I have an image of wild horses in my mind—the beautiful mustangs gallop freely across the grassy plains, tossing their manes and playing in the streams. The young foals dash madly about their mothers’ legs and risk the ire of the alpha mare and stallion. And although my perception of the horses that roam our countryside may be correct, I’ve got one small detail wrong.
Unfortunately, they aren’t truly wild. Almost all horses that live in the wilderness today are descended from domesticated horses.
The only truly wild horse is a small, pony-sized equine breed called Przewalski’s horse and pronounced: sheh-val-skee. The breed has been on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife List of Endangered Species list since 1976 and has been extinct in the wild for the last four decades. Now, thanks to conservation efforts, more than 220 horses roam freely in Hustai National Park in Mongolia.
The first record of Przewalski’s horse dates from 20,000 years ago. Cave paintings, rock carvings and other various artifacts were found in present day France and Spain. As mankind developed and spread all over the world, they began to view the wild horses as a nuisance, since they grazed on cattle pastures, and the stallions tended to run off with their domesticated mares. Gradually, the Przewalski herds were pushed back toward areas the humans felt they didn’t need. Their last territory was the southwestern part of Mongolia, where they were last sighted in 1968.
The steppe tarpans and forest tarpans died out in the 19th century, leaving Przewalski’s horse the only remaining ancestor of the domesticated horse alive in the world. Humans began domesticating horses about 3000 B.C., but Przewalski’s horses have slipped through time to become the only horse to escape human hands. Of course, today the horses that roam the Mongolian steppes are the result of careful breeding in zoos all over the world, but they remain untrained, never used for modern day purposes.
Prezwalski’s horse was named after Col. Nicolai Przewalski, who discovered the breed around 1880, although there is evidence that he was not actually the first to identify these horses.
Przewalski was an explorer from Russia who made three trips into the middle of Asia, and during his second trip in 1878 he was presented with a skull and a hide, supposedly from a wild horse. At the time people believed the wild horses were extinct, so Przewalski took the items to the University of St. Petersburg. They scientists confirmed the skill and hide were definitely from a wild horse. When Przewalski returned to the area in 1879, he discovered two herds of wild horses, which ran away as soon as they saw him. Since it’s customary to name newly discovered animals or plants after the discoverer, Przewalski’s horse received its name.
In all likelihood, Przewalski actually saw wild asses, and it was the brothers Grum Grshimailo, a couple of Russian hunters, who definitely saw the horses in the wild a few years later when they shot and killed some of them.
In the early 1900s, there were many wealthy aristocrats who were interested in keeping rare animals on their estates. Baron von Falz-Fein, who owned a tract of land in southern Russia, ordered the capture of Przewalski’s horses.
The first attempt was made in 1898, but the adult horses were nearly impossible to catch due to their speed. The hunters changed tactics and began catching young foals. The men would ride fast horses and chase the herds until the foals became exhausted, allowing the men to capture them. The stallion leader of the herd sometimes tried to attack the pursuers, which often led to the loss of his life. The herd would panic after such chaos, allowing humans to gather more foals. They tied the foals’ legs together and transported them in sacks on the sides of camels. Since the foals were so young, they still needed milk, but the sheep’s milk they tried to feed them had too much fat in it, and all the foals died.
The hunters decided to use domestic mares for the foals, and they managed more success in 1899. In 1900, three foals were captured for Baron von Falz-Fein. In 1901, 29 foals were taken from the herd, but the Baron had spent an enormous amount of money and decided to try to bargain for them. Carl Hagenbeck, an animal dealer, was able to get his hands on the foals, which arrived in Europe for the first time later that year. In 1902, 14 foals were caught, and in 1903, two fillies. After 1903, the capture of the foals ended, since the zoos weren’t interested in the plain looking Przewalski’s horse, and didn’t start again until 1947 when a few horses were taken off the steppes.
While the actual capture of the horses was difficult, the journey from Siberia to Hamburg, Germany, and other parts of Europe was long and strenuous, often taking more than six months. Of the horses that were captured in those early days, 15 went to England, two went to Germany, one to Scotland, one to Paris, and two to the Netherlands. Five went to the Baron von Falz-Fein. Two each also went to New York and Cincinnati. Many of the horses died during transport or shortly after they arrived at their destination, and not all of them bred.