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Przewalski’s Horse

(Equus ferus przewalskii)

by Jay Sharp

Przewalski's Horse

Przewalski's horse -- pronounced "sheh-val-skee's," according to the Smithsonian National Zoo -- is the last of the world's truly wild horses, a designation it earned by always resisting any attempt at training. As a matter of note, the famous mustang that ranged in great free-running herds across the plains of Texas was not a truly wild horse. It descended from domesticated Andalusian horses imported by the Spanish, and it would submit to training.

Characteristics of Przewalski's Horse

Przewalski's horse -- named for the 19th century Russian explorer, Colonel Nikolai Przewalski -- has a compact body and relatively short legs. Generally it is somewhat smaller than the mustang and roughly the same size as the plains zebra, the African wild ass or the domesticated burro.

  • Size and Weight: Shoulder (or, withers) height, four to five feet; length, six and a half to nearly seven feet from the tip of the nose to the dock of the tail; adult weight, typically 650 to 750 pounds. Usually, the stallion is slightly larger than the mare.
  • Body: Stocky and muscled, somewhat pot bellied.
  • Head, Neck and Mane: Skull, relatively massive and long, with wide-set eyes that afford a broad field of view; ears, comparatively long and fully erect, can turn, antenna-like, toward sources of sound; mouth, powerful with strong incisors used for cutting vegetation and heavy molars used for grinding; neck, short and powerful; mane, stiff and erect with no forelock.
  • Legs and hooves: Legs, short and sturdy; hooves, narrow and somewhat elongated, hard and sharp enough to dig through sand to reach water.
  • Tail: About three feet in length, covered with short hairs at the dock, longer hairs down the length.
  • Coat and Color: Thick winter coat (with beard and heavy neck hair) and slick summer coat; generally yellowish to reddish brown or yellowish grey body; dark narrow dorsal stripe, from neck to tail dock; darker head and neck with light muzzle and dark nostrils; dark and sometimes faintly striped legs; dark main and tail; lighter underparts.
  • Senses: An acute sense of smell, hearing and sight, according to Colonel Przewalski.


Distribution, Habitat and Diet

During the last Ice Age, Przewalski's horse ranged over grassy plains that extended from Asia's eastern coast westward across Europe's Iberian Peninsula, at elevations as high as 8000 feet. Apparently, it is Przewalski's horse that is depicted in images painted by Palaeolithic peoples tens of thousands of years ago on the walls of caves in France and Spain.

As the last Ice Age drew to a close, roughly ten thousand years ago, the horse lost much of its favored range as woodlands replaced grasslands. By the 19th century, the animal's total population had shrunk due to habitat loss as well as other factors, said the San Diego Zoo. Only a few herds remained, all in Mongolia, southern Russia and Poland. Late in the 20th century, those, too, had virtually disappeared. Przewalski's horse was last seen in the wild in 1969.

Fortunately, several of the animals had been captured and saved. Through the international cooperation of foundations and zoos, these horses were enlisted as seed stock for resurrecting the species. Today, said the Smithsonian, the animal's population is roughly 1900, with about 1500 in zoos and breeding reserves around the world, and another 400 -- in reintroduced herds -- in wildlife reserves within its historic central Asian ranges.

Within its traditional range, said National Geographic, the horse preferred a steppe vegetation, shrubland and plains habitat, where it spent nearly half its time feeding primarily on the grasses.

Behavior and Life Cycle

Because naturalists have had only limited opportunity to study Przewalski's horse in its native range, the animal's behavior in the wild is not fully known. Apparently, however, the naturally gregarious horse -- like feral domesticated horses -- forms "harem groups," which comprise a dominant stallion with his mares and young foals. At about two years of age, a young stallion leaves its harem group -- often driven out by the dominant stallion -- to join a different kind of group, a bachelor herd, with which it will remain associated until it forms its own harem group.

A dominant stallion asserts rigid control over his harem group, biting and kicking mares to keep them in line. He frequently rounds up his mares and the foals to keep them from straying. He sets the course when the herd moves, perhaps over several miles, to new feeding grounds or to water. He lines his charges out in single file to minimize the herd's exposure to danger. He brings up the rear so he can oversee and protect them. He drives off intruders and predators, raising and lowering his head, flattening his hears, and baring his teeth to signify his readiness to fight. He marks his claim to territory (which may encompass several square miles) and the possession of his harem with piles of dung seasoned with his urine.

Sniffing a mare's dung and urine, the stallion can assess her readiness to mate. (She reaches sexual maturity at about four years of age, he, at about five years.) When she turns her hind quarters toward him, he nuzzles her to gauge her willingness. Then he mounts her and they copulate.

Nearly a year later, the mare seeks out a quiet place within the herd's territory, and she delivers a foal that weighs some 60 to 70 pounds. She will return to the herd about nine days later. She will nurse her newborn for several months and may keep it nearby for the next two years.

By the end of the first day, her colt stands, finds its legs, and begins to forage. Within a week, it starts to graze and play. Within a month, it begins to interact and cavort with other foals. Within a couple of months, it reduces its nursing, increases its independence, and cultivates peer relationships. Within about five months, the young Przewalski's horse grazes and drinks like an adult. It may live for 20 years or more.

Perils

The Przewalski's horse, critically endangered as a species, faces perils beyond a dwindling habitat, natural predation, sparse grazing, limited water sources, disease and injury. For example:

  • The number of pure bred animals has declined due to interbreeding with domestic horses.
  • The limited number of seed stock has led to a troubling limit in genetic diversity.
  • The herds have lost habitat as a result of encroachment by humans and domesticated livestock.
  • Many fell to the rifles of hunters, especially Mongolians and Europeans, during the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Free ranging herds lost population to collecting expeditions by Westerners.

At this time, the survival of Przewalski's horse as a species depends heavily on cooperative international breeding programs. Hopefully, as it is reintroduced into its historic ranges, it will again, someday, be able to establish free-ranging and self-sustaining herds.

Interesting Facts

  • The modern horse evolved in North America, migrated westward across the Bering land bridge, then became extinct in its home continent.
  • During an 1879 trip of exploration into central Asia, a skull and hide of one of the horses was sent by Colonel Przewalski to Russia's St. Petersburg Zoological Museum, which declared the animal to be a new species.
  • According to Bonnie L. Hendricks and Anthony A. Dent, International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, handlers with the New York Zoological Society endeavored to break a pair of Przewalski's horses in 1902. They gave up. "The longer the men worked with them, the wilder and more obstinate the animals became."
  • Other names for Przewalski's horse are: Mongolian wild horse, Mongolian takh and Takhi (or "spirit horse," reflecting the Mongolian belief that the animal served as a mount for the gods).
  • During the bitter winter sand storms within its historic range, Przewalski's horse turns its rump into the wind and tucks it tail tightly between its back legs, protecting its nostrils and eyes from the blowing dust and shielding its reproductive organs from the cold.
  • During the horrific days of World War II, a captive group of Przewalski's horses in the Ukraine -- considered to be the most important population of the time -- was shot to death by German soldiers.


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