Wild / Feral Horse
(Equus caballus)

Wild 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 west.
By 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 eat.
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.
Przewalski's 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.
Size: 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 type.
Characteristics: As 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.

Food: Wild horses 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.
Gender: 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.
Habitat: Wild horses 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.
Historically, 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.
Herding: Wild 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 danger.
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.
Locomotion: 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.
Reproduction: 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.
It 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 old.
Range: Today, 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. Forest Service.
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.
Predators: Wolves 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. 
More Information: Here are a few other websites where you can get lots more information about wild horses:
Tahki: The Last Wild Horse by Robin Meadows from ZooGoer - Learn more about the feral horses of Mongolia.
Similar Websites:
2) Abaco Wild Horse Fund (Bahamas)
3) Wild Horses of Assateague & Chincoteague

National 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 lands.

Related Websites:
2) Wild Horse and Burro Internet Adoption from Bureau of Land Management
3) Mustangs and Man Meet in the Middle
For A Contrasting Viewpoint:
4) Wild Horse and Burro Freedom Alliance
Pacific 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.
Related Websites:
2) Institute of Range and the American Mustang (IRAM)
3) KBR's World of Wild Horses and Burros
4) Wild Horse Sanctuary
Wild 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.
Related Sites:
3) Wild Horses: Exposing the Myths
4) Wild horses: Do They Belong in the West? by L. Bama from High Country News
Horses from eduScapes 42eXplore - This website provides tons of information, links, and activities related to horses.
Few Other Horse Sites:
2) Communication With Horses by K. Schuler
3) Finding a Pure Spanish Mustang by S. Catt
4) Horse Training and Horse Care Information from Cherry Hill
Try a webquest activity.

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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. (September 1999).


Developed by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 6/99, Updated 4/02