Into The Wild: Przewalski’s Horses

Nov 10, 2010 - 12:44 PM
This herd of Przewalski’s horses grazes peacefully in Hustai National Park. Photo by Kelsey Rideout/

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.

Up until World War II, there were about 50 horses scattered between around 20 zoos. The war, however, saw many of the horses die, and in 1945 there were only about 31 left, mostly in Prague, the Czech Republic, and Munich, Germany. They bred well in those zoos and were sold all over the world again. When the last mare was captured from Mongolia in 1947, she was taken to Askania Nova, Ukraine. Called Orlica III, her capture was essential to the longevity of the breed since inbreeding was already occurring.

In the 1970s, several breeding centers were established around the world, and the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse was established in 1977. The aim of the foundation was to develop a computerized studbook and to strive for the re-release of the species into the steppes of Mongolia.

The foundation established a breeding program that turned into a success, with nearly every mare foaling each year and a significant decrease in infant mortality. A number of semi-reserves were also established in the Netherlands and Germany to provide the horses with a more natural setting and encourage normal herd dynamics and breeding.

In 1992, 16 Przewalski’s horses were transported from semi-reserves to the grasslands of Hustai National Park. They were released into fenced acclimatization areas. They would remain in these areas for two years. In 1993, the first foal was born in Mongolia after 25 years of absence, and in June of 1994, the first herds passed the last fence in their life as they were released from their enclosures. Four more shipments of the horses occurred until 2000. A total of 84 horses were released into the park, and the last of the 13 groups of horses were released from the acclimatization areas in 2002.

In December of 2002, the Hustai National Park was granted the status of UNESCO “Man and Biosphere Reserve.” The reserves are designed to promote and demonstrate a balanced relationship between people and nature, as well as protect and help the areas thrive. There are 564 biosphere reserves in 109 countries.

The Przewalski’s horse has survived despite great odds and remains a special part of Mongolian culture. Takhi, the name the horses were given by the Mongolians, means spirit, and truly defines their story. As of 2008, the international studbook listed 1,872 living animals. Considering there were only an estimated 31 horses left in 1945, the Przewalski’s horse has made a phenomenal comeback.

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she’d love to hear from you!



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