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Wild horse (pony)

Equus ferus
Wild horses and ponies can play a leading role in rewilding due to their selective grazing of tougher grasses

Wild horse1 Exmoor pony SS

At a glance

Status

Extinct in Britain. Domestic native breeds are suitable proxies

Shapes the landscape through

Path making, trampling, scenting, wallowing, seed dispersal

Preferred hangout

Woodlands, grasslands, shrublands

Weight

250 kg

Length

2.5 metres

Speed

68 km/h

How it shapes the landscape

Wild horses play a crucial role in shaping natural habitats. From grazing through to trampling, wallowing and scenting, their influence benefits a multitude of species. Horses and ponies love courser grasses and herbs. As a bulk grazer, they will break up tussocky grasslands to form sward mosaics with characteristic, and species-rich, short-sward lawns. This fosters and maintains diverse communities of grasses and wildflowers. 

Horses and ponies also tackle woody vegetation, debarking some trees and shrubs, although as a non-ruminant they struggle to digest woody material. By wallowing in dry, sandy soil, horses create habitat that numerous warmth-loving, basking and burrow-nesting insects require, including pollinating bees and wasps.

Where it likes to be

Wild horses and ponies were animals of the open, grassy plains and savannah wood-pastures of the early Holocene. The depletion and eventual extinction of the wild horse at the hands of ever more effective human predators enabled woodland to expand. Agriculture and domesticated grazing stock soon enabled the re-assertion of open habitats.

How much space do they need

Natural grass productivity will, in part, determine the carrying capacity of a site. Nutrient rich floodplains are able to support more animals in a smaller area than dry sandy or chalky soils. Today, rewilded horses and ponies will best thrive in, and will form and shape, open grasslands, shrublands and wood pastures. A small herd will need a larger site for year round grazing.

Background story

Domestic horses and ponies are a familiar feature of the British countryside. Few realise that these are derived from the extinct wild horse that was once widespread across north-west Europe, including the British Isles. Subspecies of the wild horse include the modern domesticated horse, the extinct tarpan (native to Europe and western Asia) and the endangered Przewalski’s horse (native to Mongolia).

Special power

Eats tougher grasses and herbs, breaking up tussocks and allowing diverse communities of grasses and wildflowers to thrive
Wild horse2 konik horses SS

Can we have them in Britain?

In the UK, semi-wild herds of horses thrive on Exmoor (Exmoor ponies) and in the New Forest. A herd of wild horses can comprise a number of harems containing mares and their offspring, and a group of stallions. Space is needed to accommodate this. 

A genetically diverse founder population of, say, 12 adult mares, with additional offspring, and six stallions, will quickly regain natural behaviours and demand little day-to-day intervention, beyond ensuring their welfare. 

Wild horses will readily drift into arable and improved grasslands in search of grazing opportunities, so boundary fencing is usually required, even on large sites.

In summary

  • A key rewilding engineer
  • Likes woodlands and grasslands
  • The Exmoor pony is a good proxy for the wild horse, or the Konik horse for wetland areas
  • Hardy, with rain and ice resistant coats
  • Loves wallowing in dry, sandy soils, creating open soil habitat for many insects

Images: Exmoor pony — Martin Pelanek and Konik horses — Agami Photo Agency/​Shutterstock