Baguales WE

This entry has been submitted by Dr. Victor Moraga and Enrique Zunzunegui of Horse Path Ltd.

Species: Equus caballus

Subspecies/Breed/Type: Bagual / Creole of Patagonia

Country: Chile

Region/Province/Range: Torres del Paine National Park

Population type: Feral

Estimated Population size: between 130-150 horses (2015 estimate)

Management Authority:  Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF)

Details of Population:

The herd moves through difficult terrain as one tight group with little separation between family bands, making it difficult to have a complete population count. It is not easy to recognize and identify the horses as the horses sport very similar coat colours and markings. More observations are recommended.

Preliminary evidence suggests that the herd suffers predation from puma (Puma concolor), which apparently keeps the population growth rate in check.

Structure and demographics:

From the observations made it seems that the stallion to mare ratio could be about 1,5-1,6:1. In November 2010  Horse Path Ltd. counted a total of 27 new-born foals. In February 2011, only 4 foals remained indicating a high foal mortality rate. The factors causing this high foal mortality rate are still under investigation, but it seems likely that predation by puma (Puma concolor) is the most likely cause. Stallion harrasment of mares that have recently foaled is another candidate or factor likely to cause foal deaths.

Issues worth noting and needed actions

This herd is still considered as an invasive species that need to be removed from the National Park. However, Horse Path Ltd. have been given a 1 year concession to study the horses and therefore a 10 year moratorium for possible extermination has been achieved.

Further reading

Visit the website of Horse Path Ltd. for more information. (In spanish)


Exmoor Ponies WE

This entry of the Exmoor ponies was filed by Sue McGeever of the Exmoor Pony Society, and the pictures were kindly facilitated by Tricia Gibson.

Species: Equus caballus

Subspecies/Breed/Type Exmoor

Country: United Kingdom

Region/Province/Range: Exmoor National Park

Population type: Semi-feral / Free-ranging

Estimated Population size: about 500 registered horses (2015)

Management Authority: Exmoor Pony Society

Images from Tricia Gibson

Details of Population

The Exmoor National Park is home to the registered Exmoor pony – one of Britain’s rare native breed recognised by the Rare Breed Survival Trust (Watchlist, Category 2 Endangered).  The Exmoor Pony Society manages the horses, and was formed in 1921 with the specific aim of ensuring that this rare native breed continues to run free on Exmoor and continues to exhibit all the traits and characteristics of its ancestors.The semi-feral herds of ponies run out all year round.  There are currently twenty herds running out on Exmoor.

Structure and demographics

There are approximately 500 ponies registered into the semi-feral herds.  There are approximately 20 stallions and 480 mares and female young-stock with the age ranging from foals to 30 plus years of age.

There are in total twenty herds belong to different moorland herd owners and these run out on different sections of Exmoor. Some herds are on single herd commons and other herds share commons with one or two other herds.  Not all of the herds are breeding herds.

Issues worth noting and needed actions

The population of registered Exmoor ponies is believed to be secure.

Further reading

Visit the Exmoor Pony Society website: Exmoor Pony Society

Help us improve our Wild Equus – Atlas entries!

The WE Atlas depends on your support and encourages you to add to, revise, or edit our Atlas entries. When editing or adding facts to an entry, please provide references to a reliable source so others may verify them.

For contributing images, audio or video files, please send us links to the files. Please ensure media files linked to this form are your own.The copyrights to all media will remain yours. By sending media links to Wild Equus Organization will have the right to use media solely on this website.


Tornquist feral horses WE

Atlas entry registered by Dr. Alberto Scorolli, based on work and research carried out with the feral horses at  Ernesto Tornquist Provincial Park (website).

Country: Argentina                                                                                                          Region/Province/Range: Ernesto Tornquist Provincial Park (ETPP) – Buenos Aires

Species: Equus caballus             Subspecies/Breed/Type: Feral Creole

Estimated Population size: +/- 400 horses (2014)

Management Authority:  Ernesto Tornquist Provincial Park (ETPP)

Management Practices: Population Management Strategy is urgently needed


Ernesto Tornquist Provincial Park (ETPP) is located in the south of the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 38 º 00’- 38º 07’S and 61º 52’- 62º 03’W.  This natural reserve was established in 1938 and covers 67 Km2 of hilly grassland with heights ranging between 450 and 1175 m above sea level. The climate is temperate and humid (Burgos 1968) with a mean annual rainfall of 800 mm. Rains fall mainly in spring with a second peak in autumn. Snowfalls are occasional and, in general, light. The typical vegetation is grassland steppe dominated by species of the genera Stipa and Piptochaetium (Cabrera 1976; Frangi and Bottino 1995).
This Natural Protected Area is very important for biodiversity conservation as it includes many endemic plant and animal species (Kristensen and Frangi 1995). In 1942 a small group between 5-10 horses, which became feral, were introduced to ETPP. In 1995, their descendants, 450 horses, occupied a fenced-off sector of approximately 20 Km2 (Scorolli 2007). These horses were of Creole breed, like all other feral horse populations in Argentina. This breed has originated from Spanish and Andalusian horses, of essentially African barb ancestry, brought to South America by the colonizers during the XVI century (Cabrera, 1945).

Structure and demographics

Currently approximately 40 harem-bands, most single stallion H-Bands. Population size in year 2014 400 feral horses, sex ratio 1:1. adult+sub-adult+yearling: foals (7:1).

Issues worth noting and needed actions

Current density 20 horses/km2, in year 2001-2002 population was food-limited, approaching carrying capacity and reaching 35 horses/km2 (annual mortality more than 80 horses/year).
In 2014 after a massive fire in January and a exceptionally rainy year (highest in decades) the body condition is good and the demographic potential to increase is also high!!
A Population Management Strategy is urgently needed in order to reduce current population size to appropriate levels that preclude high mortality by starvation and environmental impact in a natural protected area created by its grassland biodiversity unusual value.
There is a conflict between government authorities and some horse protection groups that see management as unacceptable.

Bibliography and Further reading

Scorolli, A.L., A.C. Lopez Cazorla and L.A. Tejera. 2006. Unusual mass mortality of feral horses during a violent rainstorm in Parque Provincial Tornquist, Argentina. Mastozoología Neotropical 13: 255-258.
Scorolli, A.L. 2009. Feral horse management in Argentina. In 10th. International Mammalogical Congress. Mendoza, Argentina.
Scorolli A.L. y López Cazorla. 2010a. Demography of feral horses (Equus caballus): a long-term study in Tornquist Park, Argentina. Wildlife Research 37: 207-214.
Scorolli, A. and A. Lopez Cazorla. 2010b. Feral horse social stability in Tornquist Park, Argentina. Mastozoología Neotropical 17 (2): 391-396.
Scorolli, A.L. 2012. Feral horse demography and management in Tornquist Park, Argentina.  International Wild Equid Conference. VetMedUni, Viena.
Scorolli, A.L. 2012. Feral horse body condition: a useful tool for population management?. International Wild Equid Conference. VetMedUni, Viena.
About potential environmental impact
de Villalobos, A.E. and S.M. Zalba. 2010. Continuous feral horses grazing and grazing exclusion in mountain pampean grasslands in Argentina. Acta Oecologica 36: 514-519.
de Villalobos, A.E., S.M. Zalba and D.V. Peláez. 2011. Pinus halepensis invasion in mountain pampean grassland: Effects of feral horses grazing on seedling establishment. Environmental Research 111: 953-959.
Loydi, A. and S.M. Zalba. 2009. Feral horses dung piles as invasion windows in natural grasslands. Plant Ecology 201: 471-480.
Loidy, A. and R.A. Distel. 2010. Diversidad florística bajo diferentes intensidades de pastoreo por grandes herbívoros en pastizales serranos del Sistema de Ventania, Buenos Aires. Ecología Austral 20: 281-291.
Loidy, A., R.A. Distel and S.M. Zalba. 2010. Large herbivore grazing and non-native plant invasions in montane grasslands of central Argentina. Natural Areas Journal, 30(2): 148-155.
Zalba S.M. and N. Cozzani. 2004. The impact of feral horses on grassland bird communities in Argentina. Animal Conservation 7: 35-44.

Sabucedo horses WE

We would like to thank Ivan Sanmartin Eirin and the Asociación Rapa das Bestas for filing this entry.


Species: Equus caballus


The horses of Sabucedo, like many horses in the Galician hills are of pony type. It has been proposed that some of these horses may actually be a subspecies of wild horse, Equus ferus atlanticus (Barcena, 2011). However these claims are pending DNA testing.

Country: Spain

Region/Province/Range: Mountains around Sabucedo, Estrada, Cuntis, Moranha, Campo Lameiro, Cerdedo, Forcarei, all of which are in the province of Pontevedra

Population type: Semi-feral

Estimated Population size: about 400 horses (2015)

Management Authority: Private association: Asociación Rapa das Bestas de Sabucedo

Management Practices: Yearly – Micro-chipping – Ear clipping – Parasite control – removal of foals

Images by Victor Ros

Details of Population:

The horses running freely around Sabucedo have been doing so since at least the 16th century when, according to legend, some horses were set free in the mountains as an offering to St. Lorenzo to protect the people from a plague. Since then, horses are rounded up and driven down to the town of Sabucedo for the annual Rapa das bestas (shearing of the beasts) festival. During the ‘Rapa’, horses manes and tails are sheared, ears clipped, and some horses are removed from the herd to keep the population number at bay.

Structure and demographics

Approximately 300 mares, their offspring (n=85) and 15 stallions live freely in the mountains surrounding the town of Sabucedo. Given the mare-stallion ratio, it is customary to find all mare groups wandering the hills with their young.

Issues worth noting and needed actions

These horses are not afforded any legal protection and are allegedly under threat from encroaching cow ranchers.

Help us improve our Wild Equus – Atlas entries!

The WE Atlas depends on your support and encourages you to add to, revise, or edit our Atlas entries. When editing or adding facts to an entry, please provide references to a reliable source so others may verify them.

For contributing images, audio or video files, please send us links to the files. Please ensure media files linked to this form are your own.The copyrights to all media will remain yours. By sending media links to Wild Equus Organization will have the right to use media solely on this website.

Contact details
Add links to media files:


Social Interactions (Si)

The importance of sociality to horses, Equus (ferus) caballus, is a topic that can never be emphasized strongly enough, their survival strategies and reproductive successes are highly dependent on the formation of cohesive social bonds (van Dierendonck, 2006 ). In fact, horses should not in my opinion be considered in any other context than a social one.

Tremendous effort has gone to describe the “workings” of the horse, how they behave and live, but many fail to see that living in close proximity with a con-specific has been shaped by millions of years of natural selection.

Despite millennia of domestication horses that have either been set free or have escaped and allowed to roam on their own accord, have in many parts of the world:  thrived by adopting survival and reproductive strategies that are generally quite similar to one another.

The fundamental similarities unveiled by years of descriptive studies are a testament to their evolutionary importance. But, similarities do not equate to sameness and differences found in their ways of life are likely to shed light on alternative life strategies, and their incredible biological plasticity which allows them to “fit” into such distinct environments.

It may be dead obvious to most that all extinct and extant equids are in fact horses. Equus, the name Linnaeus (1758) used to classify the genus that included the zebras, half-asses, donkeys, Przewalski and caballus, is a Latin name meaning: horse.

Throughout this Ethogram, emphasis is on Equus caballus, and use of the colloquial term “horse” is a shorthand referring exclusively to this species.

Studies of social behaviour are in fact studies of “(…) cooperation between individuals” (Tinbergen, 1953), and cooperation will be the centerpiece of our approximation to the social life of Equus caballus throughout this present work.

Just as organisms are communities of parts, so too societies are communities of individuals wherein cooperation, mating and the rearing of young play a vital role and in which individuals are driven by conflicting needs and interests. In other words, animal societies are characterized by cooperative and conflictive interactions among individuals: those between nearby con-specifics. (Whitehead, 2009)

It makes sense to consider that sociality brings about both ecological and genetic benefits to individuals by allowing them to better acquire and use certain resources, but group living has inherent costs too:

Increased foraging efficiency, improved predator detection, avoidance and defense, as well as easier access to reproductive options are three of the more important benefits of group living.

At the same time group living is likely to heighten competition for resources, aggression among group members, as well as increase exposure to parasites and disease. (Alexander, 1974) For social behaviour to be adaptive, advantages must outweigh the costs associated with group living (Alexander 1974; Wrangham & Rubenstein 1986).

Animals that live together influence each other in a myriad of ways, and serve a number of functions. In horse societies all individuals associate with all other individuals at some rate and any resulting order is related to the ecology of a population, including interactions with con-specifics.

Included under the section of Social Interactions, you will find the following subcategories:

  • Affiliative interactions (af)
  • Agonistic interactions (ag)
  • Communication (C)
  • Play (P)
  • Sexual (sx)
  • Parental (par)
  • Bonds (bd)
  • Roles (rls)

Ingestive Behaviour (ing)

Under this heading we have classified behaviours related with taking material through the mouth and into the digestive system.

Horses are an herbivorous, grazing species that graze an average of 14-15 hours a day in the wild. Ronald Keiper (1985) found that horses on Assateague island spent 78% of daylight hours grazing. Horses are non-ruminants; they have a single stomach and the digestion of ingested roughage occurs in the cecum at the end of the large intestine. Cecal digestion, high level of food intake, and quick passage of food through the digestive system allows horses to have a diet high in fiber and low in protein.

Although horses prefer grasses (McDonnell, 2003), they are known to forage and derive nutrition from bark, tree, shrub buds, small woody stems, aquatic plants, fruits, roots and seeds (Hubbard and Hansen 1976; Varva and Sneva 1978; Salter 1978; Salter and Hudson 1979; Hanley and Hanley 1982; Krysl et al. 1984a). Feral and free ranging horses also pick food from the floor, and have been noted to glean and lick as well.

On Assateague Island along the Maryland-Virginia coast Keiper  (1985), found that these horses graze during 54.6% of the night time hours. Tyler (1972) in her 3 year study of the New Forest ponies stated; ‘from the few observations that were made at night, it seemed that most of the hours of darkness in all seasons were spent feeding’. From these studies it seems that on the onset of darkness walking and drinking activity becomes greater, especially in the first hours of darkness (Keiper, 1985).

Drinking in feral horses is not as frequent as one would expect, many only drink once or twice a day and some have been noted to travel considerable distances to drink once every 2 days. Drinking activity is variable in time and frequency and occurs both during day and night. (Pellegrini, 1971; Feist & McCullough, 1976) A direct correlation was observed between drinking frequency and ambient temperatures, with a clear increase in frequency occurring at temperatures above 30 C. (Crowell-Davis, 1985)

The category Ingestive Behaviour includes the following:

  • Suckling (sk)
  • Grazing (G)
  • Browsing (B)
  • Drinking (D)
  • Gleaning (gl)
  • Picking (pk)
  • Pica (Pc)
  • Corpography (cv)

Rest (Re)

Horses rest either standing or lying on the ground, and up to 30% of horse’s time budget can be spent resting. Rest in horses is generally a social and socially facilitated enterprise (see Group Rest), when one horse rests, others group members rest. Typically, in close proximity to other group members (Tyler, 1972; Feist & McCullough, 1976; Kimura, 1998; Sigurjonsdottir, 2003; Heitor et al, 2006), either in tight groups, or alternately, in groups of one or two pairs (Feist & McCullough, 1976).

However, foals were observed to rest together even though their mother’s were from different bands (Tyler, 1972).

Tyler (1972) observed seasonally different mean resting times in the New Forest ponies in her study. In winter daylight hours, adult ponies were observed to have 2-3 resting bouts lasting a mean length of about 40 minutes. Foals rested a little bit longer, about 44 minutes (Tyler, 1972). In summer, the length of resting bouts increased.

Not only did resting bouts increase in duration during the summer months, but New Forest ponies sought shelter in ‘shades’ (Tyler, 1972) for up to 5 hours.

Lichen licking in feral Pottokas

Our recent field study workshop [FSW] in collaboration with Lucy Rees, and the Piornal Pottoka Project of Extremadura, has just concluded. Many behaviors have been added to our ongoing Ethogram project, amongst which I am thrilled to report on lichen licking behavior.

Horses are usually considered to be grazers and to a lesser degree browsers and both these foraging forms have been documented extensively. In fact grazing can be understood as the ingestion of grassy or grass-like plants while browsing is the ingestion of woodier plants (McDonnell, 2003). In the former horses usually walk while grazing, placing one foot forward at a time and eating around it in at an arc type movement. Browsing has been observed to be a more static form of foraging were the horse may reach up, down or sideways to eat foliage of woodier plants, shrubs and trees while standing almost stationary.





The image below shows members of a mixed bachelor band together with a stray (dispersed) mare and foal from an adjacent band with overlapping home ranges that gathered around a particular rock. The horses gathered facing the rock with heads lowered and at first sight, from a distance of approximately 100 meters, it seemed that the horses were scraping and eating stone.

DSC_0053 ©

As we approached the group for a closer look it became evident that it was not the actual rocks that attracted them but the lichens and mosses growing upon these. The horses were observed to lick the lichens on the rock and in some cases flakes of lichen were observed to be licked-up and consumed.

A lichen is neither plant nor fungi but a combination of these or more organisms (see below), and the form employed by horses in the acquisition and ingestion of lichen is neither that typical of grazing or that of browsing. In both forms discussed, plants are gathered into the mouth with lips curled and tongue, vegetation is then ripped in clumps by way of a jerking movement of the head while simultaneously chewing.

With lichen, the horses observed were typically stationary such in browsing, while licking the flattened, crusty and granular crustose lichens that had fastened onto large rocks. Occasionally lichen flakes were licked-up, once moistened, or were alternately scraped off with the teeth of the lower jaw. Horses were also observed to peel away lichen flakes with both prehensile lips and apparently swallow.

The licking of lichen and its ingestion is fairly similar to a number of behaviors categorized in Sue McDonnell’s: Equid Ethogram (2003). In fact by combining the lick behavior categorized in the ethogram in which horses explore the surroundings with their tongues, and that described under pica behavior as the ingestion of soil by drawing it into the mouth by way of tongue and lips, and swallowing, would give a pretty close approximation of the activity patterns involved in licking licken.

Lichen Licking can thus be considered as a combination of licking and pica, an ingestion by way of moistening of the crustose lichen with the tongue, then drawing the lichen flakes into the mouth by way of tongue and lips and ultimately swallowing. The behavior was observed in short bouts lasting a mean of 2-3 minutes and much longer period that lasted up to 32 minutes. It should be noted that all 5 members of the mixed bachelor band along with a mare and foal from an adjacent band licked lichens.

In particular the lengthiest lichen licking bout was by the mare “Gastain” and her 4 month foal (not yet named) who clocked 32 minutes each on a single large rock. This lengthy bout was preceded and followed of shorter 2-3 minute bouts on other rocks in the area.

“Gastain” lichen licking with “Serrana” close-by


Crustose lichen after being licked by the horses under observation
Crustose lichen after being licked by the horses under observation

….and a bit on Lichens

Lichens come in many shapes and sizes and are found in the majority of ecosystems from ice free polar-regions through to tropical rainforests. They have been known to provide a forage source to many small mammals and artiodactyl ungulates such as Caribou, Reindeer and mountain sheep.

It is common knowledge that Reindeer and Caribou rely on lichens for their diets, hence the misnomers referred to Reindeer or Caribou Moss, which are in fact fruticose lichens normally of the family Cladoniaceae

Lichens are not plants, algae or fungi per se. Instead lichens are an association between 2 or more organisms that form a composite symbiotic relationship, which at times may be mutually beneficial to fungi, algae and cyanobacteria alike, or on the other hand it may be parasitic in which only one of the actors, usually the fungi, derive benefits at the cost of the others.

The fungal partner in the association is referred to as a mycobiont, while the non-fungal partner whether protista or monera is referred to as the photobiont, as these undergo photosynthesis which allows for the production of carbohydrates and thus the provision of nutrients for microbionts to harvest.

With over 20,000 species of lichen known identification is not always an easy task, but they can generally be classified into 4 distinct groups as follows:

1.  Fruticose – bushy structure which appear erect or pendulous and are markedly three-dimensional.

2.Crustose – Typically observed as flat crusts on or below rocks or under the bark of a tree. Crustosian lichens are markedly two dimensional and firmly attached to rocks, trees and other substrates by their entire lower surfaces, hiding in this way its entire undersurface.

lichen fly
Close-up of the area preferred by the mare “Gastain” in her 32 minute lichen licking bout. The fly conveniently posed for scaling.


lichen closeup
Close-up of the area preferred by the mare “Gastain” in her 2 minute lichen licking bout.

3.Foliose – flat, leaf-like structure halfway between crustose and fruticose lichens.

4.Squamulose – tiny, scale-like squamules form these lichen which are sometimes classified within the category of crustose or foliose lichens.

Lichens come in many colours which clearly imply a richness of chemical compounds, the richness of which can only be understood through detailed analysis. These chemical compounds can be broken down into 2 further classes; primary metabolites that include amino acids, proteins, vitamins and polysaccharides which are normally soluble in water, and secondary metabolites which may include some antibiotics and chemical defenses against herbivorous vertebrates feeding on them.

Samples have been taken for laboratory analysis and identification and results will be posted accordingly in due course.

Some interesting articles and links on lichen:

The surprisingly toxic world of lichens

The British Lichen Society

Introduction to Lichens an alliance between kingdoms

The horses were observed to be licking away at flattened, crusty and granular like crustose lichens. Enjoy the gallery!

Quick-link to some of our posts:

Koniks at Oostvaardersplassen

The Oostvaardersplassen is a unique nature reserve with a variety of habitats which include marshes as well as wet and dry open grasslands that extend over an area of about 5,600 hectares. The reserve is overseen by Staatsbosbeheer which is the Dutch State Forestry Service.

Curiously enough, most of this 56 square kilometer reserve is below sea level with a mean altitude of -4 meters;  the reserve having been set on reclaimed land that was gained back from lake Ijssel in 1968. The land was initially destined for the heavy industries sector, but the area was left untouched for many years, and nature claimed it back. The reserve can basically be devided into a wet and a dry area of 3600 and 2000 hectares respectively.

Before the establishment of the reserve, the dry area was apparently a nursery for willow trees, and it is said that in the first year a vast proportion of willow seedlings could be found per square metre. This led to concern that a dense woodland would develop in the drier area, significantly reducing the value of the habitat for water birds.  Greylag Geese, Anser anser, soon arrived in Oostvaardersplassen soon after the area was drained in the early 1970s.

The arrival of the geese proved valuable at balancing off the years of abandon. Their numbers and foraging habits maintained the openness of the reclaimed land. Without the grazing geese, this fertile area would be overgrown and rapidly growing species such as willows and reeds would prosper, decreasing the biodiversity.

“(…) Non- breeding Greylag Geese from all over Europe chose the site to moult during May and June. During moulting they lose all their primaries simultaneously, which renders them incapable of flying for 4 to 6 weeks. Obviously, they are very vulnerable during this time and they therefore seek out inaccessible areas to retreat to, like the marshy area of the Oostvaardersplassen. Up to 60,000 (non-breeding) Greylag Geese retreat to the marshland to moult (Van Eerden et al., 1997).” (from Frans Vera)

To assist the grazing geese and further maintain the openess of the habitat, Heck cattle, red deer and konik horses,  were released into the area in 1983, 1984 and 1992, respectively (, and are allowed to live and behave as their wild ancestors, with no supplemenetal feeding and living out all year round.


“In 1983, 32 Heck cattle were introduced at the Oostvaardersplassen. In 1985, 20 konik horses followed as did 57 red deer over the course of 1992 and 1993. The animals have since been counted once every three years, among other things, using aerial surveys. The herds have developed naturally and the largest number of animals so far was a total of almost 4,000 animals in 2008.” (

Please respect copyright! ©Victor Ros and Equilibre Gaia 2012
Please respect copyright!
©Victor Ros and Equilibre Gaia 2012

Thanks to Dr. Machteld van Dierendonck, without whom this experience would not have been possible.

We  were a total of 5 (Machteld, Eva, Sef, Thessa and myself) in the counting team, but only four of us attended the counts on any one day. Following the Protocol for counting Koniks 2012 previously prepared by Machteld, we set out for the Oostvaardenplassen to count this primitive looking horse.

Upon our arrival at the Staatsbosbeheer park officeswe were briefed as to the current situation at the park, provided with coffee, a snack lunch, and a 4×4. The park rangers had informed us that the herds have merged to form 1 or 2 massive herds. We were also infomed that Deer and Heck cattle counts had been underway and still in progress. We were in for a long couple of days of endless counting, as we intened to take at least three counts of each group, daily.

We all boarded the 4×4, armed with binoculars, clipboards, mechanical counters, telescopes and all one could possibly need for the job, oh and lots of coffee and tea.

Once inside the OVP, I realised the vastness of the habitat, which reminded me much of the Venezuelan savannah in rainy season. As we drove through the park we spotted a massive group of horses, well massive is not the right word, Humongous would be more apt, as there were well over 400 adults in the group, breathtaking really. Leaving this group behind we ventured to the extremes of the park to attmpt localizing all the different groups before starting the count.

konik on the move

Sef, who was sitting in the back seat on the right side, saw movement in the thickets at about 200 meters and confirmed that it was a large group of horses on the run in the direction we were coming from. Machteld, who was obviously familiar with the terrain proposed that we try and anticipate their direction and wait until they settle down.

The herd finally settled down, and was loafing while drifting directly in the direction of our vehicle. They seemed to pose for our counting, not at all disturbed by our presence or that of the vehicle. This group was counted at point by all four of us at least three times, and our means did not vary more than 1 individual. In the end we counted all groups, well there were only three, which made things easy in that aspect. However there was one large group of about 80 individuals, and two Humongous groups of 400+ adults each. Needless to say that counting the two different groups of 400+ adults was a laborious task. When the group finally settles, individuals lie down, or bands are so cohesed that one individual blends into another. The bigger groups were counted by way of transects and point several times each day, by each observer.

I am not providing the final counts, as these will be provided in due course once the final report has been submitted and data made public. However, I would like to share some images taken during coffee and lunch breaks:

Enjoy the slideshow!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Quick-link to some of our posts:

Feral horses

Horses (Equus caballus / Equus ferus caballus) are found living a wild way of life in many parts of the world with little human intervention, or none at all. There is little discussion between scientists as to the domestic origin of most of these free ranging horse populations, although some do defend theories of non-domestic origin.

For those that consider that all extant wild living populations of horses indeed descended from domestic horses, the term used to describe them is “Feral” and below some examples of its scientific usage:

“The majority of the apparently wild populations around the world are in fact feral. That is they are domestic animals which have returned to the wild” Kiley-Worthington (1987)

“Feral horses are those whose ancestors or who themselves were domestic stock, but have been free running for some time” McDonnell (1999)

“A number of other populations of free-ranging horses or ponies like these at Assateague are found throughout the world. Some live on Islands while others rom over inland regions. Some populations have been studies by scientists, others remain unstudied. All these populations consist of feral animals, animals that have been domesticated but have since returned to the wild. There are no groups that have never been domesticated, and thus there are no truly wild horses in existence.” Keiper (1985)

“Historically, romantic names such as Mustang and Cayuse in North America, Brumby in Australia, and Cimarron, Begual, or Monstreco in South America were applied to free ranging horses. Today’s horses regardless of nomenclature are feral animals whose ancestors were once domesticated.” Berger (1986)

The word feral has its origins in the Latin fera, or wild animal, or ferus which is simply translated as wild. Funnily enough, fairly recent (2003) adjustments to taxonomical nomenclature of horses have made space for the extinct wild ancestor of Equus caballus, the domestic horse. These previously unclassified ancestors were named Equus ferus and proponents of this line of thinking suggest that the nomenclature of domestic horses should thus be: Equus ferus caballus.

Furthermore modern dictionaries like “American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition 2000”, propose in most cases two distinct definitions for feral, as follows:  

1) Existing in a wild or untamed state

2) Having returned to an untamed state from domestication.

Recently however, some scientists propose reconsidering the use of the term “feral” for designating free ranging horses on at least two grounds. The first is the theory or belief of native indigenous non-domestic descent, while the second is a plea against its usage based on likely negative consequences as in this quote from Kirkpatrick & Fazio:

“Customarily, such wild horses that survive today are designated “feral” and regarded as intrusive, exotic animals, unlike the native horses that died out at the end of the Pleistocene. But as E. caballus, they are not so alien after all. The fact that horses were domesticated before they were reintroduced matters little from a biological viewpoint. Indeed, domestication altered them little, as we can see by how quickly horses revert to ancient behavioral patterns in the wild.” (Kirkpatrick & Fazio 2008)

The above statement may be true, false or partly both, but that does not change the fact that Kirkpatrick & Fazio are aware of the domestic ancestry of horses. They however claim that domestication, which truly is a blink of the eye in as much as evolutionary timescales are concerned, has altered horses little. The topic of little genetic alteration through domestication will surely be a topic for others to refute if they wish to, but for the purpose of this article let us concentrate on the issue of having descended from domestic stock as the reason behind the term feral.

Ross McPhee, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, recently defended the “nativeness” of Equus caballus to the North American continent with an apt and eloquent argument. In a nutshell: the bulk of horse evolution occurred in North America up to a species very similar to Equus caballus, and these crossed over to Eurasia and South America before going extinct in Northern America, later to be re-introduced by colonizers to the same continent from which they once came. (Read it here: MANAGED TO EXTINCTION? )

Once again, it seems there is no dispute that the extant wild horses of North America have indeed descended from domestic stock. Whether one should reconsider horse’s native, indigenous etc… or not, has no bearing on whether they are feral =>from domestic descent.

In basic terms, the following description from the American Museum of Natural History sums it up pretty well:

“The so-called “wild” horses that abound in Australia and North America are actually feral. A domestic animal becomes “feral” simply by fending for itself when left in the wild, without being helped or managed by humans in any way. If it finds others of its own species, reproduces, and the offspring also fend for themselves in the wild, the result is a feral population.” ( )


Some criticism on the matter of feral vs. wild

The matter of feral versus wild has inundated the social media. The main marketing strategy for this seems to be “you’re either with us or against us”, pushing people to think that those that utilize one term are “good and intelligent” while those that use the other are “misinformed, conspiring or misguided”.


It saddens me to think that people who share a passion for horses can be so self-centered and can’t see past the tips of their noses. Social media is an easy way to spread gospel and biased unsubstantiated claims about the work of others, and it’s apparently free. I do understand that much of the gospel is spewed forth for the best of intentions, but good intentions are biased by necessity. I refrain from posting examples of this carefree slander, so as not to fuel bad taste.

Controversy, what controversy? There really is none in the usage or definition of the term “feral”. Free ranging horses, wherever they may be in the world, are either descended from domestic horses, or they are not.

In my opinion, debates on topics like these only distract people from many other aspects more important to the preservation and conservation of free-ranging, feral, or wild horses such as further behavioral and ecological field studies that are likely to result in more viable and stable management schemes.

A plea for protection and conservation

Whether we label free ranging, wild or feral horses in one way or another, antiquated and biased population maintenance practices still abound.

In many parts of the world there are heated debates as to whether horses, the descendants of those that once carried man into the modern ages in more ways than one, should be left to roam freely or should be controlled strictly and considered an invasive pest.

The word we use to describe a population that is when once was not, or even, was and has not been for some time, will make no difference to our need, or greed for expansion. Many populations of free-ranging horses have been reported to cause havoc to local flora and fauna in their ranges. Some people may consider this unacceptable others just unavoidable given the circumstance.

Damn, that’s a very difficult question to answer in many respects. We have already interfered with most ecosystems in the world, either directly or indirectly. Our encroachment of greener pastures for whatever our interest, has pushed horses into marginal lands across the globe.

Now our encroachment is taking that away from the horses too!

In my opinion science is not likely to sort out our moral, ethical or political beliefs or battles, but it can give us the criteria to freely decide for ourselves.


“The coming generations will have good reason to call us unfaithful stewards if when we are gone there are no longer little horses on the Exmoor hills.”  Mary Etherington (1947)

I would like to extend Mary Hetherington’s quote to include the majority of the free ranging feral horse populations in the world that are having a bumpy ride on earth because some species are considered worthy of protection while others are not.


Further articles regarding the feral-wild-native-indigenous dichotomy:

Are the wild horses of the American west native?

The Surprising History of America’s Wild Horses


The Aboriginal North American Horse

The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet (full text paper)