding programs and zoos, and the species' status is now listed as endangered.
4. All the Przewalski's horses alive today are descended from 12 horses — 11 captured and brought out of Mongolia around 1900, and a female captured in 1947. Captive breeding has increased the species' numbers from a low of about 30 individuals to today's count approaching 2,000 individuals. The first Pedigree Book was created by zoologist Dr. Erna Mohr, and a detailed studbook has been kept and updated ever since to minimize inbreeding and thus maximize genetic diversity.
5. Despite the careful captive breeding programs, a major threat to the species today is a loss of genetic diversity and thus disease. Their original decline was brought about by hunting, loss of water resources to domestic animals, and loss of habitat. Hybridization with domestic horses was (and is) a threat.
Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
6. Like feral domestic horses, Przewalski's horses live in small family groups comprised of a stallion and his harem of mares and foals, and bachelor groups of males who have yet to form (or have lost) their own harems. But they differ in appearance: they have a shorter, stocky build, thick necks, upright manes with no forelock, low-set tails, and coloring that more closely resembles wild equid ancestors including light-colored muzzles and bellies, a dark dorsal stripe along their backs and bar-stripe patterns on their legs.
7. The four largest reserves where captive Przewalski's horses roam are in Le Villaret, France; Buchara, Uzbekistan; the Hortobágy-National Park, Hungary; and the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Ukraine. The horses released in the exclusion zone thrived and their numbers grew to a high of around 200, but poaching has reduced their population to about 60 individuals in recent years.
8. Though most people know the species as the Przewalksi's horse, it goes by several other names: Asian wild horse, Mongolian wild horse, and Takh (or takhi as the plural).
9. In 2013, the first Przewalksi's horse born through artifical insemination was welcomed into the world. This success represents an exciting breakthrough in the preservation of the species, and the possibility of increasing genetic diversity without having to transport horses among captive breeding facilities.
10. If you'd like to see a Przewalksi's horse in person, several zoos in North America have them as residents, including San Diego Zoo, Denver Zoo and Toronto Zoo. But for the real history and heart of the conservation of the species, Prague Zoo is the place to go. That's where Len lives, the grandson of the last Przewalski's horse caught in the wild.