The term ‘wild horse’ is used to describe free-roaming equines, especially the mustangs that inhabit the western plains of the United States, the Australian Brumby, and the untamed horses in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, and the ponies of Sable Island on the east coast. However, all ‘wild’ herds are actually feral horses descended from domesticated animals that escaped or were abandoned and had to adapt to life in the wild. For example, the American mustang evolved from Spanish horses brought to the New World in the late 15th century who were subsequently stolen by Native Americans and/or escaped. The brumbies are descended from horses released by early American settlers in Australia. There are also small bands of feral horses in New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Japan, Brazil, and other countries.

The only true wild horse is believed to be the endangered Przewalski’s horse, which was nearly extinct but, thanks to a cooperative effort between zoos and scientists, has been reintroduced successfully back into the wild on the steppes of central Asia. Another wild horse, the Tarpan, became extinct in 1909. Since then, several attempts have been made to use selective breeding to create a horse that resembles the Tarpan.

While many feral herds are protected from human interference, some are subjected to annual roundups, such as the ponies on Assateague Island, and occasionally culls are conducted to reduce their numbers, such as the contentious culling of the Mustangs of the American west.

Some modern feral horse types include:

Alberta Wildie (Alberta, Canada)
Banker horse (North Carolina’s Outer Banks)
Brumby (Australia)
Chincoteague Pony (Assateague Island,Virginia & Maryland)
Cumberland Island horse (Georgia, USA)
Danube Delta horse (Romania)
Cayuse (Nemaiah Valley, BC, Canada)
Garrano (Portugal)
Kaimanawa horse (New Zealand)
Kundudo horse (Ethiopia)
Marismeño (Spain)
Misaki horse (Japan)
Lavradeiros (Brazil)
Mustang (USA)
Namib Desert Horse (Namibia)
Nokota horse (USA)
Sorraia (Portugal)
Sable Island Horse (Nova Scotia, Canada)
Welsh Pony (small feral herd in North Wales)
Delft Island Feral Horses (Sri Lanka)

Wild Mustangs in Nevada. Bob Langrish photo


The conformation of feral horses varies broadly depending on the stock from which they are descended. Mustangs, for example, usually measure between 14 and 15 hands and weigh around 360-400 kg. Coat colours of bay, dun, buckskin, and sorrel are most common, as well as pinto markings and dorsal stripes. Tehir general appearance is often shaggy and unkempt. They have hard legs and tough hooves and are hardy animals, capable of surviving on minimal amounts of grass and brush and surviving brutal winters. They live in herds that are usually led by a mature stallion and a dominant mare who protect the younger mares and foals from predators such as wolves and cougars.

Horses in the wild will feed mainly on grass (the Sable Island horses survive on marram, a tough beachgrass), but when grazing is not available they will consume leaves, twigs, and even tree bark. They are constantly on the move in search of water, food and safety. When a mare gives birth to a foal, the newborn must be up and running very quickly in order to survive.

For more about wild horses, click here.


Chincoteague pony. Bob Langrish photo