Almost everywhere you go around the world, horses are a source of great wonder and intrigue. They’re often depicted as the embodiment of freedom, galloping through wide open spaces with impressive grace and picturesque beauty.
These majestic animals have proven to be essential ever since they were first domesticated by Asian nomads around 4,000 years ago. Even now, they remain prominent in traditional folklore and mythology.
Although horses are often associated with having a wild spirit, the only truly wild horse alive today is the Mongolian Horse (a.k.a. Przewalski’s Horse, or Takhi).
Other horses perceived to be “wild”– such as the North American Mustang, Australian Brumby, or Namib Desert horse– are actually just feral horses who descend from once-domesticated breeds.
Przewalski’s Horses have subtle differences from their domesticated counterparts, including their size and build, but both belong to the family Equidae.
Native to central Asia’s steppes, the Mongolian horse was driven to extinction in the wild, with the last horse spotted in 1968. It is only recently that these horses have found their way back into the wild, after reintroduction efforts were put into place to save the species.
Przewalski’s Horses are currently classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List. They’re facing numerous obstacles to recovery, such as a loss of genetic diversity due to the initially small gene pool that was used to repopulate the species.
What follows are 30 fascinating facts about the Mongolian horse, including details on their diet, habitat, more info on why they’re currently listed as endangered, and the efforts being put in place to protect them.
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- Basic Mongolian Horse Facts
- Mongolian Horse Habitat
- Mongolian Horse Diet
- Why are Mongolian Horses Endangered?
- Mongolian Horse Conservation
Basic Mongolian Horse Facts
1. The Mongolian wild horse is also commonly known as the Asian wild horse, Dzungarian Horse, Takhi, and, most recognizably, Przewalski’s Horse. It’s named after Russian explorer N.M. Przewalski, who first scientifically described the species as Equus przewalskii in the late 19th century after finding a skull and hide of one of the rare horses and sharing them at a museum in St. Petersburg. Their official scientific name is Equus ferus Przewalskii.
2. The first documentation of these wild horses are rock engravings and paintings that were found in underground caves across Spain and France dating back more than 20,000 years ago. A Tibetan monk named Bodowa was the first to mention them in writing, and Genghis Kahn is reported to have seen the horses during his Mongolian conquests.
3. Wild horses are very important to traditional Mongolian culture, and are considered to be a symbol of their national heritage. According to folk tales, the horse is thought to be the riding mounts of the Gods. This led to them being given the name Takhi, meaning spirit (or worthy of worship) in Mongolian.
4. Smaller and stockier than most other horses, Przewalski’s Horses stand around 48 to 56 inches tall at the shoulders and weigh in at anywhere from 550 to 800 pounds. They are often identified by their large head and heavy build, which is supported by short legs that are darker in color and often have faint stripes.
5. The coat of these rare Mongolian horses can vary in color, anywhere from beige to dark brown. But they all sport a lighter underbelly and darker back that contrasts with their white muzzle. Interestingly, they boast an erect mane with no forelock, much like their cousin, the Zebra (with whom they share the same family, Equidae).
6. Although Przewalski’s Horses have 66 chromosomes and domesticated horses have 64 chromosomes, they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring that have 65 chromosomes. Due to the fact that the hybrid offspring share the appearance of the Przewalski Horse (including their stiff mane and coloring), chromosomal testing is required to identify them.
7. The Przewalski’s Horse is a very social animal, and lives in either a harem or bachelor herd. Harems consist of around 10 mares and their offspring, which are led by a dominant stallion. When male offspring come of age to compete with the dominant stallion, they’re chased away and join a bachelor herd until they can compete to lead a harem of their own.
8. Herds of Mongolian horses often act defensive in an effort to support the foals, whose survival rate tends to be low due to their vulnerability to predators. Mares are extremely protective of their young and can be quite aggressive during the first 6 to 8 months of their offspring’s life, when they still rely on their mother’s milk for survival.
9. Like other domesticated horses, these Mongolian animals use neighing calls to communicate with each other. When a horse neighs, it can be done in frustration or to alert other horses that a predator is near their herd. Stallions also make sharper neighs and grunts during courtship, or when challenged by another stallion.
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Mongolian Horse Habitat
10. The wild Mongolian horse historically wandered Asia’ steppes freely, including the border with China and the Gobi Desert. Despite an extremely dry climate, the Gobi region is home to many Mongolian animals who roam its many springs, forests, and mountains. These include the Mongolian Wild Ass, a cousin of Przewalski’s Horse.
11. Today these rare horses can only be found in reintroduction sites in Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan. The Przewalski’s Horse habitat requires them to be very adaptive, as the extreme temperatures can be a challenge. During the winter months they grow a thick coat to keep warm against the freezing temperatures, which can often fall below zero.
12. Another challenge these wild horses must combat are the region’s high winds. They can reach up to 90 miles per hour in the spring and fall months, when the winds are at their strongest. To protect their eyes, nostrils, and reproductive parts, the horses face away from the winds and tuck their tail between their legs.
13. The deadliest of the Przewalski’s Horse predators are wolves, as they can chase their prey for extended periods of time. To protect their young, the mares will form a circle around their offspring while the stallion patrols the circle, prepared to charge at any threats. During the night, one horse will usually stand guard, watching for predators while the herd rests.
14. Mongolian horses are constantly on the move, with their home ranges being anywhere from 1 to 12 square miles. Stallions in a bachelor herd travel the most, sometimes covering over 13 miles a day. They go in search of water and favorable grazing spots, only stopping to rest when temperatures get too warm.
15. The Przewalski Horse is the only truly wild horse left in the world. Other “wild” horses that roam Australia, the western plains of North America, and East Coast barrier islands are just feral horses (or their descendants) that escaped from ranches or farms and returned to the wild.
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Mongolian Horse Diet
16. The Przewalski’s Horse maintains a strictly herbivorous diet, getting most of their nutrition by grazing on grass and leaves from shrubs and trees. But their meals can also include tree bark if food sources are running low. Those that live in zoos are also fed hay, carrots, and various grains.
17. Like domesticated horses, Mongolian Horses are hind-gut fermenters, meaning that the fermentation of their ingested fiber occurs in the large intestine. This requires them to drink lots of water, and consume low quality food like grass. Hind-gut fermenters can process food at a more rapid rate then foregut fermenters which allows them to have a larger food intake.
18. These horses spend most of their time grazing and searching for water. Every day they consume 12 to 15 pounds of grass. But due to their extremely dry habitat, finding the large amounts of water they need to survive can be a challenge. If need be, they will use their sharp, elongated hooves to dig holes in the ground to find additional water sources.
19. The Takhi’s eating habits change along with the seasons. They experience a phenomenon called hypodermis, where their metabolic rate slows down in the wintertime. This requires them to eat their food more slowly than they do during warmer times of the year in order to digest it properly.
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Why are Mongolian Horses Endangered?
20. Mongolian Horse populations first began to dwindle after the last Ice Age, when their native steppe started to transition from vast grasslands to forests that the animals were not well adapted to. The degradation of their habitat, along with harsh winters in the mid-20th century, forced them to migrate east into foreign territory.
21. Arguably even more damaging than the environmental changes that the Przewalski’s Horses faced were the farmers and livestock. Agriculture bombarded the once-open grazing lands of their habitat, creating competition for resources. This, along with the increasing scarcity of water, forced them into smaller ranges and pressured the animal’s livelihood.
22. Humans have also proved to be a great threat to these wild horses, with hunting and military operations causing harm to the species and wreaking havoc on their native lands. Humans further caused harm with their curiosity, as many wealthy westerners captured the peculiar horses to keep as pets.
23. By the 1960s these factors resulted in the Takhi being declared extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature after several expeditions failed to find the horse in Mongolia and China. It was not until later, after reintroduction efforts were put into place, that the species was reclassified as critically endangered.
24. Still rare enough today to be officially classified as endangered, Przewalski’s Horses continue to face struggles. Competition for resources with domesticated livestock remains one of the greatest current threats for the horse’s survival, as well as a loss of genetic diversity. Their already small genetic base, combined with hybridization with domestic horses, has resulted in fewer offspring and more horses dying at younger ages.
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Mongolian Horse Conservation
25. One of the main conservation efforts that saved Mongolian horse populations was the Foundation for the Preservation & Protection of the Przewalski Horse. Founded in 1977, it introduced an exchange program for animals between zoos across the world. This helped protect and breed the species, with the ultimate goal of reintroducing them into the wild.
26. By 1992, 16 Przewalski’s Horses has been released back into the wild in Mongolia. Since then, reintroduction efforts have succeeded in growing wild populations at several sites. These include Khustain Nuruu National Park, Khar Us Nuur National Park, and the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected area. Additional aid came from organizations such as Association Takh and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo.
27. There are currently over 300 of these rare horses living in the wild across Mongolia and China. The total population of the species stands at around 1,988 individuals, with 1101 females, 883 males, and four whose gender is unknown. The species was officially changed from critically endangered to endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2011.
28. Since then, the Russian Geographical Society has been working on a project known as “The return of the Przewalski’s Horse.” Their goal is to reach the original population size of the Mongolian horse in its native habitat. They plan to establish a center of reintroduction that will include acclimatization pens and a research hospital, both of which will work together to prepare horses for life back in the wild.
29. All the Takhi that are alive today descend from an original group of 13 breeding individuals that were protected after their extinction in the wild through these zoo conservation programs. Their population is expected to continue to increase, but many conservationists still worry about a loss of genetic diversity.
30. The San Diego Zoo has been in collaboration with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania to study the DNA and genetic makeup of the Przewalski’s Horse, in an effort to make informed decisions about the breeding and conservation of the species. The hope is to gain information that will help maintain the genetic diversity of the species, and ultimately save them from extinction. –Christina Maggitas, lead photo via Pixabay