In the 1400s, Johann Schiltberger recorded one of the first known European sightings of wild horses in Mongolia. As a prisoner of Khan, some of his writings have come into question as being either incorrect or offering outright fiction, yet some of his work is also considered to be profound, including his sketches of Islam and the peoples of Siberia, Egypt, and Arabia.
Just a century later, European explorers and then colonists would begin introducing horses to the Americas, creating the foundation stock of herds that would also begin to be called wild.
These wild horse facts show that our long fascination with these wandering breeds has helped to define who we are.
#1. Not every wild horse is actually “wild.”
There is only one breed of horse, the Mongolian wild horse, that is considered to be an authentically “wild” horse. Every other herd or family unit is considered to be a feral horse. The difference in classification comes from their lineage and behavior. Feral horses are the descendants of domesticated horses that were able to adapt to living in the wild.
For truly “wild” horses, their genetics help to distinguish their efforts to live without human interference.
#2. Wild horses have 66 chromosomes.
Another way to distinguish a truly wild horse from those that are feral is to look at their genetics. Horses that are truly wild will have 66 chromosomes, while horses that come from a domesticated lineage will have 64 chromosomes.
This applies only to horses, of course. There are other wild equine species that actually have 62 chromosomes, including the zebra. These wild equine species can be mated to a domesticated horse, but their offspring will usually be sterile. In comparison, if a wild horse is mated to a domesticated horse, their offspring is usually reproductively viable because of the extra chromosome pairs.
#3. The Australian Brumby is often called a wild horse, but it isn’t even native to Australia.
This is why many wild horse facts either focus on the feral horses or only on the Mongolian wild horses instead of both. For the feral horses that are considered to be wild, with many of them never having seen humans in their lives, the simple fact is that they are an animal that is not native to that region.
For the Australian Brumby, their introduction to the continent occurred in the late 1700s with the arrival of the First Fleet. They have been referred to as Brumbies since 1880. They are often seen as a pest, but are also allowed to roam through national parks. Sometimes they are captured and domesticated, while at other times there are orders placed to cull the herd.
#4. The US has laws in place to protect feral horses that are deemed to be “wild.”
Since 1971, the United States has had laws in place that protect any feral free-roaming horses or burros. The laws specifically state that all unbranded horses or burros that are on public lands are actually the property of the federal government and it allows the Secretary of the Interior to manage the herds in a manner that allows for “ecological balance.”
As with the Australian horses, there are times when the US government rounds up the wild horses and offers them up for sale or adoption. Property owners are expressly forbidden from harming these horses and are instead ordered to contact federal authorities to remove the animals from their property instead.
#5. Truly wild horses prefer to live in permanent family groups.
Wild horses tend to congregate together into family units before they congregate into herds. This is another change in behavior when compared to the feral horses that tend to roam around the US and Australia. For the wild horses, each family group is a single stallion and 1-3 mares, along with any offspring. For the feral horses, several stallions may be part of the structural herd.
A family group can be as small as 2 horses with wild horses, especially for a stallion and mare that are young and first starting out. The largest families of wild horses may be as many as 20 animals, but this size is fairly rare considering the birth rate that is experienced. It takes almost a full year for a pregnancy to come to fruition.
Wild horses will bring together multiple family units to create a community herd, but these herds are not permanent. They move together in order to find food or to protect one another, maintaining their primary social existence within the family.
#6. Wild horses offer a tremendous amount of communication.
Wild horses will always maintain visual contact with their family members. If they have formed into a community herd, each horse within that herd will also be kept within sight. They also communicate with one another on a frequent basis. This includes vocalizations, tactile signals, and visual signals that are picked up by all other horses in the family or herd. Ear tilting, grooming, and kicking are all common forms of communication that lead to a complex social existence.
Domesticated and feral horses also communicate in a similar fashion, but often without the emphasis on family. They are also social horses, especially in the wild, and may have preferences with whom they associate, but the social structures are less complex.
#7. Wild horses have seasonal food preferences.
All horses will eat a variety of different plants as the primary part of their diet. This is because all horses are a grazing species. What makes truly wild horses unique is that they always tend to favor one specific plant species over others during specific times throughout the year. They will gravitate toward their preferred plants, showing a distinct seasonal food preference.
#8. Wild horses have hooves that are remarkably sharp.
This is another difference that feral horses do not have when compared to horses that are truly wild. Wild horses have very sharp hooves which allow them to access food options when there are limited grazing grounds. They can use their hooves to strip bark from trees, take down leaves from a branch, and some even dig so they can bring up roots.
Przewalski horses are also known to use their hooves to dig through snow or even ice to consume plants that may be alive underneath the precipitation.
#9. Wild horses have their metabolisms slow down during the colder months.
Wild horses go through a process that is called “hypodermis” during the winter months. This process causes their metabolism to slow down when it becomes colder outside, helping them be able to survive on a lesser food supply. Then, when the weather begins to warm up once again and food becomes more plentiful, their metabolism will begin to increase.
Wild horses will also consume water, but at lesser amounts compared to other horse breeds. A wild horse may drink as little as 3 liters of water per day. In comparison, a domesticated horse will consume at least 8 liters of water per day.
#10. Wild horses have a mane that is shorter than other horse breeds.
Watching US or Australian horses living in the wild conjures up a picture of a long-flowing mane being tousled by the wind. For horses that are truly wild, this is something that would never happen to them. This is because their mane is extremely short and upright in comparison with other horse breeds.
To use human haircuts as an example, the feral horses would have bangs with a long bob cut. For the wild horses, they would have a military-style flat top.
#11. Wild horses have a very consistent look.
Most wild horses have a coat that is a light brown dun. There may be white or yellow markings on the coat as well, especially with the modern Mongolian wild horse, because two of the foundational horses for the breed are actually hybrids. In comparison, free-roaming mustangs or brumbies can have very different coats in all different colors and patterns.
#12. Like all other horses, a wild horse bears their weight on a single digit on each foot.
Horses pay close attention to their foot placement, putting all of their weight on a single digit on each foot. This would be like a human walking around on a single toe all of the time. This process helps to keep their hooves healthy and keeps them naturally ground down while out in the wild.
#13. Wild horses are typically much smaller than other horse breeds.
The average size of a wild horse is usually between 12-14 hands, which would officially classify them as a “pony” instead of a standard horse. Wild horses also weigh about 50% of the average domesticated or free-ranging feral horse, averaging about 660 pounds when fully mature.
These wild horse facts may show that not every horse that is free-ranging is actually wild, but they also show that horses in general are an adaptive species. It is one of many reasons why humans and horses have had a relationship that dates back for thousands of years.