In the United States, there is a clear difference between wild horses and feral horses. Many of the herds that are thought of as wild in the US are actual feral, the offspring of horses that were either abandoned, set free, or had escaped from their ownership. When it comes to wild horses, there is really just one true horse breed that exists today and that is the Przewalski Horse.
This breed is named after the man who is credited with their discovery: Nikolai Przhevalsky. He discovered the breed in the 1870s. It was actually discovered earlier than this, but the last name of Nikolai stuck. To be more specific, the Polish spelling of Nikolai’s surname instead of the Russian spelling stuck to the horse despite the fact that he was a Russian explorer.
Here are some more interesting facts about this truly wild breed of horse.
#1. It is the only species of horse that has never been domesticated.
Some might argue that all domesticated horses are descendants of the Przewalski breed, genetic evidence shows otherwise. Przewalski horses form their own clade, which means their lineage is separate from those of domesticated horses. This provides evidence to the ancient nature of this breed and how it has been kept separate from horse lineages that are thousands of years old.
What does this mean for modern horse breeds? There may be a common ancestor of both Przewalski horses and domesticated horses, but this would be like saying chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor as well. It is a species that is not derived from the other.
#2. Przewalski horses have more chromosomes than any other equine species.
Przewalski horses have 66 pairs of chromosomes, which is 2 more pairs than domesticated horses. This creates an interesting scenario when it comes to breeding Przewalski horses with domesticated horses.
When a domesticated horse breeds with a donkey, the offspring has 63 chromosome pairs and is considered a mule. This is because donkeys have 62 chromosome pairs, so the offspring splits the difference. The same thing occurs when Przewalski horses breed with domesticated horses. The offspring has 65 chromosome pairs, but the odd pair number doesn’t sterilize the offspring as it typically does for a mule.
#3. Przewalski horses are still surviving, but barely.
By 1900, a German merchant had captured almost all of the Przewalski horses that were in the wild. Add in the hunting that occurred with this breed and the numbers were reduced to just 12, with all of them living in two zoos in Prague or Munich. The merchant, named Carl Hagenbeck, specialized in selling exotic animals to zoos. Although his methods were often questioned, his efforts may have unwittingly save this breed.
Today there are above 1,500 Przewalski horses that are alive. About 300 of them were reintroduced into their natural Mongolian habitat in the late 1990s. The herds are protected by living within national parks and nature reserves where hunting is not allowed.
Chinese researchers who also were working on conservation efforts have also reintroduced herds into the Gobi Desert and the Askania Nova reserve in Russia.
#4. This breed is one of the few that were once classified as extinct.
The IUCN once classified Przewalski horses as being extinct in the wild. Around 2010, the horses were officially reclassified as being endangered. This makes them one of the few animal species that were once classified as extinct, but thanks to conservation efforts, have been able to come back and thrive.
#5. The lineage of Przewalski horses is considered to be genetically stable.
Despite the fact that just 9 horses are considered to be the foundation for modern Przewalski horses, their lineage as a breed is genetically stable. Part of this is due to the fact that breeding programs encouraged creating a maximum amount of genetic diversity, but the ancient genetics of this breed may also be playing a part in their dramatic comeback.
The studbook for the entire Przewalski breed is still kept at the Prague Zoo, which was responsible for helping the breed be able to recover. The book lists the parentage of every individual Przewalski horse that is currently known – with the exception of foals that may have been born in the wild after the herds were reintroduced just recently.
#6. Przewalski horses are continuously monitored.
One of the herds that was reintroduced into a natural environment currently lives in Horotbagy National Park in Hungary. Within this park, scientists are observing the Przewalski breed so that they can get to know what their natural behaviors tend to be. By studying their behaviors and social structures, horse management techniques around the world have been improved.
Herds of Przewalski horses tend to structure themselves differently than other “wild” horses. They typically live in family groups only, consisting of a stallion 2-3 mares, and their offspring. Multiple family groups will then come together so that they form a larger herd, which will move together as a community as they search for food.
Colts will live with their family units for 2-3 years. Then they move on to find and form their own family groups.
#7. One Przewalski got to receive a historical first.
In 1999, the Minnesota Zoo performed a vasectomy on a Przewalski horse. The procedure had been completed before they realized the genetic value of the horse. In 2007, the National Zoo was able to perform a reverse vasectomy on the horse, making it the first time that any endangered animal was successfully treated in such a way.
#8. In 2014, the first artificial birth of this breed was created.
A Przewalski mare living at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute was artificially inseminated. After a 340-day incubation period, she successfully gave birth to a foal that was named Annie. It was the end result of over 7 years of breed research so that a viable pregnancy could be established and maintained in an artificial environment.
#9. This breed has an incredible sense of smell.
Przewalski horses are able to detect smells that originate from distances that are very far away. They can also detect sounds from great distances, allowing them to protect their family units and their community herds.
#10. Each horse has a fairly consistent look when compared with others.
Przewalski horses tend to be a little smaller when compared to other horse breeds that have been domesticated. Their bodies tend to be rather stocky and their large heads are distinctive of the breed. It’s supported by a thick neck, which sports an upright mane that typically stays fairly short.
The muzzles for this breed tend to have markings that are colored in pale white, as do the underbellies of the horse. Foals tend to be born with a lighter coloration that turns toward more of a brown dun color when they mature around the age of 3.
#11. Przewalski horses have sharp hooves for a very good reason.
The hooves of Przewalski horses are incredibly sharp compared to other horse breeds. This allows the horse to use their feet to scrape or dig at the ground. It is a technique which allows them to access groundwater tables that are close to the surface.
These horses will also use their hooves in the wild to access food resources. Like all horses, they are grazing animals, so a nice field of grass is their favorite option. They will also use their hooves to pull off bark or leaves from trees, pull fruit from a branch, or access flower buds when in season.
#12. There are no truly “wild” Przewalski herds right now.
All Przewalski horses are being monitored in some way right now. Some herds are being directly monitored, while others are simply protected on reserves, in parks, and other dedicated lands that have been reserved for them. Small groups are slowly being introduced to Mongolia’s grasslands once again, but with farming competition in their way, it is unknown if their natural habitat can actually support their once great numbers that were in the wild.
#13. One community herd of Przewalski horses lives at Chernobyl.
One of the places where Przewalski horses were placed to be away from hunting or poaching activities was the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The community herd was placed there in 1998 and it is believed that the herd is increasing in size. These horses are the only ones that are not directly monitored on some level, living with complete protection from human interference.
#14. A French zoo has taken a unique approach to saving this breed.
Le Villaret allows Przewalski horses to choose their own mates and adapt to conditions that are very much like living in the wild. Although the horses that are brought here were born in other zoos, they learn to forage on their own and bring back natural behaviors. This has allowed the reintroduction of the species to occur at a more rapid pace than expected.
These Przewalski horse facts show that when the world comes together with a specific mission in mind, we can create great things. This breed is back from extinction and looks to stay that way.