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Przewalski Horse: The Last True Wild Horse

The Przewalski Horse has the unique distinction as being the last truly wild horse (Equus Ferus). Although many feral horses roam the U.S. and other countries of the world, these horses (such as mustangs) are all descendents of the domesticated horse (Equus Caballus). Przewalski's Horses, on the other hand, are a separate subspecies that, although captured in the past, have never actually been domesticated. They are not riding horses, they are not work horses, and they are not tame. But they are critically endangered.

As of 2005, there were approximately 1500 Przewalski Horses spread out across the world, contained mostly in zoos or reserves such as Mongolia's Hustai National Park. While this number may seem shockingly low, consider this: it's an improvement, since they were considered extinct in the wild in the 1960's. Since then, thanks to coordination and breeding programs between zoos around the world, the numbers have stabilized and the Przewalski's Horse has been reintroduced back into the wild.

Physical Attributes

The Przewalski Horse possesses a shorter, stockier build than their domesticated cousins. They average 12-14 hands at the withers, and their legs are shorter than the domesticated horse's. Their weight ranges around 500-750 pounds, depending on an individual's size and physique. The face is significantly larger in proportion to the body compared to the domesticated horse.

Photo of a Przewalski Horse

Photo taken by Jeff Kubina

Coat colors range from duns to reddish browns. The underbelly and muzzle are always beige/pale, and a dorsal stripe runs down the spine. Stripes are often apparent on the legs.

The tail is full and dark, but the mane is rather unique in that it forms a short, dark mohawk; one won't see the long, flowing manes often associated with domesticated horses.

Przewalski's Horses are well-equipped to handle the blistering cold and windy weather of the Eurasian deserts. During the winter period, they grow thick winter coats that include a beard and thick neck hair. When gusts of frigid or sandy wind blows at them, the face away from the wind and tuck their tail tightly between their legs, forming an effective barrier against the elements.

Although not a physical characteristic, it is interesting to note that the Przewalski's Horse possesses 66 chromosomes, as opposed to the domesticated horse which possesses 64. Although a different subspecies, a Przewalski Horse and a domesticated horse can successfully create offspring together, and that offspring will possess 65 chromosomes.

Temperament

Much like their domesticated cousins, Przewalski's Horses form into tight-knit social groups while out in the wild. The groups graze together, rest together, and mutually groom each other. During their grazing, they may travel distances of up to 10 square miles from their home range.

The formation of the groups is interesting, because they consist of two distinct types: a harem group, and a bachelor group.

A harem features a lead stallion, a small group of mares (generally under 10 mares), and young offspring attached to the mares.

When a mare sexually matures and is ready to breed, she will break away from her dam's harem group to join another. Young stallions, on the other hand, aren't given much of a choice: once a stallion becomes old enough to pose a challenge to the lead stallion, he is driven out of the group. These young stallions that are driven from groups typically join together to form temporary bachelor's groups, where they remain until each individual stallion establishes enough authority to create a harem of his own.

Mature males are highly territorial, and they fiercely compete with each other in an attempt to attract sexually-mature mares to their harem.

Health

Although the Przewalski Horse is critically endangered, their diminished numbers were caused largely by geographical changes to the world as sparse steppes gave way to thick forests, which they weren't able to adapt to. They are generally robust and healthy, and their lifespan in captivity averages about 20 years. Due to their critically low numbers, it's unknown whether the lifespan would differ much with those that are not kept in captivity.

Przewalski's Horses become sexually mature at two years of age, though mares typically will wait until three years of age to begin breeding. Heats are strongest during the spring and summer, but they can enter into a heat year round. Stallions, too, are willing to breed any time of the year.

The typical gestation period for a Przewalski Horse is 11 to 12 months.

Care And Ownership

Przewalski Horses have been captured and bred at zoos and conservation centers, but they haven't been used as riding horses, nor have they been domesticated by traditional standards. As such, although you may someday view one at a zoo, it is unlikely you will ever have the opportunity to own or directly interact with one.

Breed History

The Przewalski's Horse is named after a Russian colonel, Nikolai Przhevalsky, who lived in the latter 1800s. Przewalski is the Polish spelling of his last name. Przhevalsky, an explorer with a fondness for nature, underwent an expedition in 1881 to locate this rumored wild horse, and upon discovering their existence he described the breed in detail.

But although the breed has been named after him, he was certainly not the first to "discover" them since the Przewalski Horse roamed both Asia and Europe 30,000 years ago. Around 15,000 years ago Europe, which was then covered largely by steppes, started giving way to forests and woodlands. Since Przewalski's Horses weren't equipped to handle woodlands, they slowly retreated to Asia, where they remained around the Mongolian steppes to modern times.

One of the first European records of the Przewalski's Horse was by Johann Schiltberger, a German that documented his sightings during his imprisonment in Mongolia in the late 1300's.

Although never domesticated, the Przewalski Horse was first captured around turn of the 1900's by Carl Hagenbeck, a wild animal merchant that supplied zoos and circuses with wild stock. His captured horses were distributed to various zoos, which created an ironic situation whereby intruding in the natural order of things ended up saving the subspecies from extinction.

Przewalski Horses were last sighted in the wilds of Mongolia in the 1960's, and at the time they were labeled officially extinct in nature. To combat the problem, zoos around the world coordinated a breeding exchange program to boost the numbers, spearheaded by the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski's Horse which was formed in 1977. As the numbers increased, groups of Przewalski's Horses were released back into the wild Hustai National Park reservation in Mongolia. Nowadays there are a few hundred Przewalski's Horses in the wilds, in addition to those being held at other zoos and reservations.

The Great Species Debate

Is the Przewalski a sub-population of the domesticated horse (Equus Caballus)? Is it a subspecies of the wild horse (Equus Ferus Przewalskii)? Or is it its own species entirely (Equus Przewalskii) within the Equidae family?

As of now, the answer is inconclusive. The consensus currently leans towards the Przewalski's Horse being a subspecies of the wild horse (Equus Ferus). Scientists continue their DNA studies today in an attempt to piece together this puzzle, but the research is difficult because of the lack of availability of DNA from the founding Przewalski stock as well as Equus Ferus DNA.



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