Przewalski horse
cousin of first horses
The Przewalski's horse, also known as the wild Asiatic horse or takhi, is the only true wild horse left in the world and the last remaining species of wild horse. It is found almost exclusively in zoos although some have been reintroduced to Mongolia. [Source: Natural History, July 2002]

Przewalski's horses are small and stocky and look somewhat like mules. The closest living relative of the domestic horse, they are 2.2 to 2.6 meters in length, with a 80- to 110-centimeter-long tail, and weigh 200 to 300 kilograms. They are rusty brown to beige in color, with dark brown lower legs. Although they have different numbers of chromosomes they are the only members of the equid family capable of producing fertile offspring if interbred with domesticated horses.

Przewalski's horses are named after the 19th century Russian-Polish general explorer, Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, who brought some skins from the animal to Russia. He was born in Smolensk in 1839. He traveled extensively in the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Western China, Tibet and Central Asia. He was one of the first Westerners to meet the Dalai Lama and served as an agent for the Russians in the Great Game. The Przewalski's horse was named after him. He died in what is now Kyrgyzstan in 1888.

Przewalski's horses are markedly different from domestic horses and regarded as a different species. They have several characteristics that are closer to the prehistoric ancestors of horses than to domesticated horses. They have a short neck, short back, stubby legs and a thin tail base and have a short mane and forelock. During the summer zebra-like stripes appear on its legs.

Przewalski's horses used roam the steppes and deserts of Mongolia, northern China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. They were depicted in wall paintings but were considered too wild to domesticate and were pursued only for food. Another kind of horse was selected for domestication.

Przewalski's Horse Behavior

Przewalski's horse

Like wild domesticated horses, Przewalski's horses form cohesive, long-term herds and social groups consisting of a stallion, his harem of mares and their offspring. They establish home ranges and stay close to them but wander great distances to feed on grass, leaves and buds. A typical herd of social group consists of a senior mare, two to four other mares and their offspring and a stallion who stays on he periphery. A single foal is born after a gestation period of 333 to 345 days.

The stallion and his mares travel three to six miles a day, and spend their time grazing, dozing, mud-bathing, and drinking from streams and natural springs. They cluster together at night and sleep for about four hours. Social grooming is important as it is with other wild horses as a means of bonding among herd members. Usually two animals stand nose to tail so they can be on the look out for danger in both directions, nibbling each other's shoulders and whithers. Their tails serves as convenient fly swatters.

Fillies are often harassed by their fathers. This begins happening when they around two years old and that is around the time they leave their harem and begin looking for a new group.

Young males mature more slowly. At around the age of three they begin harassing females in estrus the groups and are forced to leave. Young males spend a few years in groups with other young males, honing their fighting skills, which are necessary to form a harem of their own from dispersed fillies, steal fillies or challenge a stallion for possession of his harem.

Returning Przewalski's Horses to the Wild

Przewalski's horses, which used to roam across Mongolia, western China and Central Asia in great herds, have been extinct in the wild since the 1960s. They were hunted and poached for their meat. The last wild one was spotted in the Gobi Desert in 1960. All Przewalski's horses living today are offspring of 15 animals, including three stallions, caught near the turn of the 20th century. Fortunately they bred well in captivity and the breeding was carefully done through zoos and private herds owned by aristocrats so that there was little inbreeding. None of Przewalski's horses are completely pure though. They all have a little domestic horse blood in them but the amount is negligible.

Przewalski's Horse eating steppe grasses

By 1992, the population of Przewalski's horses in zoos had reached 1,000 and it was feasible to reintroduce some of them to the wild. In 1993 the firs Przewalski's horses were reintroduced to the Hustain Nuruu Steppe Reserve (now Hustain or Khustai National Park), about 60 miles from Ulaanbaatar . The reintroduced horses stuck so stubbornly to the home ranges they established around their release sites that reintroduction had to take place over a widely scattered area to reduce competition at the home ranges.

About 50 horses were initially released. They have been monitored by conservationist. Problems include wolves and undrinkable frozen water in the winter. Newly released horses are kept in a fenced area until they become acclimated and then they are allowed to run wild and suffers the fate of wild animals. Each year about five foals are killed by wolves.

By the early 2000s, there were about 170 Przewalski's horses, about half of them wild born, with 107 in Khustai National Park and 59 in Takhin Tal. Some groups are elusive and stay in the birch forests. Other come to research centers at night for protection against wolves.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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