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Wild Horses: Where and How They Live

Updated on December 20, 2016
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Wild horses can still be found on public lands and special wildlife refuges in many parts of the United States.

They are beautiful creatures, embodying a free spirit and a mysterious allure that few can resist. It may not be this way forever, though. These horses are in danger of becoming extinct because of the growth of cities, towns, and even factory farms.

As civilization continues to encroach upon what used to be wilderness areas the horses are becoming more of a problem for farmers, ranchers, and even housing developments. They are being dealt with in legal as well as illegal ways both humane and inhumane.

Is there anything that can be done to preserve the legacy of these majestic creatures?

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Wild horses in Utah image:wikimediaWild horses in the western plains image:wilimediaWild horses at a water source image:wikimediaWild ponies on Assateague image:wikimediaAssateague ponies swim across the bay every year. image:wikimedia
Wild horses in Utah image:wikimedia
Wild horses in Utah image:wikimedia
Wild horses in the western plains image:wilimedia
Wild horses in the western plains image:wilimedia
Wild horses at a water source image:wikimedia
Wild horses at a water source image:wikimedia
Wild ponies on Assateague image:wikimedia
Wild ponies on Assateague image:wikimedia
Assateague ponies swim across the bay every year. image:wikimedia
Assateague ponies swim across the bay every year. image:wikimedia

How the Wild Horse Came to America

For years it has been thought that wild horses are the descendents of the horses that Spanish and other European explorers brought to this country.  It was surmised that many of these animals escaped or were washed ashore after shipwrecks and thrived in the lush grasslands of North America.

Recently researchers have begun to believe that, while this may be true, horses were on North American soil long before the Spaniards were.  These horses may have migrated across the Bering Strait Bridge centuries before the explorers came. 

Chincoteague Ponies

Many herds of wild or feral horses are located in the western plains states but not all of them. On the East Coast, just off the coast of Virginia, lies Assateague Island, the home to hundreds of wild ponies. The story goes that the horses are the descendants of horses that survived a shipwreck centuries ago. Some historians believe that the real truth is that these animals are the descendants of horses that were brought to the island by wealthy farmers in the late 1600s to avoid fencing laws and heavy taxation.

In order to maintain the health of the herds located on the island once a year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company sponsors a round up to drive the herds across the bay. Once on Chincoteague the animals are checked, and the healthy, young foals are auctioned. This keeps the main herd a manageable size and the island is able to support them.

The auctioned ponies go to good homes and are trained for riding just as any other horse would be. Marguerite Henry made these ponies famous in her books including, Misty of Chincoteague. For decades children who love horses have been reading and rereading those books and dreaming of visiting the islands.

Other Wild Horses in America

Other less known breeds of feral horses on the East Coast are:

  • A Banker is a breed that lives on Shackelford Banks off of North Carolina’s outer banks.
  • Cumberland Island Horses live on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia
  • Sable Island Ponies live in Nova Scotia

Horses on the Western Plains

Horses in the western plains states are not as lucky as their Assateague cousins. These animals, for the most part, live in areas where they are not protected. Often the states round them up and ship them to slaughterhouses in Mexico as well as within the United States.

If you would like to keep up with news about the plight of the wild horse in the west or get involved with the effort to protect them, you may be interested in Return to Freedom.

There is even a government program that allows approved people to adopt wild horses and burros. It is run by the Bureau of Land Management.

"What Do Horses in the Wild Eat?" and Other Questions

Wild horses are such beautiful and fascinating creatures that people naturally have questions about them.

  • What do wild horses eat? Horses are herbivores. They graze on grasses and other grains that grow naturally in the wild. In the winter they will push back the snow to find bits of leaves or grass and will strip bark from the trees if they need to.
  • Where do undomesticated horses get water? Wild horses get their water from streams, rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds that occur in the area that they live.
  • Where do wild horses live? They live in all parts of the country, as well as the world; some in preserves and others in the wild.
  • How are herds formed? The herd is made up of several horses, generally one stallion and several mares. Most often the colts are driven from the herd when they are old enough, although not always. In some herds the stallion allows a few other, non-assertive males to stay with the herd. The family group is usually from 12 to 25 horses but may be more.
  • What is the difference between a wild horse and a feral horse? Some people believe that there is a distinct difference between a feral horse, one who is descended from horses that were domesticated, and a truly wild horse, descended from horses that were never domesticated. Most often the term wild horse is used to describe a non-domesticated equine.

PBS: Wild Horses

Wild Horses in Peril

Wild horses are threatened by civilization. The herds are managed in different ways. Some are managed by culling and sale as in the case of the Chincoteague ponies, others are simply shot in large numbers.

Although the wild horse may be in peril it has survived for eons and will continue to thrive and adapt to its surroundings. It will continue to make the hearts of horse lovers everywhere beat a little faster and cause many people reach a little deeper in their pockets.

The wild horse will continue to capture the imaginations of people everywhere as it thunders off into the sunset with those same imaginations firmly in tow.

Should America's Wild Horse Population Be Preserved and Protected?

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      jj 6 months ago

      im am doing progct on horses

    • profile image

      jj 6 months ago


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      katty and sharen 4 years ago

      my friend and i loveeeeeee horses:)

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      Nevada Cowgirl 5 years ago

      First of all the horses on Public lands are FERAL horses. With the exception of a 1 or 2 herds there are no 'wild' horses in the United States. Secondly, there populations are NOT managed, due to the government and horse advocate groups to name a few. It should be noted that every other species on the rangeland IS managed. Feral horse number have grown too large. The rangeland simply cannot support the number. I like most enjoy seeing horses on the land, but it is imperative that the numbers are managed. This paper is very one sided, and many of the facts are twisted. I encourage those who read this to keep an open mind and look at the other side of the spectrum.

    • louromano profile image

      louromano 5 years ago

      I love horses. We had ponies and horses when I was a kid and a lot of my childhood memories include riding.

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