Thursday, May 03, 2012
The Spirit Horse
logo designed by Eva of CocoNme
Photos courtesy of Arkive.org
Ahh, the romance of the untamed stallion. In a thousand photos he stands tall and triumphant against the setting sun. An image like this is emblematic of the American West, encapsulating our fascination with freedom and the unbowed heart. No wonder it comes as a great shock to many people to learn that modern “wild” American horses are the descendants of domesticated Spanish mustangs, and have only been here since the sixteenth century.
For a truly untamable equine we have to journey half a world away, to Russia, Poland, and Mongolia. There we find the dun-colored, four-foot high Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) which has never been broken for riding. Or at least we would have found it if it hadn’t been declared extinct in the wild during the 1960s.
Don’t count the Przewalski’s (pronounced sheh-val-skee) out just yet though. These guys are adapted to harsh climates and are nothing if not fighters. In a rare instance of extinction not being forever, enough of these little horse were successfully reintroduced from zoos and breeding programs that they qualified for reassessment by the World Conservation Union. They found that Przewalski’s were actually making a comeback, and bumped their designation up to “critically endangered”. Not exactly out of the woods but a far cry from “extinct”. Today there are more than 400 roaming Kazakhstan and Mongolia, with a further 1,500 still in captive breeding programs, all of them the descendants of just 14 individuals. How’s that for an unbowed heart?
Like the more familiar domestic horse, Przewalski’s live in bachelor groups composed of young males, or in harems of several females led by one stallion. Unlike domestic horses, they use their sharp hooves to scratch up hidden ground water, a survival tactic that allows them forage where other horses would soon succumb to dehydration. Even so, it is competition with humans for water that has helped push them to the brink. Other threats include human hunters and habitat degradation, as well as hybridization with domestic horses.
It’s these hybrids that provide a clue to where the Przewalski’s fits in to the equine family tree. Many experts hold that the Przewalski’s is actually the last living ancestor of today’s common horses, despite the fact that they have 66 chromosomes to our horses’ 64. Hybrids, while fertile, have 65 chromosomes. Further crosses end up with 64 chromosomes, and look nothing like the original wild Przewalski’s. What does this tell us? It would seem that the chromosomal evidence points to the two species being cousins instead of descendant and ancestor, a position bolstered by unique blood types found only in the Przewalski’s.
Despite humanity’s close relationship with the horse we sometimes fail to realize what a truly unique animal it is. Thousands of years ago there were many different species, but today there are only two. The Mongolian word for Przewalski’s horse is “takhi”, meaning “spirit”. Hopefully, with a little help from their human friends, they will retain both their wild spirit and their corporeal form.
Posted by Brizel Handcrafts on Thursday, May 03, 2012