Horses loom so large in America’s mythology, especially here in the west (even in the urban-suburban SF Bay Area west), it’s a bit surprising how little most of us know about their natural place in the environment. To sum it up, while wild horses are a thing of beauty they are also sadly a thing of the past; the long and distant past.
Horses were once indigenous to North America but only long ago, like our native lion, zebra and other mega-fauna. America’s native horses became extinct between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago. The horses which still roam free today (hunted and slaughtered, but that’s another story) have a colorful and indeed violent backstory. In 1680, Native Pueblo People of today’s New Mexico finally rose up against the Spanish missionaries who had enslaved them, destroying government buildings and churches, killing and chasing the surviving conquerors away, and flinging open the corrals to allow thousands of European mustangs to run free across the Southern Plains in what has become known as America’s “Great Horse Dispersal.” This act of a Native People’s self-liberation also liberated the horses, forever transforming the culture of the American West. Our wild mustangs, as such, are neither truly wild (they are feral, as in reverted to a wild state) nor ours (as descendants of European animals).
Up until quite recently it was believed that there was one line of truly wild horses left on the planet but sadly that too now has been disproven. Defining “wild” as “never domesticated”, Przewalski’s horse, which is still found roaming the grasslands of Mongolia, were long thought to be the last wild horses. Just released results of a genetic study, however, prove that these are not wild but instead the descendants of the earliest known domesticated horse. Only recently saved from extinction, Przewalski’s horse turns out to be the also feral offspring of horses domesticated in northern Kazakhstan about 5,500 years ago. The world lost its wild horses forever, we now know, millennia in the past.