Whilst watching a fascinating film about the reintroduction of a herd of Przewalski’s horses into China, I was reminded of the true nature of the horse. Although Przewalski’s horses do have a slightly different genetic make-up to our domesticated horses – with 66 rather than 64 chromosomes – they seem to be similar in their behaviour and their diet.
Przewalski’s horses are the only true surviving wild horses, although all wild herds have been reintroduced after they become extinct in the wild – due mostly to interbreeding with domesticated horses. About 1500 live in captivity and about 300 live in the wild, reintroduced to Mongolia and more recently, to China. Other horses living in the wild are actually descended from domesticated horses.
Przewalski’s horses are small and hardy, around 13hh in height and weigh around 300 kg. Like other feral horses they live in bands with a stallion and a lead mare, and entire males without their own bands live in bachelor groups. They are dun in colour, with a short, upright black mane. Their haircoat is sandy coloured, with a lighter muzzle and belly. They grow a thick winter coat to help protect them from freezing winter temperatures.
When living in the wild, they survived on the steppe, shrublands and plains of western Mongolia and Northern China, eating grasses and other vegetation. They survived winters that get as cold as minus 30 degrees, and drought during summer.
These horses show us why so many of our domesticated horses put on weight (body fat) so easily and why they sometimes show behaviour that is quite inconvenient to us, like spooking, scepticism of new places, dislike of leaving the herd and suchlike.
It is beneficial for wild horses to put on body fat during the growing season when forage is plentiful because this energy storage helps them survive winter. The Przewalski’s horses were digging through the snow for forage during winter, burning even more energy as they searched for food. Fat gain during summer is a very useful adaptation for survival. If we drop the energy provision to our well-covered domesticated horses during winter with poorer (nutritional) quality forages, no or light rugs only and less (or no) compound feed, they would lose weight in a more natural cycle. We need to use the winter months for weight loss in any horse that has come out of summer too fat.
It is also important for these animals to have a high level of self-preservation and regard for herd safety. Watching them drink at a new water hole showed just how aware of impending danger they are! Yet they also relaxed as soon as they felt safe in their environment. Understanding the horse’s innate drive for self-preservation would help us to be more accepting of ‘unwanted’ behaviours and come up with handling and training strategies to help the horse feel more confident, rather than trying to simply restrain them.
Feeding and supplementing our domesticated horses correctly is important, but if we could develop more understanding of why they behave in certain ways and adjust our management with this in mind, we’d have happier, healthier horses.