Rewilding horses in Europe

From domestic breeds to wild herds

Extinct, but not lost

Humans exterminated the wild horse. Rewilding Europe is now helping to bring back the wild horse to where it once belonged, into the European landscapes, where it used to be a vital part of the ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years.

The last European wild horse died out as late as in 1909. Before that, wild horses roamed through most of Europe’s ecosystems, from deserts, steppes and savannahs to deep forests and high mountains.

It was exterminated and domesticated by our ancestors. Therefore, even though the original wild horse is technically gone, there are still millions of horses around, and some horse breeds to this day carry on most of the gene material of the original wild horse. Many of them also live a semi-wild life already, exposed to wild challenges like food shortage, weather extremes, predators, drought and disease. All which seems to help bring back and refine the wild, original traits in them.

The influence of man

Several of our 21th century horse breeds are amazingly close to the horses that feature in the 15,000–32,000 year old cave paintings in Chauvet, Altamira and Lascaux or in the rock carvings of the Côa valley. Closer than we might have expected. One reason for there being so many different horse breeds today is that there were already a number of different wild horse types as well. They had adapted to the different climates and food supplies in the different corners of Europe. Roughly, there seems to have been a steppe version, an Iberian version, a Balkan mountain version and a European lowland version.

In horses, domestication was an erratic history of taming, human selection, breeding, hybridising with wild horses again, living wild for a while and then being re-tamed again when man needed them. All across Europe, several of the local horse breeds have traditionally roamed free in natural areas in a semi-wild state. These horses were expected to find their own food and shelter. This turned out to be a guarantee to preserve important wild traits and appearances, enabling horses to stay fit and alive under semi-wild conditions. The knowledge of how to avoid or defend themselves against predators, the competition between the stallions, how to survive winters, developing coats resistant to rain, snow and ice, was preserved and developed.

Fit for rewilding

The domestication of horses did not change their genes as much as it did with many of our other domestic mammals. The absence of strong human selection and the presence of natural selection has kept some of the wilder and more original breeds quite fit for a natural wild life.

Rewilding horses means using current and future scientific knowledge to select and conserve the best descendants of the original European wild horse and to re-adapt them to modern natural environments. These new wild horses are not necessarily exactly identical to the extinct European wild horse, but are very capable of surviving without help and regaining their lost role in Europe’s ecosystems.

Rewilding horses also means moving from domestication towards wildness, from tame to wild, from human care to self-sustainability. When choosing horses for rewilding, it is best to use regional and well-adapted individuals that are still used to living in the wild.

We have studied 45 different horse breeds and based on a range of criteria we have selected six (groups of) breeds that are most fit for rewilding in different geographical regions in Europe.

What we are doing

Rewilding Europe is working to bring the wild horse back, all across Europe. Currently we are working with six breeds that are fit for rewilding. They are grazing under completely natural conditions in our rewilding areas in Portugal, Spain, Croatia and Bulgaria.

We are helping the wild horse back to natural densities within some key European ecosystems, offering new areas for the species to expand.

We work to establish at least five herds of >100 animals before 2022 in rewilding areas that are specifically selected for this purpose.

We use the European Wildlife Bank to expand the number of grazing areas for wild horses in Europe.

In at least one of our rewilding areas, we are working to create a formal ‘status wild’ for wild horses, as an example for other areas in Europe.

We actively support business development around the return of the wild horse, thereby directly linking wildlife conservation with local economic benefits.

We invite all other willing and able partners (land owners, hunters, horse breeders, land managers, scientists, National Parks etc.) to join us and work together with us in this endeavor.

Suitable horse breeds

The European wild horse is officially extinct, but at the same time still present in many different types of (feral) horses. From Exmoor in the west to Hucul in the east, several primitive horse types still have many characteristics of the original wild horse and are suitable for rewilding and regaining their place in European ecosystems. Horses used to living in the wild and in natural social groups are preferred above other breeds or individuals.

We have identified a broad range of horse breeds suitable for rewilding. All of them are strong, robust and pony-sized animals that are scarcely developed by human breeding. Some of them may have ancient, wild gene variants and many have a feral history and very often it is a mixture of those two aspects.

After a process of rewilding, the founding breeds will no longer be a certain breed, but will gradually change to rewilded horse types. Rewilding Europe is using these horse breeds in their rewilding areas across Europe.

Symbols of freedom

Wild horses speak to our imaginations. Songs are written about these symbols of freedom and enduring legends exist in many regions of our continent. Their cultural value is beyond doubt, but also their impact on the European natural landscape cannot be overestimated.

Revealing our practical experiences with rewilding horses in different parts of Europe and at the same time using the latest scientific information, we hope to contribute to the ultimate goal: well-functioning European ecosystems with the wild horse as one of the defining species. Adding a new chapter in our special relationship with this noble animal.

Read more about the fascinating story of the horses in the European landscape.

Rewilding Horses in Europe

The wild horse – a keystone species

Together with other natural processes like storms, forest fires, insect outbreaks and diseases, combinations of large herbivores can shape landscapes in many of Europe’s climate zones, but only if their numbers are significantly high and the species composition sufficiently diverse. Different species occupy different niches and not only compete, but also facilitate each other. Their combined impact on the landscape is much more than the impact of one single species.

In this combined grazing, horses play an important role as can be seen in modern-day nature reserves with wild horses. Through their grazing, horses offer space for open land species like bushes, herbs, grasses and the accompanying insects and birds. In the illustration the enriching impact of horses is shown, benefiting a myriad of other species.

Our main achievements

Landmark study on rewilding horses

In 2014, we produced a report that puts together most of the existing knowledge and experiences on rewilding horses in Europe. It provides backgrounds and guidelines, and is meant as a ‘living document’ as there are many unknowns about wild horses in Europe. Based in a wide range of selection criteria, the authors also propose a selection of horse breeds that are most fit for rewilding. We support further scientific studies on this subject.

Selection of horse breeds for our rewilding areas

Based on the report mentioned above, we have started working with five different horse breeds, that we use in our rewilding areas. These breeds are Retuerta (Western Iberia), Konik (Rhodope and Velebit Mountains), Bosnian mountain horse (Velebit Mountains), Karakachan (Rhodope Mountains), and Garrano (Western Iberia).

An array of wild horse grazing sites

So far, we have set up 11 grazing sites for horses in a total of 4400 hectares in the three rewilding areas mentioned above. All horses are still in large but fenced areas, except the Konik and Karakachan horses in Rhodope Mountains. All of them are prone to predation of carnivores, which actually happens on a regular basis.

Growing horse numbers

All horses are part of the European Wildlife Bank. Starting with 29 horses in 2012, the numbers are increasing rapidly, with 342 animals across the five different breeds in the Bank by the end of 2017. Population dynamics are monitored closely in each of the grazing sites.

Status wild

The Rhodope Mountains have the only population of free-roaming horses so far, in total some 63 animals by the end of 2017. Despite the fact that they are not fenced in, the animals are confined to specific areas where they are living in social herds moving through the landscape in a completely natural and wild way. We are working with the European Commission, the Bulgarian government and the local authorities to create a formal, legal wild status for these animals, which would be the first ever in Europe.

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