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I was recently watching horses running and playing in a pasture. It made me think about horses in the wild, and wonder if there are still “wild horse” in the world, so I decided to do some research to find the answer to this question.
There are still wild horses. The largest population of wild horses is in Australia. In the United States, wild horses live on beaches, in National Forest, and in the Western United States. The Przewalski horses are the sole “wild horse” breed, but DNA has recently challenged their status.
Wild horses roam our vast country. They can be seen in various regions, and most are under the control of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. There is a lot of interesting information about “wild horses,” including what is considered a “wild horse.”
Most people consider a “wild horse” is one that is not tamed. But the definition of “wild” concerning animals is unclear. Many scientists consider animals that have never been tamed or adopted for human use are wild.
Using this characterization, there are wild horses present around the world. However, when scientists apply the standard to equine breeds, there is no consensus.
There are wild horses on the beaches.
The outer banks of North Carolina has wild horses on Swan Beach.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a string of islands that separates the mainland of North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean. It is known for its beaches and wild horses. Wild horses are present on the Shackleford Banks, Corolla, and Ocracoke Island.
No one can say for sure how the horses made their way to these islands. But the region is legendary for shipwrecks. So the prevailing theory is some 500 years ago, a Spanish shipwrecked, and aboard the vessel were horses. These horses swam to the islands and flourished.
North Carolina formally recognized these wild horses as the state horse. To see the horses, you can schedule a tour or go on your own. The horses’ area most of the time is pretty remote, so a guide is recommended. Swan Beach is known as one of the best places to watch the wild horses.
Assateague Island is where the Chincoteague ponies live.
Assateague Island National Seashore Maryland is close to some other tourist destinations, like Washington D.C. and Annapolis. It would be worth including in your vacation plans to see the wild horses on the beach.
Like the horse on the Outerbanks of North Carolina, these horses could be survivors of a Spanish shipwreck. The horses on the island are small; some people refer to them as ponies.
The harsh conditions and sparse food sources may have stunted their development over the years. You will also notice they have bloated bellies; this is not from overeating but the salt content in their diet.
Don’t get close to the horses or ponies.
As with other horses, be careful not to get too close; even though they are small, they could still cause harm. The most famous horses on Assateague Island are the Chincoteague Ponies. The Chincoteague fire department has a herd of horses on the island, separated by fences on the Virginia/Maryland state line.
They have an annual custom of culling the herd down to 150 each year. The annual culling is a tradition that has been around since before the formation of our country. It is referred to as Pony Penning and involves swimming the horses across a channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island to the auction.
The event is scheduled for the last Thursday in July and draws tens of thousands of spectators. The pony auction helps to control the herd size and raises money for the fire department.
Cumberland Island has wild horses with Tennessee Walker and Paso Fino bloodlines.
Cumberland Island, Georgia, is an island only accessible by boat or ferry. It is believed the horses arrived with Spaniard settlers who abandoned them when they left the island. The island has a hotel, and reservations are needed if you intend to take the ferry.
The Carnegie family built a couple of Mansions on the island, one of which is used as a hotel today. The horses are believed to be a mix of Tennessee Walker and Paso Fino bloodlines. The herd size on the island is approximately 160 strong. The horses live on the island free of any assistance, just like other wild animals.
There are some great locations to see wild horses.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. The wild horses are easy to view. The horse at the park are descendants of settlers horses that evaded capture. In the late 1800 rancher allowed their horse to free-range. They would round them up when they were needed.
This free-ranged land became the national park. The horse that found and caught were returned to their owners; however, some evaded capture. These horses were the beginning of the wild horse herds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
For years the government tried to rid the park of the wild horses. Their attempts were unsuccessful, and the horses are now a fixture. There is an effort to maintain the number of horses at the park.
Pryor Mountain Mustangs, Wyoming and Montana
Pryor Mountain Mustangs, Wyoming, and Montana The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was the first public wild horse range established in the United States. It preceded the Free-Roaming Wild Horse & Burro Act 1971 by three years.
The range boundary covers over 38,000 acres of land and includes parts of Montana and-Wyoming. The “wild horse” origin has been traced to the conquistadors of the 1500s.
They to be on the small size measuring about 14 hands-on average, and have wide foreheads. The Pryor Mountains are a great place to watch wild horses.
Most can be seen in the East Pryor Mountain area. There are about 150 wild horses in the area. (Click here to see an article on horse measurements)
Virginia Range Herd Nevada,
Virginia Range Herd Nevada, this range is approximately 30 square miles located just east of Reno, Nevada. To see the horses, it is best to hike. They are not easily viewable by car.
This range was used in the western TV series Bonanza. No one can say for certain how long the wild horses have been on the range. One of the great pioneers known by the nickname “Wild Horse” Annie to protect wild horses from this area.
She was instrumental in getting some of the legislation passed that still protect “wild horses” today.
Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area, Colorado
The Spaniards began an exploration of this region in the 1500s. In Little Book Cliffs, the “wild horses” are believed to be descendants of horses who escaped from these explorers. The horses that freely roam the area are called “mustangs.”
The Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area encompasses more than 36,000 acres of land and includes canyons and plateaus. It is a great place to hike, especially in the spring and fall, when the weather is mild and the horses are readily seen.
Hikers and horseback riders are welcome year-round, but travel by vehicle is only open from May to December. The Little Book Cliffs are eight miles northeast of Grand Junction,
To best see the “‘wild horses,” join a local hiking group to Coal Canyon or Hoodoo trails. There are about 150 “wild horses” living at Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area.
Oatman, Arizona is a ghost town and home to “wild burros” and “wild horses.” The burros are much more populous and easier to find. You may encounter the burros on Route 66, so be careful driving in the area.
They were originally brought to the area by the miners seeking gold. When the mining industry died, the miners left the area and their donkeys.
There are about 100 “wild horses” in the Oatman area. However, unlike the burros, they do not stay in the town. They roam the thousands of acres in the surrounding area, which encompasses thousands of acres.
To find the horses, you will need to seek the advice of a Bureau of Land Management agent who monitors the horses’ movements.
Most of the wild horses are in the western states.
The wild horses living in the United States descend from horses brought by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. The majority of wild horses are in the Western United States. Below are the statistics from the Bureau of Land Management.
Western States Horse Population
Wild horses mostly populate the western states; however, wild horses roam freely in Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, Maryland, Virginia, and the beaches of North Carolina.
Wild horses can be dangerous, so don’t approach them.
However, horses are prey animals, and their first instinct is to bolt from danger; however, they are large animals, and if they feel threatened, they know how to defend themselves and hurt you.
If you are familiar with horses, you should be able to read a horse’s body language. (See my article here on what a horse’s ears tell us)
Even the most seasoned horseman knows that an unfamiliar horse can be unpredictable. There are certain steps you can take to create a safer environment when near wild horses.
- Keep a safe distance between you and the wild horse. If you see a horse backing up because you are approaching, then you are too close. Some land management areas have rules that establish the distance you must maintain between yourself and a wild horse. This is normally 50 feet, which is a good distance for you to use on your own.
- Never feed a wild horse. Besides the obvious, getting dangerously close to the horse, you could harm the horse. A wild horse could develop serious gastric intestinal issues from eating food they are not accustomed to digesting. (see my article on colic here).
- Use Common Sense If you are taking pictures, pay attention to the movements of the horses. Don’t get between a mare and her foal. Don’t be loud or make a quick movement that could be interpreted as a threat to the horses
The largest population of wild horses is in Australia.
“Wild horses” in Australia
Australia has the most “wild horses” in the world. The country that is famous for the movie about horses “The Man from Snowy River.” The wild horses’ population has been estimated to be close to a million or as low as 400,000, and their population is growing by 20 percent each year.
In the United States, “wild horses” are referred to as mustangs; in Australia, they are called “Brumbies.” Brumbies are present all over Australia, and their population is causing a problem. One of the issues is their massive numbers are creating havoc on the eco-system.
Australian wild horses are called “Brumbies.”
They live in areas where their hard hooves damage the vegetation. The Brumbies feet crush sensitive alpine and subalpine environments where the vegetation supports delicate creatures such as the she-oak skink and corroboree frog.
There is a worry that the Brumbies harm water sources spread weeds and compact soils in spots where they congregate. The Australian government with the support of its citizens are trying to humanely get control of the situation.
People love to see a herd of wild horses, the majesty of the sight is breathtaking and no one wants to see these creatures mistreated. To get the Brumbie problem under control will be a monumental task.
They are currently trapping the wild horse in fenced areas. They set out some horse treats and close the gate behind the horse when he enters. This is successful but a slow process and does not keep up with the growing population. But once captured, the Brumbies have made good horses. They are rugged and athletic.
The Przewalski horse is the last “wild horse.”
Could a wild horse be an animal that lives on its own without any help from humans? Let’s look at the Przewalski horse for some guidance. The Przewalski horse was the last known wild horse everyone could agree on. But as you will learn, that also changed.
In 1879 Nicholas Przewalski led in an expedition to Central Asia and returned home with the skin and skull of a mammal from the horse family. No one knew what to make of it. Was this a wild horse?
As they became known, the Przewalski horse was considered the last remaining “wild horses,” and they ran free well into the 20th century.
Although similar to a domestic horse, Ludovic Orlando of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues published a study showing that Przewalski’s and domesticated horses have significant differences in genes that govern metabolism, muscle contraction, reproduction, and behavior.
Most Przewalski horses live in zoos today.
These relatives of the modern-day horse still survive today, but almost exclusively in Zoos. They resemble the domestic horse in most ways but are shorter, built heavier, and have a large head in relation to their bodies coupled with a thick neck and short legs.
Przewalski’s horses can be traced to the Central Asian steppe in the Kazakhstan region. They were listed as extinct in the wild in 1969. The only remaining ones were all in Zoos.
A successful breeding campaign was begun, and in the ’90s, some of the Przewalski horses were reintroduced to the wild in Mongolia, Hungary, China, and Russia. Today they have a population of only about 2,000.
Some scientists believe the Przewalski’s horses are a distant cousin to the domestic horse, and they have a common ancestor from over 500,000 thousand years ago. Much debate has been raised about whether or not the Przewalski horse is a true “wild horse.”
What were the first wild horses to be domesticated?
Botai horses were the first to be domesticated. In 2018 scientists gathered DNA from what they believed to be domesticated horse remains excavated in Kazakhstan.
These horses are referred to as Botai horses, which are considered the first domesticated species of horses. The remnants are over 5,500 years old. The purpose of the DNA test was to confirm that Botai horses were the modern horse’s ancestors. However, the DNA test results showed a commonality with the Przewalski horse.
Therefore the scientist concluded the Przewalski horse was not a wild horse but domesticated horses that escaped from a Kazakhstan owner thousands of years ago and began breeding in the wild and are thus feral.
This theory has raised numerous arguments among scientists, and there is no clear answer. The Przewalski’s horse is still accepted by many people to be the only remaining “wild horse” group in the world.
For others who accept the DNA results from the Botai horses, they conclude the wild horse is extinct. To read about how horses relied on intelligence and instincts to survive, click here.
It’s illegal to capture wild horses on public land.
It’s not legal in the United States to catch a wild horse. Under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal government has authority over the horses well being.
President Nixon signed into law the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. This act governs the BLM, a protection measure to provide for the wild horses.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act requires the BLM to keep an annual population estimate of the number of wild horses and burros roaming federally managed lands in the West.
The Bureau of Land Management controls the horse population on public land.
In order to maintain healthy conditions on the range, which is the number of wild horses and burros that can live in balance with other public land resources and uses. Wild horses and burros that exceed this safe number are to be removed from the range.
The current estimated on-range wild horse and burro population (as of March 1, 2019) is 87,885, a 7.25 percent increase over the 2018 estimate of 81,951 (which doesn’t include animals that were removed last year as part of management action).
That means the current West-wide on-range population exceeds AML by more than 61,000. Check this site for current information (blm.gov/programs/wild-horse). It also has a chart with a breakdown by state population of wild horses.
The BLM puts wild horses up for adoption.
So, although it is illegal to catch a wild horse, you can adopt one through the BLM. They have wild horse roundups, and they are anxious to have people adopt the horses.
They even have incentive programs in place that pay the person who successfully adopts a horse up to $1,000.00. Click this link for current information on the wild horse adoption program.
- To read more about horse native to North America, click here.
- To find out if horseflies have been around since the domestication of horses, click here.
- To read about horseshoes and why “wild horses” don’t need shoes, click here.
- Are Horses Native to North America? The Fossils Tell a Story
- Are Wild Horses Dangerous? Will They Attack?