They’re wild horses discovered by Nikolai Przewalski, a Polish-born colonel in the Russian Army, on an 1878 exhibition to the Mongolian-Chinese frontier. The colonel named the horses after himself.
They are also referred to as takhi, the Mongol word for “spirit.”
By either name, these are true wild horses, never trained by man, but always roaming on the Central Asian steppes at their will.
Mustangs, Brumbies, and other horses living free are actually feral; horses descended from those who escaped their bonds or were turned loose. “If other horses are the equivalent of feral dogs, then the Przewalski’s horse is a wolf,” says Rachel Nuwer. Read her fabulous Nova/PBS article Saving the World’s Only True Wild Horses here.
From nearly extinct, herds are being brought back, returning to Mongolia and other locations around the world, including the “living collection” of seventeen mares, foals, and a stallion at the Highland Wildlife Park in Cairngorms National Park. The herds are looking strong due to careful genetic choices and improved care practices.
Imagine getting an email from Bonny Mealand, an equine podiatrist specializing in working with wild, feral, or unhandled horses. She wonders if you might have spare time and would like to visit the herd? I responded within seconds, even before the shrieking died down.
I think humans have been hooked on horses since they started painting their images on cave walls. And the first paintings looked just like takhis.
What would they be like? Perhaps the truest of horses; before we put them to the plow, before we made up romantic stories about them, before they became our partners or beasts of burden or healers. What were horses like before we changed their lives?
This herd lives on eighty acres, shared with some deer and bison, in a protected area. It’s a wildlife park where cars may drive through slowly, people caged in vehicles, and the animals wandering free. I liked it already.
The herd is established and growing, safely beyond the reach of predators, except for those in charge of their care. Traditionally, the accepted approach was to dart and tranquilize animals when they were in need of medical help. It had a traumatic effect, sometimes even injuring them.
It’s complicated: These precious horses, truly wild takhis, must accept some help from humans but can we find a less stressful method? Is there a way to maintain their instincts but allow some human handling in a positive way?
Sounds a bit familiar, right? Trying to keep a horse in the most natural way possible, but still get them the care and security needed to keep them safe, in alignment with their reality as a flight animal. Isn’t that the work we try to manage at our own barns?
Enter Bonny, with the help of zoo employees, and the idea to try another way. Clicker training is a common approach that zoos employ, but this situation called for something else. Using a group of pens, the Przewalski’s are lured in with carrots and turnips tossed on the ground. They move through pens, stalls of a barn, and eventually a chute, by just following the herd. Before then, any enclosure at all caused panic but this method of inviting, rather than chasing from behind, created a quiet opportunity. Now the zoo could contain the herd safely if needed.
There is a middle pen, and if they choose, horses may enter, with larger groups visible through gates on either side. In that central pen, the horses are given special meals, along with a touch, eventually followed by scratching, rubbing and even a hand down their leg. The horses are allowed to leave when they show any anxiety. Soon, one or two horses began to get familiar enough to stand without halters, some hooves that badly needed trimming got help from Bonny. There was no restraint and the takhi had a choice. It was a more peaceful and safe approach for both humans and horses.
Does the method ruin the “wildness” of the herd or ensure its future?
I confess, the stallion, Chagatai (the name of one of the sons of Genghis Khan), had a magnetic presence. As a youngster, he was part of a horrific fight in a bachelor herd. He managed to survive but paid a price. He was badly injured, losing an eye and sustaining a very damaged jaw with missing teeth. His body bore the scars and he appeared older than his eleven years. He strolled to the tall gate by the central pen as I stood on the other side. As he passed, his blind side toward me, he seemed to sense me in a way I’d experienced one-eyed domestic horses do in the past. It’s as if they take stock with the un-seeing eye. He turned, came back and stopped, looking with his good eye, letting his ears relax to a lateral position. Did he just give me a calming signal?
A young male came to the far end of the gate and stood to look at us on the inside. Chagatai had a job to do, so he moved to the young horse quietly and with a flick of his ear, the young horse blinked, narrowed his eyes, and moved away from the gate. It was an interchange without aggression, just a request answered. The kind stallion gave a small yawn as he returned to his previous spot with what some might call the countenance of an old soul. Deep sigh.
The more I looked at him, the more he reminded me of a lion; he had that massive confident grace. It was impossible to not share the respect his herd felt for him.
Wild Przewalski’s horses are proud. The mares are canny and the youngsters bold. That day, I noticed fewer signs of stress than many of their domestic cousins. At the park, foals wander through the herd under the eye of the elders and their human caregivers. For all their history of independence, the Przewalski’s have more in common with our domestic horses and donkeys than I expected. It’s easy to see the wildness in both, as well as the intellect and shared language.
I hope our species will continue to be creative in the ways of using less force and domination in working with all kinds of horses. That we will hold that, given a fair opportunity, these sentient creatures would choose to be a willing partner in their future.