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Feral horse

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Feral Chincoteague ponies on Assateague Island, Virginia
Feral horses of the Namib
Feral horses in Tule Valley, Utah

A feral horse is a free-roaming horse of domesticated stock. As such, a feral horse is not a wild animal in the sense of an animal without domesticated ancestors. However, some populations of feral horses are managed as wildlife, and these horses often are popularly called "wild" horses. Feral horses are descended from domestic horses that strayed, escaped, or were deliberately released into the wild and remained to survive and reproduce there. Away from humans, over time, these animals' patterns of behavior revert to behavior more closely resembling that of wild horses. Some horses that live in a feral state but may be occasionally handled or managed by humans, particularly if privately owned, are referred to as "semi-feral".

Feral horses live in groups called a herd, band, harem, or mob. Feral horse herds, like those of wild horses, are usually made up of small harems led by a dominant mare, containing additional mares, their foals, and immature horses of both sexes. There is usually one herd stallion, though occasionally a few less-dominant males may remain with the group. Horse "herds" in the wild are best described as groups of several small bands who share the same territory. Bands are normally on the small side, as few as three to five animals, but sometimes over a dozen. The makeup of bands shift over time as young animals are driven out of the band they were born into and join other bands, or as young stallions challenge older males for dominance. However, in a closed ecosystem (such as the isolated refuges in which most feral horses live today), to maintain genetic diversity, the minimum size for a sustainable free-roaming horse or burro population is 150–200 animals.[1]

Feral horse populations




The best-known examples of modern day "wild" horses are those of the American West. When Europeans reintroduced the horse to the Americas, beginning with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th century, some horses escaped and formed feral herds known today as mustangs. Isolated populations of wild horses occur in a number of places in the United States, including Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland, Cumberland Island, Georgia, Vieques Island off the coast of Puerto Rico, and Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. Some of these horses are said to be the descendants of horses that managed to swim to land when they were shipwrecked. Others may have been deliberately brought to various islands by settlers and either left to reproduce freely or abandoned when assorted human settlements failed.

Many prehistoric horse species, now extinct, evolved in North America, but the wild horses of today are the offspring of horses that were domesticated in Europe.[2] In the Western United States, certain bands of horses and burros are protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. There are about 300,000 horses today in multiple land jurisdictions across the country, including tribal lands.[3]



The only truly wild horses in existence today are Przewalski's horse native to the steppes of central Asia.

A modern wild horse population (janghali ghura) is found in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere reserve of Assam, in north-east India, and is a herd of about 79 horses descended from animals that escaped army camps during World War II.[4]



In Portugal, a population of free-ranging horses, known as garrano, lives in the northern mountain chains.

In County Kerry, Ireland, wild bog ponies have been known since at least the 1300s.

More than 700 feral wild horses live in the foothills of Cincar Mountain, between Livno and Kupres, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in an area of roughly 145 km2 (56 sq mi). These animals, which descend from horses set free by their owners in the 1950s, enjoy a protected status since 2010.[5]

In Sardinia lives the Giara Horse, a wild species which inhabits the Giara di Gesturi, a basaltic plateau in the southern central part of the island. The population is composed by about 700 horses.[6]



Australia has the largest population in the world, with about 400,000 horses.[7] The Australian name equivalent to the mustang is the brumby, descendants of horses brought to Australia by English settlers.[8][9]

Modern feral horses


Modern types of feral horses that have a significant percentage of their number living in a feral state, though domesticated representatives may exist, include these types, landraces, and breeds:

North America
see also Free-roaming horse management in North America
South America
  • Lavradeiros in northern Brazil[11]
  • Small wild horses are established in the páramos of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia and are believed to have descended from introductions made by Spanish conquistadors.[12]
  • A small population of feral horses lives in the foothills of Cordillera Real next to the city of La Paz in Bolivia; these individuals wander the high-altitude grassland up to 4700 m above sea level. The origin of this highly endangered herd is not well-known.[citation needed]

Semi-feral horses

Semi-feral Exmoor ponies on Porlock common, Exmoor: They are gathered each year to remove foals and assess stock.

In the United Kingdom, herds of free-roaming ponies live in apparently wild conditions in various areas, notably Dartmoor, Exmoor, Cumbria (Fell Pony), and the New Forest. Similar horse and pony populations exist elsewhere on the European continent. These animals, however, are not truly feral, as all of them are privately owned, and roam out on the moors and forests under common grazing rights belonging to their owners. A proportion of them are halter-broken, and a smaller proportion broken to ride, but simply turned out for a while for any of a number of reasons (e.g., a break in training to allow them to grow on, a break from working to allow them to breed under natural conditions, or retirement). In other cases, the animals may be government-owned and closely managed on controlled reserves.

  • Camargue horse, in marshes of the Rhone delta, southern France.
  • Dartmoor pony, England; predominantly domesticated, also lives in semi-feral herds.
  • Exmoor pony, England; predominantly domesticated, also lives in semi-feral herds.
  • Fell pony, predominantly domesticated, also lives in semi-feral herds in northern England, particularly Cumbria.
  • Gotlandsruss, lives in a semi-feral herd in Lojsta Moor on the Swedish Island of Gotland.
  • New Forest pony, predominantly domesticated, also lives in semi-feral herds in the area of Hampshire, England.
  • Pottok, predominantly domesticated, also lives in semi-feral herds in the western Pyrenees.
  • Dülmen pony, a German pony that lives in a wild herd in Westphalia with little help by humans.
  • Shetland pony, Scotland; predominantly used for riding, driving, and pack purposes.

Population impacts


Feral populations are usually controversial, with livestock producers often at odds with horse aficionados and other animal welfare advocates. Different habitats are impacted in different ways by feral horses. Where feral horses had wild ancestors indigenous to a region, a controlled population may have minimal environmental impact, particularly when their primary territory is one where they do not compete with domesticated livestock to any significant degree. However, in areas where they are an introduced species, such as Australia, or if the population is allowed to exceed available range, there can be significant impacts on soil, vegetation (including overgrazing), and animals that are native species.[8]

If a feral population lives close to civilization, their behavior can lead them to damage human-built livestock fencing and related structures.[9] In some cases, where feral horses compete with domestic livestock, particularly on public lands where multiple uses are permitted, such as in the Western United States, there is considerable controversy over which species is most responsible for degradation of rangeland, with commercial interests often advocating for the removal of the feral horse population to allow more grazing for cattle or sheep, and advocates for feral horses recommending reduction in the numbers of domestic livestock allowed to graze on public lands.

Certain populations have considerable historic or sentimental value, such as the Chincoteague pony that lives on Assateague Island, a national seashore with a delicate coastal ecosystem, or the Misaki pony of Japan that lives on a small refuge within the municipal boundaries of Kushima. These populations manage to thrive with careful management that includes using the animals to promote tourism to support the local economy. Most sustained feral populations are managed by various forms of culling, which, depending on the nation and other local conditions, may include capturing excess animals for adoption or sale. In some nations, management may include the often-controversial practice of selling captured animals for slaughter or simply shooting them.[19] Fertility control is also sometimes used, though it is expensive and has to be repeated on a regular basis.[20]

See also



  1. ^ "American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign". wildhorsepreservation.com. Archived from the original on 21 November 2011. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  2. ^ "Feral Horses: Get The Facts" (PDF). The Wildlife Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 March 2012. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
  3. ^ Schoenecker, Kathryn A.; King, Sarah R. B.; Messmer, Terry A. (2021). "The Wildlife Profession's Duty in Achieving Science-Based Sustainable Management of Free-Roaming Equids". The Journal of Wildlife Management. 85 (6): 1057–1061. Bibcode:2021JWMan..85.1057S. doi:10.1002/jwmg.22091.
  4. ^ Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere reserve Archived 11 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Pušteni da slobodno žive u prirodi: Livanjski divlji konji — jednistvena atrakcija u Europi". Novi list (in Croatian). HINA. 2 August 2015. Retrieved 6 June 2017.
  6. ^ "Sezione del cavallo della Giara". Museo del Cavallino della Giara (in Italian). Retrieved 10 January 2024.
  7. ^ "Pest animal risk assessment — Feral Horse" (PDF). Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries. June 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 March 2011. Retrieved 17 December 2010.
  8. ^ a b Nimmo, D. G.; Miller, K. K. (2007). "Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: A review". Wildlife Research. 34 (5): 408–417. doi:10.1071/WR06102.
  9. ^ a b Dobbie, W. R.; Berman, D.; Braysher, M. L. (1993). Managing Vertebrate Pests: Feral horses. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. ISBN 0644252863.
  10. ^ SMS VSIP Consulting Inc. "Wild Horses". fonv.ca. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  11. ^ Farid, Zain. "lavradeiros Feral Horse". Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  12. ^ Long, J. L. 2003. Introduced Mammals of the World: Their History, Distribution and Influence (Cabi Publishing) by John L. Long (ISBN 9780851997483)
  13. ^ "Wild horse sanctuary for Sri Lanka's Delft Island". www.horsetalk.co.nz. Horse Talk. 26 December 2013. Archived from the original on 29 November 2016. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  14. ^ "The Independent Spirit of Turkey: Wild Horse".
  15. ^ "Konik - Equus caballus var. konik | World". world.observation.org. Retrieved 10 March 2023.
  16. ^ "Grote grazers Oostvaardersplassen". Staatsbosbeheer (in Dutch). Retrieved 10 March 2023.
  17. ^ "Daily Post: Latest North Wales news, sport, what's on and business". northwales. Archived from the original on 9 March 2012. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  18. ^ "Meet the last horsemen of these paradise islands". Travel. 20 December 2018. Archived from the original on 24 December 2018. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  19. ^ Nimmo, D. G.; Miller, K.; Adams, R. (2007). "Managing feral horses in Victoria: A study of community attitudes and perceptions". Ecological Management & Restoration. 8 (3): 237–243. Bibcode:2007EcoMR...8..237N. doi:10.1111/j.1442-8903.2007.00375.x. hdl:10536/DRO/DU:30007265.
  20. ^ Bomford, M., & O'Brien, P. (1993). "Potential use of contraception for managing wildlife pests in Australia" Archived 20 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine. USDA National Wildlife Research Center Symposia. Retrieved on 12 May 2008.