Przewalski Horse Origin and Characteristics

There is only one true “wild” horse that is currently known and that is the Przewalski horse. Other horse breeds may be allowed to roam freely and the American Mustang has roamed in herds in the US West for more than a century, but these horses are listed as being “semi-feral” instead.

Most horses in the wild are either escaped or released horses that have been left to their own devices. At one point, they were domesticated. Now their descendents are roaming in the wild, but the semi-feral status still remains.

There are some physical traits and characteristics which makes the Przewalski horse stand out from other breeds as well. It is a rare breed, very endangered, and was believed to be extinct in the wild by 1966. Thanks to a key preservation program, this horse is being reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia and other designated areas of protection.

The Przewalski horse may be referred to as a Takhi horse, a Dzungarian horse, or the Mongolian wild horse.

What Is the History of the Przewalski Horse?

The Przewalski horse may be one of the oldest breeds that still currently exists. The archeological record shows evidence of this breed being present around the 30th century BC. Estimations of its origins place this horse breed being on the planet up to 160,000 years ago.

The first recorded sighting of the Przewalski horse from a European standpoint occurred in the 15th century. Johann Schlitberger recorded seeing these horses during his travels in Mongolia. The breed, however, is named after a Russian colonel. Nikolai Przhevalski described these horses in the 19th century after forming an expedition to find them.

In 1900, Carl Hagenbeck captured a few Przewalski horses so they could be placed in zoos By 1945, only two populations remained in captivity, in Prague and Munich. These horses would become the salvation of their species. 

DNA testing has been completed to determine if the Przewalski horse is the foundation breed for the modern domesticated breeds, and it is not. Their sequences have not been found in domesticated breeds. The sequences found in domesticated breeds are not found in the Przewalski horse either.

That makes it a unique horse breed in today’s equine world. Most horses today have 66 chromosomes, whereas the average domesticated horse breed has 64 chromosomes. Przewalski horses can be bred with domestic horses and produce fertile foals, even though the offspring will have 65 chromosomes.

Every Przewalski horse that is living today is a direct descendant of 9 horses. There were 13 horses captured in 1945 and held in captivity. These 13 horses are direct descendants of another 15 horses that were captured around the turn of the 20th century. When the horses were believed to be extinct in the wild as of 1966, the Zoological Society of London began working with various organizations to bring this breed back into the wild.

The total population of this breed is estimated to be about 2,000. Around 300 are currently living in the wild in Mongolia, checked on periodically, but left to be free-ranging. In 1998, a population of Przewalski horses was introduced into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and this herd is believed to be increasing in size as well.

There is also a herd of Przewalski horses located in Hungary within the boundaries of the Hortobagy National Park. This herd is studied intensely to ensure behaviors, herd structures, and health concerns can be identified to help other breeds should something negative occur. 

What Are the Characteristics of the Przewalski Horse?

Przewalski horses are very stocky when compared to the average horse breed, with legs that are noticeably shorter. Przewalskis will stand about 12 hands high, though some individuals can be as tall as 14 hands. Despite their stocky appearance, these horses are below average in weight at 650 pounds.

Most horses within this breed have a coat color that is dun. Pangare features are common, with dark brown coloration around the mane, flanks, and belly quite common. The mane is usually a darker brown and the belly of the horse is closer to a yellow or white coloration. The muzzle of the horse usually matches the coloration found on the belly.

Most Przewalski horses have striped legs that are similar to the primitive markings that are found on other breeds. They also have shorter hair, but a longer dock, than what can be seen in the average domesticate horse today.

Przewalski horses also have hooves that are longer in the back. When compared to feral horses that are described as being wild, there is a noticeable difference in the thickness of the sole.

When living in the wild, Przewalski horses tend to live in small herds that consist primarily of family grounds. There will be one stallion, up to 3 mares, and their offspring. At the age of 2, the young horses begin to explore the idea of forming their own permanent family groups. Young stallions may also form their own herd, called a “bachelor group,” until they establish their own family.

Some bachelor groups may have older stallions join them, especially if they have lost their family herd for some reason. Family herds may join together to form a larger herd that moves around together, but the family group holds a priority over the herd in such a circumstance. 

Przewalski horses prefer to stay in visual contact with their family at all times. They have several forms of communication that are shared as well, which is not usually seen in domesticated horses. The complexity of the social behaviors and how they structure their herds into long-term family groups is quite unique.

What Has Happened to the Przewalski Horse Today?

Breeding programs around the world are working hard to preserve this breed. Small family herds can be found in several zoos around the world, while there are also programs that are working to continue reintroducing this breed back to their native habitat.

One of the largest breeding programs is located in China, where over 120 horses are currently divided into more than a dozen breeding herds. This program was started in 1985 with just 11 horses that were imported. Nearly 60 horses from this program have been reintroduced to the wild.

The Przewalski horse is nowhere near being out of danger, but the recovery has been strong since the 1980s. At one point, the population of this breed was down to 12 known individuals. It will continue to take a concerted effort by breeders and preservation experts from around the world to help this breed to survive, but the most difficult steps have already been taken.