As I have driven through the United States, I have seen so many wild horses that it got me wondering how they survive in the wild.
I have done some research to find out how these self-sustaining populations of horses survive unassisted in the wild.
Wild horses survive by grazing for food as they are herbivores, eating grasses and shrubs on their lands. In winter, wild horses paw through the snow to find edible vegetation. They also usually stay reasonably close to water, which is essential for survival.
Actual wild horses went extinct in North America roughly around 10,500 years ago. The herds of so-called ‘wild horses’ remain from domestic stock introduced by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
For this reason, they are often referred to by scientists as ‘feral’ or ‘free-roaming horses.’
The wild horses in North America are also Mustangs because they are descendants of Spanish explorers’ horses. Free-roaming horses occupy 31.6 million acres of federal land in the United States.
Wild horses are now limited in the areas where they can reside and have a limited grazing range controlled by the government. The average wild horse will live between 15 and 20 years, although they can live to be older than 20.
What do Wild Horses Eat?
When we think of what horses eat, our minds go straight to hay, carrots, and perhaps even the odd sugar cube. However, none of these foods is available to wild horses.
Wild horses survive on a different diet. Just as we often see domestic horses grazing their pasture’s grassy land, wild horses do the same.
Wild horses are herbivores and thus eat grasses and seeds, and other leafy shrubs.
It has been estimated that a horse with an abundant food source would graze for between 15 and 17 hours feeding in a single day. This amount of time grazing quality food would mean the horse has the necessary nutrients to thrive in its wild environment.
There is a problem with overpopulation in wild horses, and this leads to a shortage of grazing pastures, as they have to share them with livestock and other grazing animals such as deer.
The problem is compounded by wild horses being less accessible than previously, with the government controlling their roaming and grazing pastures.
How do Wild Horses Survive Without Shoes?
When we think of horses, we often think of them with horseshoes. Horseshoes were a Roman invention, so they have been around for over 2000 years.
They have been used on domestic horses for various reasons, such as preventing damage carrying heavy loads or better griping rugged terrain.
Horses’ hooves are made of keratin, the same as our nails. Much like our nails, feet have a quick, which is very sensitive. Horseshoes are nailed to the hoof wall (the equivalent of the white ends of our pins).
Wild horses do not need horseshoes for a few reasons, one of which is partly due to breeding.
Domestic horses have not been bred for hoof strength since the eighteenth century, whereas wild horses, which came from earlier domestic stock, have stronger hooves because they were born with that characteristic in mind. These genes have been passed down.
Another reason wild horses do not need to be shod is the amount of exercise they get. Wild horses travel many miles daily (usually between 10 and 20), searching for food and water.
This amount of travel, often through rough terrain, wears down their hooves as nature intended.
Domestic horses that do not get this exercise are usually shod as the hooves, like human nails, grow continuously and can overgrow if not worn down and cause health problems for the horse (such as joint and muscle tissues in the legs)
It should be noted that the distance wild horses travel does not wear their hooves down to the quick, which can be very painful.
Domestic horses that carry heavy loads or traverse longer distances over rough terrain are usually shod to prevent damage to the hoof.
How do Wild Horses Survive in the Winter?
Horses in the wild graze for food, but I wanted to find out how they find food in the winter when the ground is covered in snow and shrubs are barren.
Wild horses can find food not only by seeing it but also through their excellent sense of smell. In winter, horses will use their hooves to paw through snow to find vegetation that can be eaten.
How do Horses Live in the Wild?
Initially, Spanish explorers released the horses into the wild in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Throughout the years, there have been both accidental and intentional releases of horses into the wild.
Livestock producers near free-roaming horse herds would use them as broodstock and sometimes release a stallion (male horse) to alter genetics for their purposes. This practice was stopped mainly after 1971 with the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
Wild horses are contained in certain areas by the government, which is why you do not see wild horses everywhere. Most wild horses are held in certain regions (public lands) in the Western states, with over half the wild horse population residing in Nevada. This group of wild horses roams an uninhabited Outer Bank island off the coast of North Carolina.
The wild horses’ predators are now few, as many have been eradicated. This means that wild horses now face a problem with overpopulation.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a government agency tasked with maintaining America’s wild horse herds.
Due to the high birth rate and lack of natural predators, the wild horse population in America is overpopulated and grows out of control if left on its own.
The overpopulation means there is a shortage of grazing areas available, and the problem would have continued to worsen without human intervention.
The BLM rounds up horses and attempts to find adoptive homes with private owners. This attempts to control the population and keep grazing pastures available for the remaining wild horses. The BLM also uses birth control on the horses in some locations to prevent the herd from becoming overpopulated.
What is the Lifespan of a Wild Horse?
The average lifespan of a domestic horse is 20-30 years, depending on the breed. The average lifespan of a wild horse has been between 15-20 years, although the oldest living wild horse in 1974 was 36.
This variation could be due to factors such as their environment, nutrition, disease, dental health, physical activity, and reproductive status.
Horses in captivity are also more likely to receive better medical care than wild horses, which is why they may live longer.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.