/ Feral Horse
- (Equus caballus)
mustang horses that abound today in North America's western plains
and deserts, and wild horses on a few east
coast barrier islands and in Australia are actually feral horses.
Wild horses are sometimes mangy-looking critters, with unkempt manes
and tails, burs, scars, and encrusted dust and dirt. Feral horses
of the Southwest are not recognized by most horse-registry organizations
that certify desirable traits and characteristics of a particular
breed, and are considered to be little more than 'buzzard bait' by
many. But wild horses are not all that different from other horses;
they are just not trained or domestic. Feral horses are descendants
of domestic stock who either escaped, were abandoned, or released
into the wild. But the wild horse is an animal enmeshed in controversy.
Decisions about their management and protection are cloaked in myth
and emotion that have to do with Native Americans, pioneers, and the
'Old West"; therefore their disposition has been contentious for nearly
half a century.
- The wild mustangs
that are found in the United States are not the first herds to roam
the land. Ancient horses were endemic to North America. Their fossil
record shows the evolution and indicates that they spread to Eurasia
via the Bering land bridge. That ancient horse species, Equus became
extinct on this continent about ten thousand years ago. They disappeared
as part of the massive extinction of megafauana that occurred at the
end of the last great Ice Age. Every horse vanished or was wiped out
by changing climate, disease, or human hunters - - all may have played
a part in the obliteration that also included mammoth, rhinoceros,
sabertooth cat, camel, and the short-faced bear.
- Not until 1519,
when Cortez arrived in Mexico, did horses return to this, their ancestral
home. Early Spanish conquistadors, explorers, and priests brought
with them their horses. Some of those horses, now known as mustangs,
escaped and formed the first herds used by Native Americans. The name
mustang comes from the Spanish word 'mesteno' which means stray
or wild. They were joined by other breeds as European descendants;
settlers, trappers, miners, cattlemen and farmers began to venture
the mid-1800s, the wild horse population had risen to over two million.
Then in the latter half of the 19th century, North American wild horse
herds began to shrink. Fences and farms cut down the open range of the
Great Plains. They were pushed into remote deserts and badlands. The 20th
century saw thousands captured for use in first the Boer War and then
World War I. Later the feed industries, first chicken then dog and cat,
seized upon them as a cheap source of food protein. Continental Europeans
also bought millions of pounds of U.S. horse meat, some of it wild, to
- The only truly
wild horse species are 'Przewalski's
horses', wild horses named after the Russian explorer who discovered
them in 1879. Przewalski's are the original wild horse that roamed
Mongolia and were tamed by the likes of Gengis Khan. Przewalski's
'discovery' of the wild horse on the steppes of central Asia was the
reason they became extinct in the wild. Collectors and zoos around
the world wanted them, and the Mongolian people found a quick source
of income for a resource that they did not think very highly of -
- the Przewalskies competed for food with other animals they had on
the steppes. Today they survive exclusively in zoos and preserves.
There are projects
underway to reintroduce small herds of them into parts of their former
range in Mongolia.
wild horses weigh between 500 and 800 pounds. Their mane is stiff
and erect and lacks a forelock. Their body has a dark dorsal stripe
running down the middle of their back. They also have black strips
around their fetlocks, the lower legs. It is this horse species that
was depicted in the prehistoric cave paintings of southern France
and northern Spain.
Wild horses do not achieve their full adult size until they are four
to seven years old. The delayed growth is due to their natural environment.
During the spring and summer they grow rapidly, but in fall and winter
seasons they show little or no growth as forage becomes scarce. Their
body utilizes body fat and all available food to produce body heat,
not additional growth.
- Adult stallions
(male leaders) can reach 15 hands or 60" high and weigh up to 1,000
pounds. However, the average wild horse is 13 to 14.2 hands high.
Weight varies with height, but most are around 700 to 800 pounds.
But while one area of the country may produce a predominately stocky
Quarter Horse type, another area may have wild horses with the characteristics
of a Thoroughbred, Standardbred, draft, Morgan, Arabian, or true Mustang
the result of their environment and growth patterns, wild horses possess
stronger legs and higher bone density than domestic horses. They are
medium or heavy boned in order to withstand the rigors of running
wild. They also have very hard feet; their hooves must be able to
withstand all kinds of natural surfaces.
- Within a wild
horse herd, the bloodlines of several different breeds can usually
be seen. The wild appaloosa has descended from spotted Spanish horses
that were further developed by the Nez Perce. Many herds also include
horses of palomino coloring, a breed also originating from Spain.
Wild paints, also known as pintos, are also common. Paints were a
favorite mount of the Plains Indians because of their natural camouflage
coloring. About half of all wild horses are reddish brown in color.
Others are grey, black, white, greyish-brown , and palomino colored.
The final word, wild horses come in all colors.
eat grass or roughage and drink water from seeps, springs, streams,
or lakes. Adults eat about 5 to 6 pounds of plant food each day. Wild
horses are able to process dry and course grasses and other vegetation.
When grass is scant, they well eat anything that grows; leaves, goose
bushes, young twigs, even tree bark. They drink twice a day and also
seek out needed mineral salt deposits.
Wild horses can be separated into groups according to their age and
gender. From birth to one year, both male and females are foals. In
their second year, males are called a colt and a female becomes a
filly. Colts and fillies are also called yearlings. Colts mature in
four to seven years to become a young stud or bachelor. A female remains
a filly until she is four years old or has been bred. Fillies who
are bred or reach the age of four become mares. Mares with foals are
usually three, more often four or more years old. When a bachelor
heads his own band, he is then called a stallion.
lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the vast semiarid reaches of the
West. They may roam over a few to several hundred, even a thousand
or more, square miles, depending on the lushness of vegetation and
the availability of water and shelter. They do not camp at their watering
sites as do cattle and sheep, probably due to a survival instinct.
wild horses have been removed, displaced from more productive rangelands
with good water. Moreover, western lands continued to deteriorate
because of overgrazing by cattle. Today, the habitat of most wild
horses are public lands. In the west, these are desert scrublands
with low rainfall and few water sources.
horses stay together for protection. When
a group of wild horses moves across the landscape, normally the stallion
will be in the rear. His main job is to protect the group from attack
by another stallion or a predator. The stallion protects his band or group,
composed of foals, young colts, fillies, and mares. The stallion also
sires the offspring. He usually stands guard, is alert and positioned
slightly away from the group. If any perceived threat approaches, the
stallion places himself in front of his band and challenges the intruder.
(Photos above). Deer and pronghorn antelope often
graze near a band, because they know the stallion will alert them to any
- Each group also
has a lead mare. This dominant mare leads the family group in their
grazing, to the water hole, and to the mineral lick where they dig
for these dietary supplement. She guides the band to sheltered places,
out of the wind when storms howl.
- Each member knows
their place in the order and rules of band behavior are carefully
followed. Punishment to a yearling is swift; usually all that is needed
is a head movement with ears laid back or a nip or gentle kick. Mutual
grooming (simultaneously nibbling each others necks and backs) is
frequent between family members, occasionally even between the band
stallion and the juvenile sons.
- Yearlings of
two to three years in age are run off from the herd by the stallion.
The fillies eventually join another band to breed and raise their
own offspring. As for the colts, the stallion sees any maturing male
as a competitor for leadership and breeding rights to his mares. Each
colt is driven off from the band, and the castoff colts join together
in their own 'bachelor bands.' Within those groups, a pecking order
is established and they practice the fighting skills needed to one
day win and keep mares. The strongest eventually leave the bachelor
band to form a harem group of their own.
Herding and speed help the wild horse escape from predators. Their
main protective instinct is flight. Sure-footed and fleet, they spend
the majority of their waking hours grazing, searching for food, or
traveling to water. In good times and bad, the band wanders over vast
acreage in search of food. The constant travel by wild horses, often
over hard and rocky terrain, keeps them strong and culls out any older
and infirm horses. Weak horses perish because of this constant travel.
Another benefit of this constant travel is that it naturally keeps
their hooves trimmed.
A stallion is a male horse capable of mating with a mare and producing
offspring. The stallion mates with adult mares in its band, but they will
not breed with their own daughters if they come into season. The dominant
stallion will offer no resistance when another stallion seeks to steal
one of his daughters, but will fight instantly if an attempt is made on
one of his mares. Battles between stallions for band supremacy vary from
outbluffing to becoming deadly vicious. If neither opponent will yield,
the loser of the battle may end up crippled. In the case of a wild horse,
this is a certain death sentence.
takes 11 months for a foal to be born. As soon as the foal is born,
its eyes are open and they try to stand up. Soon after, it is on its
feet and sucking its mother's milk. In about two hours, the colt can
trot along with its mother. A mare with a foal is very protective
of her young. Mares in the wild allow their offspring to nurse up
to two weeks before they give birth again; if they are barren for
a year, the youngster might not wean until they are near two years
the Bureau of Land Management
(BLM) of the U.S. Department of the Interior manages herds of mustangs
and donkeys in several western states including Arizona, California,
Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah,
and Wyoming. There are smaller populations of feral horses in Alaska,
Missouri, Nebraska and some on a few Outer Banks islands of North
Carolina. Some wild horse herds are managed and protected by the U.S.
- There four main
wild-horse herds in the U.S. that have possible Spanish
origins and are largely genetically intact; they have survived
and reproduced with little outside influence since their ancestors
were lost, swiped, or left by conquistadors and priests. The herds
are all managed by the BLM: the Sulphur
herd in Utah, Pryor
Mountain herd in Montana, Cerbat/Marble Canyon herd in Arizona,
and the Kiger
herd in Oregon.
- Estimates are
that less than 20 thousand wild horses roam the west, and the BLM claims
that the land can only healthily sustain a population of about 24,000.
The Wild Horses
and Burro Freedom Alliance disagrees with these claims and maintains
that government policies are pushing the wild horse and burro populations
toward extinction. The BLM runs a wild
horse adoption program that offers about 8,000 selected animals
to the public for $125.
and coyotes do not have the size and strength to attack and kill a
healthy, full-grown horse. Mountain
lion and black
bear are the only predators capable of bringing
down a wild horse. But they cannot match their speed. Nevertheless,
these predators will keep watch at the fringes of a herd, awaiting
an aged or injured horse or a weak foal. Predators can pose a serious
threat to the long-term survival of the band if they repeatedly prey
on the newborn and weakened foals.
Here are a few other websites where you can get lots more information
about wild horses:
Wild Horse and Burro Program from Bureau of Land Management
- The Bureau
of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service are responsible
for the management and protection of wild horses and burros on public
A Contrasting Viewpoint:
Wild Horse Club - The Club is dedicated to the protection and
promotion of America's Wild Horses and Burros, both those that have
been adopted and those still roaming on the range.
Horses - Here you can read of governments struggle with managing
these wild herds, keeping them healthy, their numbers in balance with
supporting resources, and out of the way of civilization.
Institute of Range and the American Mustang (IRAM)
KBR's World of Wild Horses and Burros
from eduScapes 42eXplore - This
website provides tons of information, links, and activities related
Other Horse Sites:
Communication With Horses by K. Schuler
Horse Training and Horse Care Information from Cherry Hill
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Note: All photographs
taken with a digital camera near the Onaqui Mountain Wild Horse Management
Area along the Pony Express Trail National Back Country Byway in Utah.