There is something magical and captivating about the sight of wild horses running. They combine elegance, strength, and a sense of freedom. However, there are technically few, if any, truly wild horses left in the world. Most of the horses we consider wild are, in fact, feral or semi-feral, meaning that they are descended from domesticated horses that escaped and learned to live in the wild. Nevertheless, there are many places around the world to witness these majestic equines in their natural habitats. As with any wildlife, people should take care when encountering feral horses.
Chincoteague, Virginia, and Assateague, Maryland,
Among the most famous feral horses in the United States are those living on Assateague Island in the Chesapeake Bay. How the horses got here is lost to time, although theories abound, ranging from a Spanish shipwreck to pirates or even landowners hiding their livestock here to avoid taxes. There are technically two separate herds here, totaling more than 300 horses. The northern two-thirds of the island is part of Maryland; these horses live on the Assateague Island National Seashore, where they are managed by the National Park Service. The southernmost part of the island is in Virginia; the Virginia herd lives in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and is managed by the local fire department. Twice a year, visitors flock to see the fire company do their regular round-up, which allows vets to perform health checks and a headcount.
Hustai National Park, Mongolia
Until recently, experts considered Przewalski’s horse of Central Asia to be the world’s only remaining wild horse. However, a DNA study in 2018 has suggested that even they may have originally been domesticated. Przewalski’s horse is named for Russian geographer and explorer Nikołaj Przewalski (pronounced shuh-VAL-skee), who “discovered” them in the 19th century, but to the Mongolian people, they are known as takhi. In 1969, the horses were declared extinct in the wild. Luckily, conservationists were able to use those in captivity to boost population numbers, and in 1992, Przewalski’s horses were reintroduced into the wild in several locations in Mongolia. The largest herd, estimated to number 400 horses, lives in the country’s Hustai National Park. The reintroduction program and their subsequent removal from the endangered species list are considered a conservation success.
Sable Island, Canada
No one is quite sure where the 500 horses on Canada’s Sable Island originate from. After all, a remote sandbank 185 miles off the coast of Halifax is hardly an obvious location. Some say they are descended from a few survivors of a shipwreck, while others theorize they may have been left behind by early explorers, either Portuguese or Norse. The horses are now protected by Canadian law and cannot be removed from their habitat. Despite Sable Island’s harsh climate — there is only one tree on the island — it is also home to a variety of birdlife and the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals. Visitors can access Sable Island only by boat or small airplane. Unpredictable weather conditions may make travel to and from the island tricky, however.
The Camargue, France
France’s Camargue National Park is an area of marshy wetlands bordering the Mediterranean Sea known for its varied wildlife, particularly the stunning white horses that run free along the sandy shores. According to legend, the horses were a gift from the god Neptune. Their presence on the island likely dates from the Solutrean Period in France (about 20,000 years ago), making it one of the world’s oldest horse breeds. Traditionally, locals used them to help round up semi-wild bulls in the area. In the 1970s, the French government established strict rules to protect the species and to keep their bloodline pure. Some of the horses remain feral, while some are tamed to use in local land management or tourism. The Camargue is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Tahuata, Marquesas Islands
A small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean may seem like another unlikely place to find wild horses. Tahuata, one of the smallest of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, covers just over 23 square miles and has a human population of about 650. In 1842, a French admiral reportedly gifted a number of horses to the local lotete (tribal chief) as he claimed the lands for France. However, another story alleges that some horses were left behind by Spanish explorers as far back as the 17th century. Regardless of how the horses got there, visitors can now encounter their descendants throughout the island, although additional horses from Australia and New Zealand are occasionally introduced to maintain numbers. The island has also developed a fascinating tradition of horsemen who work to tame them.
As with so many other feral horse communities included on this list, the origins of the wild horses in the Namib Desert are somewhat uncertain. It is possible that they are descended from cavalry horses brought to Namibia by the German Army in World War I. Another theory is that they originated from racing thoroughbreds from a ship that wrecked on its way to Australia. Either theory may help to explain the horses’ distinctive athletic appearance — they would look at home on any thoroughbred farm. The horses live away from any human intervention and are becoming increasingly rare; the population has declined in recent years to just 65. This is of concern to locals who rely on them to attract tourists to see them in Namib-Naukluft National Park.
Australia is home to more wild horses — which locals call “brumbies” — than anywhere else in the world. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but estimates range from 400,000 to as many as 1 million horses. However, their presence is a contentious issue. They are considered both a beloved national symbol and an environmentally harmful invasive species with no natural predator. Brumbies are descended from domestic horses introduced by European settlers. Today, their huge numbers roam across the Northern Territory, parts of New South Wales, and the mountains of Kosciuszko National Park. The Australian landscape has no native hoofed species, so the wild herds can do extensive damage to the fragile environment. At the same time, the brumby has become a romantic symbol of Australia’s past, thanks in no small part to Banjo Patterson’s popular poem, “The Man From Snowy River.”
Iceland has approximately 100,000 horses, equivalent to one horse for every three Icelanders. The stocky equines are a beloved tourist attraction, as well as an important working farm animal. Yet, they differ from most others on this list in that they are technically owned by farmers and only live wild for six months of the year. In the summer, the farmers let them loose to graze in the highlands. In September, farmers and locals round them up for winter, with many owners knowing their stock by sight. Icelandic horses stand out because they have two gaits that are unique to them, the tölt and the skeið. Both contribute to a speedy but smooth ride. In order to protect the bloodlines of the Icelandic stock, horses cannot be imported to the nation, and if any leave the island, they cannot return.
When this region in the southwestern corner of England was designated Dartmoor National Park in 1951, there was little doubt as to what creature would be on the park’s logo. The Dartmoor pony has lived on these wild moors since prehistoric times. They are small and stocky, well-suited to the harsh environment. At the same time, their calm temperament has made them ideal working animals, whether in the area’s tin mines, delivering mail, or herding sheep. Although Dartmoor ponies roam freely, most of them belong to keepers, who round them up each year to check health and numbers. Feeding them is illegal, and they are not accustomed to people, so tourists are advised to admire them from a distance.
In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming and Burros Act was enacted to protect wild horses on federal lands. Among the first to be protected by the new act were the wild horses of Virginia Range, Nevada. Nevada is home to more wild horses than anywhere else in the U.S., an estimated 60% of the country's total population. Although there are about 43,000 throughout the state, one of the best places to view them is Virginia Range, just outside of Reno. Velma Johnston, also known as “Wild Horse Annie,” led efforts to protect these horses from commercial capture and trade, culminating in the 1971 act. The Range was also the location for director John Huston’s 1961 film The Misfits (starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift), which drew attention to the cruelty facing these wild mustangs and ultimately helped garner public support to protect them.