Happy National Day of the Horse (and wild horse…and zebra…and wild ass)!

Like many of my colleagues that study horses and zebras and asses, when I take off my objective scientist hat, what remains is someone who genuinely loves horses. I love the smell of them. I love hearing my horse’s nicker when I go to feed him in the morning. I love watching him roll and play and run…and just be. Humans connect to horses in a very special way that has yet to be adequately defined by science. It is simply a part of humanity’s fabric.

When Petra Kaczensky and I put our heads together to work on Wild Equids, we gathered many colleagues, including Sandra Olson, well known and respected anthropologist, to pen what they know best. An anthropologist isn’t always an intuitive choice for a book on ecology, management, and conservation of wildlife, but the reality is that wildlife conservation and management is a story about humans. Without us, wild horses, zebras, and asses wouldn’t need conservation or management. The earth deals with populations in its own rhythm. What is unique with horses is that THEY shaped our populations as much as we have shaped theirs. It makes them special.

Sandra paints an intriguing picture of horses and humans through time in our book, demonstrating that indeed horses repopulated the world as our companions, tools, transportation, and instruments of war. They shaped every aspect of the way people – and horses – are distributed around our planet. We owe them everything. Even so, when the industrial revolution unfolded we forgot about many of these animals. They went wild or died. They wandered forth around America and Europe and Australia and found a way to revert to their roots. But we still loved them, at least conditionally.

Their roots are where I’m actually going here, on this National Day of the Horse. Our treasured species, Equus caballus, arose in North America alongside a huge number of other equines. We had horses of all sorts…until we didn’t. The great speciation was cut off by the great extinction. Our beloved horse managed to just be in the right ecological niche at exactly the right time, and it survived when so many other large mammals blinked out.  Horses then managed to defy all reasonable odds and found their way to Asia, and eventually into the lives of humans. We’ve loved them ever since. But what about the other few equine species that also survived? Some actually did.

Three zebra species (Plains, Grevy’s, and Mountain), three wild asses (African, Asian, and the kiang), and one other horse (Przewalski’s) still roam the earth. We never really fell in love with them. Not only did they not shape our modern world, we actually forgot about them altogether. We’ve eaten them, fenced them out, chased them off, and done everything but embrace them. Why is this? They smell the same, sort of look the same, they behave the same. They are the wild embodiment of the horse we adore, yet we certainly don’t adore them. Our lack of love has now left them on the brink of disappearing from the earth for good. While the African ass holds on in turbulent parts of the world, only a few hundred exist. Przewalski’s horse went extinct in the wild, and through a conservation triumph they once again are roaming the steppe in Mongolia and China, but still in the hundreds…not thousands or tens of thousands that the earth once knew.  Asiatic asses, kiang, and zebra are feeling the world shrink as roads, fences, and railroads slice through the paths where they once migrated in uncountable numbers.

Alas, even since our book came out this spring, the plains zebra – one of the most iconic and prolific species of the African savannah – has been up-listed on the IUCN Red List to ‘Near Threatened’ from ‘Least Concern’.  It is one tick closer to disappearing and changing Africa for good, which is unfathomable to any child who grew up watching Wild Kingdom on TV or has been to a zoo and seen the wonderfully striped horses of exotic Africa. Losing them would be the moment we have indeed lost the earth.

So as we all smile fondly about our companions on this National Day of the Horse, don’t forget to pause and remember their forgotten relatives. Our beloved horse is part of a larger family and we are the custodians of their fate. Support their conservation through education and the many great organizations that are on the front lines like Grevy’s Zebra Trust and International Takhi Group. And while you’re doing these great things, don’t forget to hug your horse – chances are his or her family tree ultimately points to the reason your family ended up where it did. You owe them at least a carrot and a good grooming today. 


Jason I. Ransom is a senior wildlife biologist with the US National Park Service and an affiliate faculty member at Colorado State University. He is the author of  Wild Equids: Ecology, Management, and Conservation.