Name of breed: Przewalski’s Horse. Also known as the Mongolian Wild Horse, Dzungarian Horse or takhi.
Place of origin: Central Asia.
Breed origin: Przewalski’s horses, or Equus ferus przewalskii, are the last surviving subspecies of wild horse. First described scientifically in the late 19th century by Russian explorer N. M. Przewalski, for whom they are named, they exist both in captivity and in the wild. Recent scientific studies have revealed that they descended from a type of horse that was domesticated around 4,000 BC by the Botai, a group of hunter-gatherers who lived in Central Asia. While these horses were likely the first ever to be domesticated, they are only distant relatives of the modern horse, and Przewalski’s horse was an offshoot that returned to a wild existence.
Ever elusive and shy, Przewalski’s horses were relatively unknown and unseen even within their native lands until Nikolai Przewalski discovered them in 1878. Unfortunately, this led to widespread Western interest in the species as a hunting trophy and a zoological curiosity, which contributed to their near-extinction. The many pressures of the 20th century in both Europe and Asia, as well as misguided research and collection efforts, meant that only twelve individual Przewalski’s horses remained alive by the late 1950s, and they were deemed extinct in the wild in 1969.
Thankfully, intense conservation efforts led by Prague Zoo managed to save the species, bringing the numbers up from 12 to 134 in just six years. By 1990, there were 961 Przewalski’s horses living in captivity, and conservationists’ thoughts began to turn to re-introducing the horses into the wild. From 1992 to 2004, Prague Zoo and other conservation groups released Przewalski’s horses in carefully selected environments within China and Mongolia, where they were carefully monitored and given support during tough times, but allowed to live as completely wild herds. This was especially important given the small genetic pool that was left, with the entire population descended from the original twelve survivors in the late fifties. A number of techniques were – and still are – utilised to help the species gain genetic strength and diversity. The two most important strategies are frequent releases of new horses into the wild from captive populations and a policy of minimal interference in their wild lives: in other words, letting natural selection do its thing.
Modern day Przewalski:
Today, as they have for millennia, Przewalski’s horses live in herds of between 6 and 16 individuals on the Central Asian steppe. There are two types of herd: the family herd, which consists of a stallion, his mares and their foals; and the bachelor herd, which is a group of stallions that are too old or too young to take control of a family herd. They graze on a variety of native vegetation and use their tough hooves to dig under the snow for grasses during the long, harsh winters. Around 1,500 Przewalski’s horses are thought to exist today, most in the wild.
Distinguishing features: Przewalski’s horses are smaller than most domesticated horses, standing between 12 and 14 hands high. They are stocky and muscular, with highly-attuned senses and a level of hardiness that puts the modern horse to shame. Their short legs often display faint primitive stripes around the knees, which fade into darker hair below. They have a thick neck and a large head with a convex profile. Their dark brown mane stands erect, and a dorsal stripe connects it to their low-set, dark tail. They are dun-coloured, with a pale belly and muzzle turning beige to reddish-brown on their neck, back and quarters.
If you dream of seeing wild Przewalski’s horses in their natural habitat, check out our Mongolian rides here.
Image credits: AnimalSake, Igor Ageenko/Shutterstock.com, San Diego Zoo.