As the only breed of horse to never be domesticated, the Przewalski’s horse has a long and fascinating history. Once considered to be extinct in the wild, the stocky horse breed has recently been reintroduced to its native lands. Its population is now higher than it has been in generations, and captive breeding programs give hope that these incredible horses have a bright future.
Fact: Przewalski is pronounced shuh-VAL-skee or per-zhuh-VAHL-skee.
Small, Stocky, and Spirited
Standing only 12-14 hands high, the Przewalski’s horse is smaller than the average domestic horse. These horses weigh between 550 and 800 pounds, and they’re heavily built with thick necks and short legs.
The dun-colored horses are only cousins to the zebra, but they have certain physical attributes that link the two wild equid species. With no forelock, the Przewalski’s horse has a dark, erect mane similar to a zebra’s. They also have stripes behind their knees, and a dark stripe along the spine.
Fact: In Mongolia, the wild horses are called “takhi” which means “spirit.”
Wild Horses of Europe and Asia
There’s no clear evidence to when the Przewalski’s horse first emerged, but we do know they used to roam freely throughout Europe and Asia. Eventually, their natural habitat shifted and shrunk. Changes in the environment, hunting, and modern encroachment forced the herds of wild horses eastward into Asia. As the population dwindled, their last home was on the Mongolian steppes of the Gobi Desert.
Extremely dry, the Gobi Desert isn’t an easy place to live. The arid region in southern Mongolia is marked by mountains and dunes. In the summer, temperatures can soar to well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But come winter, those searing temperatures can drop to forty below zero. The Przewalski’s horse is equipped to survive in this harsh environment, but their population was completely wiped out by the 1960s.
Fact: The Przewalski’s horse is the only truly wild horse in the world. The “wild” horses found in North America and other areas are actually feral horses that were once domesticated. They escaped or were left behind, and they eventually learned to survive on their own. Like zebras, the Przewalski’s horse has never been domesticated.
A Tumultuous History
The first scientific record of these truly wild horses came from Russian explorer N. M. Przewalski in the 19th century. While the breed was named after him, it was later determined that he was far from the first to witness these beautiful animals in the wild. A German writer wrote about the horses as early as the 15th century, and scientific evidence shows the breed could be much older.
After Przewalski released his information on his namesake horse breed, things started going down hill for the already threatened subspecies. The more popular the horses became, the more they were in danger. The population was already at risk due to loss of habitat, hunting, and a succession of unseasonably cold winters.
By 1900, most of the Przewalski’s horses were either dead or captured. A German merchant named Carl Hagenbeck made a career out of capturing the wild horses and selling them to zoos and circuses across Europe. Others followed in his footsteps, and the population of wild horses was hit so hard, it couldn’t recover.
The situation continued in a downward spiral. During World War II, reports tell of how German soldiers slaughtered an entire herd of horses living in the Askania Nova Region of Ukraine. After that loss, there were estimated to be only 31 Przewalski’s horses left alive in the world. They lived in two zoos, and by 1950, their number was reduced to only 12.
With the Przewalski’s horse on the brink of complete extinction, conservationists started a renewed effort to save the subspecies. The Zoological Society of London spearheaded an effort to work with Mongolian researchers and develop captive breeding programs.
Fact: A British zoo recently celebrated the birth of a rare Przewalksi’s horse foal. The new filly is named Shargahan, which means “little yellow.”
In five decades, the breed made an incredible comeback. There were an estimated 1,5000 horses by 1990, and breed programs around the globe were working together to reintroduce genetic diversity to the entire population. Today, there are believed to be around 1,900 horses, and their conservation status was upgraded from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered.”
Every Przewalski’s horse alive today is a descendant of the 12 individuals left alive in 1950. Thanks to trading between multiple breeding programs, today’s population is considered both sustainable and genetically diverse.
And while captive breeding programs saved the subspecies, conservationists are also working to reintroduce the wild horses to their freedom. Hundreds of horses have been reintroduced to their native Mongolian habitat and live in protected areas. For the first time in generations, the Przewalski’s horse can be found living wild and free in Mongolia, Russia, and even the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine.
The wild horse’s population is steadily climbing. In the wild, researchers are seeing their numbers grow naturally and without human intervention. The Przewalski’s horse has survived the test of time, and conservationists hope their efforts are the first step in bringing this nearly extinct horse back back to life.