Monday, 15 June 2015

Would our horses cope if they were returned to the wild?

This is an interesting question.  In previous blogs I have mentioned a horse's natural instincts and their natural environment.  However, have our horses maintained enough of these instincts to actually survive back in their natural environment?

The horse has been evolving for 65 million years.  Over the last few thousand years, since the horse has been domesticated, breeds have been introduced and developed.  Many of these have been developed for specific tasks eg: pulling carts or more recently for racing.  So it is likely that some of these breeds would cope better than others.

Our domesticated horses have maintained their herd instincts.  They still have a well developed 'Fight or Flight' instinct, they have excellent hearing and peripheral vision.  In addition, they have maintained their grazing habits. They still interact in the same way and learn each others 'signals' and so it is likely that a new horse/pony would be able to integrate.  This obviously would be different for a horse or pony that had been kept on its own for a prolonged period as they may no longer understand other horse 'signals'.
However, the biggest factor affecting a domesticated horse's ability to survive in the wild would probably be the environment.  The climate should be a consideration and the type and quality of grazing available.  On an exposed area with little shelter a horse or pony used to having good shelter in poor weather would find it difficult to stay warm.  Intense cold or punishing winds will affect this too.  If a pony is used to good grazing, they may struggle to survive on sparse, poor quality grass.  They would have to learn to forage for a bigger variety of plants to help them survive.

The breed of the horse will also have an influence.  It is unlikely that a thoroughbred would survive if released on to Exmoor.  The grazing would be too sparse, the moor too exposed and the climate too cold.  These horses have thin coats (even in the winter) and need more care and feed than a native breed.  However, a hairy pony that is a 'good doer' would probably be more likely to cope.

Many of our so called 'wild' horses were at some time domesticated and then released (or sometimes they have escaped) back into the wild!  This includes the Brumbies in Australia and the Mustangs in America.  Mongolian horses that were bred in a zoo were returned to the Steppes and to an area in France.  

So, I think that in theory some horses could adapt to living wild.  If used to living with other horses they would certainly be well able to join and integrate with a herd.  In time many would adapt to growing a sufficiently thick winter coat and if they survived this period of adaption would probably be fine.

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Until next time!

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