Wild Horses: Where and How They Live

Updated on March 7, 2018
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?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
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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Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        kailtlyn may 

        6 months ago

        what kind of homes do wild horses live in?

      • profile image


        6 months ago

        I am also doing a project on horses for my science class.

      • profile image


        8 months ago

        I'm doing a presentation on Horse Evolution. Hopefully this website can help me understand more about horses. I love horses and all animals btw :)

      • profile image


        20 months ago

        im am doing progct on horses

      • profile image


        20 months ago


      • profile image

        katty and sharen 

        5 years ago

        my friend and i loveeeeeee horses:)

      • profile image

        Nevada Cowgirl 

        6 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


        6 years ago

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

      • profile image

        Pete Young 

        6 years ago

        Its nice to know there are people who care. I think horses are one of the most beautiful animals on earth

      • justmesuzanne profile image


        6 years ago from Texas

        Wild horses are under attack by the Bureau of Land Management and corporate ranching. Wild horses and our public lands belong to We the People, not to the government or to corporations, yet the BLM and corporate ranchers are constantly attacking them with cruel helicopter round-ups and locking them away in inadequate facilities where they mostly linger and die or are auctioned off and subsequently shipped off to slaughter. Corporate ranchers seek to fence off water sources and force wild horses to die of thirst. All of this is against the will of over 70% of We the People, yet it continues. When the corporate ranchers have cleared our public lands of wolves, bison and wild horses, they will declare them barren and claim them for "development". We the People must continue to protest the roundup of our wild horses and the takeover of our public lands.


      • profile image


        6 years ago

        great hub. i almost started in the horse world with a mustang but went with draft horses instead. mustangs are among my favorite types of horses.

      • profile image

        Crazy for horses 

        6 years ago

        Loved the blog and my most favorite animal is the wild mustang I have one of my own his name is trigger he is a paint

      • equine profile image

        Melissa Kanzelberger 

        6 years ago from Hillsboro, MO

        Beautiful photographs. I participated in the Extreme Mustang Makeover and kept my horse. He's now about the best beginner horse you would find out there, hard to believe just 2 years ago he was wild. The mustangs I have worked with are some of the most intelligent animals I have met. They learn things after being shown very few times. The genetic selection process is that generally the intelligent and rugged survive.

      • khoofbeat5 profile image


        6 years ago from United States of America

        Wow! Great hub! Lots of good information, and well written (not to mention good photos) :-) keep it up!

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        I love horses they are so cute I can not believe they live in a group together like a big family and they are soon going to be exist some one should do some thing about them I wish I can do some thing I LOVEEEE HORSESSS XXXXOOOO

      • lzlpio90 profile image


        7 years ago

        i can't believe wild horses still exists even these days. I thought they are all captured and trained as, you know, for racing, etc.

        I suddenly remember the animation movie "Spirit".

        very nice... the movie...and your article!:)

      • HomerMCho profile image


        7 years ago

        Awesome hub! Do wild horses still exist nowadays? I'm just wondering. Thanks.

      • profile image

        Sofia Valenzuela 

        7 years ago


      • profile image

        Malice Smith 

        7 years ago

        Diane Delano and myself run Wild Horse Rescue in Mims Florida we deal on a daily basis with the perils mustangs endure in and out of the wild love to see others putting out info on these magnificent animals

      • The Jet profile image

        The Jet 

        7 years ago from The Bay

        This was a very nice read.

      • MysteryPlanet profile image


        7 years ago

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

      • ekenzy profile image


        7 years ago

        mary, is this true? well i love this and need to know more

      • irtkris profile image


        7 years ago from Alberta, Canada

        Great hub. Check out my hub, Animal Rant, to read about the slaughter houses that many wild horses end up at.

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        ciara i totally agree but not death life in prison

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        why do people kill horses i know if i ever become pres it will be illegal to kill wild horses and if so is done then one who kills should be sentenced to death. leave me a comment on horselovers.com.webstart.com if you agree.

      • profile image


        7 years ago

        does anyone know antthing about horse racing

      • profile image


        8 years ago

        this has a lil bit of info but it doesnt say what they eat :(

      • profile image


        8 years ago


        this is SOO confusing, the wording should be fixed.

        and please please please! put more info on this site.

      • profile image

        Linda E. 

        8 years ago

        I read about Wild Horse Annie when I was younger. I've always wanted to see horses in the wild. So many people want to just control and pen up everything. If we as a country would spend more time enjoying and respecting all things natural and wild, the wholw world would greatly benefit.

      • profile image


        8 years ago

        Some great info here! I really like your section on wild horse! I love horses, they are my favorite animal!

      • profile image


        8 years ago

        This is a great site. I could learn many about the wild horse. About their natures and other things.


      • Moonlight Wolf profile image

        Moonlight Wolf 

        8 years ago

        I love all types of horses. my most favorite animals are wolves and horses. And i think it's horrible what they are going through. Your blog was wonderful.

      • profile image


        8 years ago

        I love horses

      • kcnck profile image


        8 years ago

        It was a Good informative article.

      • Deborah_Williams profile image


        8 years ago

        I hope to visit Chincoteague one day. Thank you for this hub.

      • loves ranch life profile image

        loves ranch life 

        8 years ago from western North Dakota

        I have a different view than most of you on the wild horses. My husband and I ranch in a western state. We even have some wild horses as neighbors. I do agree that to see a herd of wild horses is exciting and beautiful.

        I see the management of the wild horse population as being very essential to the management and preservation of our rangelands.

        Regardless of what many people think, all wild horses in the United States are descendants of domesticated horses. This makes them no different than the horses in my pastures or that run the Kentucky Derby. They might trace their roots back to the conquistadors horses, Indian horses, or horses from use by the US Army during the 1800's, They can even trace their roots to more recent times to horses that wandered from their home ranch, were abondoned, etc. The only thing that makes theses horses wild is the fact they are not owned by anyone and range at will over private, state and federal lands.

        The populations of these wild horses face disease, inbreeding, untreated injuries, in adequate feed and water. I think that given a choice, (if that were possible) these horses would prefer to not have to live with those epic problems. All horses enjoy the freedom of a good run, but come wintertime, they all appreciate a good dependable source of feed and water.

        The amount of money spent on capturing and warehousing these horses is astronomical. This year the federal government will spend more than $50 million on the wild horse program. Three quarters of that goes to feed and care for the There are far more that are unsuitable for adoption due various reasons, than ever get adopted. In 2007, there were 30,000 horses being kept in long and short term holding facilites.

        Beyond the welfare of the wild horses and the fiscal reality of caring for these horses, their habitat needs to be considered. The lands they roam out here in the west are home to elk, antelope & deer. Some of this land is marginal at best to support those species and the rest of that ecosystem. Unmanaged horses take a huge toll on the vegetation due to overgrazing. This can cause the other species to be moved out.

        I will also give you the perspective of a rancher. On our ranch, we do utilize federal land (in our case Forest Service land) thru a grazing permit. The number of cattle we can graze on that land is strictly regulated by the Forest Service. When drought is a problem our numbers are cut, when there is a new idea in the government, our numbers are cut. I can personallly say that, when we feel the conditions our private and federal lands as not opitmal, we voluntarily reduce our grazing numbers. We also utilize rotational grazing,develop,water sources and do other things responsibly manage that land to the benefit of the land itself, the wildlife and lastly ourselves. No such management of the wild horses and their use of the land truely exists.

      • annettelennon2 profile image


        9 years ago

        I remember seeing the wild horses running as a young girl when we were moving to arizona. What a beautiful sight. What a tragedy they are all mostly locked up in holding pens awaiting BLM ruling of whether they will go to slaughter or not. Current legislation will sign their fate.

        Will Obama care what happens to this national heritage?

      • profile image


        9 years ago

        I think wild horses should be thought of as special as people. they do all the labor, love us, and are helpless against us. We should try more to help and protect these poor creatures.

      • Bill Beavers profile image

        Bill Beavers 

        9 years ago from California

        It is my hope that those who care and those who can will protect the wild horses from what's coming. Appreciate your information. I have a frient in NM who provides hubs occasionally on horses and wild horses. Love horses although I don't ride or have one, I still think of them as royalty.

      • Clara Ghomes profile image

        Clara Ghomes 

        9 years ago

        Great information on wild horses. Tiil date, these horses continue to attract people from different parts of the world.

      • Jesus_saves_us_7 profile image


        9 years ago from Seeking Salvation

        Great hub. I live within 2 1/2 hours from Chincoteague and my family and I visit quite often. Those ponies are amazing animals. They will get within petting distance, but not let you pet them.


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