The Przewalski (or takh) are the last remaining truly wild horses on the planet, and in order to see these magnificent creatures you have to journey to the remote regions of Mongolia.
Unlike domestic horses, or even those we consider wild (see facing page), the Przewalski is a reminder of far-distant times when herds of these beautiful creatures roamed Europe and Asia. Long before it was domesticated, the horse was hunted for meat, as ancient cave paintings in France and Spain indicate. Even as recently as the 15th century, there were many wild herds in existence in Europe. Today, this wild animal is among the most endangered species, with population estimates of fewer than 1,500. It was declared extinct from the wild in the 1960s but after captive breeding programs, herds have been reintroduced into Mongolia, where it is the national symbol.
Standing around 12 hands high, it looks more like a well-built pony. The coat varies but is usually beige or dun with a lighter muzzle, and a dark mane and tail. 11 has a distinctive dark strip down its spine and stripes on the legs like a zebra. Most importantly it has 66 chromosomes, compared to 64 in other horses. The best place to see Przewalski in action is at Host& National Park, about a two-hour drive from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar
. There are tourist camp sites and pony trekking trips available, and it’s the historical hunting ground for former khans (kings) of Mongolia. Ancient temples and neolithic graves are clotted around this stepped landscape, and the shy, wild horses can be admired from a safe distance.
See horses and ponies running free
While Mongolia may be home to a truly wild species. there are other breeds of feral horses and ponies that still roam the land and enjoy special privileges. Here are four top spots to find them.
1. Assateague Island, USA Chincoteague or Assateague) ponies live on this island off the Eastern Seaboard. There are romantic theories about their origin involving a wrecked Spanish galleon, but it seems more likely they are descendants of early colonists’ livestock. While ponies on the Maryland side are cared for by the US Park Service, the ones in Virginia belong to the local fire department.
2. Brecon Beacons, Wales A semi-wild breed. Welsh mountain ponies date back at least 3,000 years. What they lack in stature they make up for in sturdiness, making them a popular choice for domestication (one that can stand up to novice child riders). You can still see a small wild population roaming the Black Mountain region of Brecon Beacons National Park.
3. Camargue, France The windswept plains of southern France are home to one of the oldest and most celebrated varieties. Born black or brown, Camargue horses fade to pale gray or white at adulthood. They are strictly protected and managed to ensure purity of the bloodline in this remote and spectacularly beautiful national park.
4. New Forest, England The English native breed of pony has inhabited this ancient Hampshire forest since at least 1016 and still runs free today—although with careful management. Typically chestnut (although almost any color is allowed) New Forest ponies graze alongside pigs and cattle, and help maintain the woodland setting.