On a remote, Hebridean Island I met a young unhandled colt who changed my life. I was there to trim the hooves of a herd of semi-feral Eriskay ponies, I thought I knew what I was doing, I might have even been a bit smug about my capabilities. Luckily for me, I was about to have my world turned upside down – https://touching-wild.blog/2018/11/15/the-edge-of-the-atlantic/
This experience made me question everything I had learnt about horse behaviour. Why was so much of the literature inaccurate or misleading? Why were the techniques I had previously learnt and used successfully not effective with them? I decided to go back to the beginning and look for studies and teaching that more closely aligned with what I was experiencing with these fascinating, unhandled ponies.
Along with my research, I decided to spend as much time as I could observing the behaviour of equines who had very little or no human interference in their lives so I could witness horse behaviour in its most natural expression. I was generously granted permission by the Highland Wildlife Park in the Scottish Highlands to spend time watching their herd of Przewalski horses.
The Przewalski horse is the wild horse of Mongolia. When the European Nikolai Przewalski saw them in 1878 he decided to name them after himself, course he did. However, their Mongolia name is Takhi which means spirit as they hold a holy importance for the Mongolian people. Animals which are feared or revered often survive when other species around them are killed off. This is true of the Takhi as their spiritual significance ensured their survival.
The Przewalski horse is one of the success stories of the zoo world. In 1969 the last solitary stallion was seen in Mongolia and they were then declared extinct in the wild. Due to some amazing and dedicated people they were brought back from the brink. With only 13 horses surviving in living collections a successful breeding program was carried out that culminated in their reintroduction onto the Mongolian steppes on 5th June 1992. They are now over 2000 across the world with many thriving in Mongolia as well as other wild places.
Along with the horses, the park is home to many of the worlds tundra species. With its large and enriched enclosures and the knowledgable and compassionate care provided by the inspirational staff, it is a safe place for some of the worlds threatened species, whose natural environments have been decimated by habitat loss and/or persecution. Set amid the majestic beauty of the Cairngorm mountains this is a very special example of what a haven a zoo can be. https://www.highlandwildlifepark.org.uk/
The Takhi were thought to be the last truly wild horses left in the world as all other wild living horses are feral (descended from escaped domestic stock). Recent genetic research has raised questions about this but there is no doubt that they are significantly different to their domestic cousins. For example, they have 66 chromosomes and domestic horses only 64. For those of us who are lucky enough to get close to them, we have experienced just how different they are. Their smell is uniquely their own, a sharp pungent fragrance that hits the back of your throat. Astute and strong-willed they are quick thinking and good at making their own decisions. They have survived through self-selecting for the traits that keep you alive in a hostile and challenging environment. Unlike our domestic and feral horses who show the influence of 6000+ years of selective breeding based on decisions made from a human perspective, things like size, colour or whatever is fashionable at that time, but overwhelmingly we have bred horses for a trainable temperament. Even the most challenging domestic horse isn’t a patch on a Takhi who’s made up their mind! I believe this is why the Takhi have been labelled as untrainable for so long.
In 1902 handlers with the New York Zoological Society endeavoured to break a pair of Przewalski’s horses, they gave up. “The longer the men worked with them, the wilder and more obstinate the animals became.”
The traditional phrase for training a horse is to break them in. Sadly the truth is in the words as this refers to breaking their spirit.
History has shown that the iron will of a Takhi does not break.
Next blog – How to train a Wild Horse – Part 1. https://touching-wild.blog/2020/03/12/how-to-train-a-wild-horse-part-1/
If you would like to find out more about the Takhi this in-depth article is the best that I have come across – https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/przewalskis-horse/