9 Things You Didn't Know About Przewalski's Horses

Two P-horses with stiff upright manes, stocky bodies and brown coats with stripes on legs like a zebra
The Przewalski horse is an endangered subspecies of the wild horse and is named after the Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky. Patrick Pleul//AFP/Getty Images

Meet the Przewalski's (pronounced shuh-VAL-skee) horse: Often called just a P-horse, they're an equine long-thought to be the last truly wild horse. A genetic study published in 2018 found that the breed is actually a descendant of the first domesticated horses. In reality, they are feral, just like mustangs and Chincoteague ponies — they roam free and untamed but have ancestors that lived as domesticated animals. Though not truly wild, the Przewalski's horse, native to central Asia's steppes, is very much endangered.

1. Przewalski's Horse Is a Subspecies of Equus ferus

The Przewalski's horse is a subspecies of Equus ferus and is considered the domestic horse's closest relative. It is a cousin to zebras and the wild ass, which also falls under the Equidae family. The split between Przewalski's horse species and the ancestors of domestic horses happened somewhere between 120,000 and 240,000 years ago.

2. Przewalski's Horses Are Named After Colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky

Russian geographer and explorer Colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky rediscovered the species for European science in 1878. He had obtained the skin and skull of a Przewalski's horse from a hunter near today's China-Mongolia border and later journeyed to view them in the wild. Previous records include rock and tool engravings as far back as 20,000 BCE and a written account of the horses from the Tibetan monk Bodowa around 900 CE.

3. Przewalski's Horse Has Many Names

While Westerners might know the species as the Przewalski's horse or P-Horse, it goes by several other names: Asian wild horse, Mongolian wild horse, Dzungarian, and Takh (Takhi is the plural). Takhi means "spirits" or "holy horses" in Mongolian. Legends surround the animals in their homelands, from message carriers to gods to Genghis Khan and his army riding them in a quest to conquer the world.

4. The Przewalski's Horse Nearly Disappeared Into Extinction

przewalski mare and foal
A 12-year-old mare named Ieda with her new foal are in the pasture at the Highland Wildlife Park in 2013 in Kingussie, Scotland. The foal was the first newborn Przewalski's horse at the park in five years. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Exceptionally few captive Przewalski horses succeeded through the 1950s, and the last sighting of a wild individual occurred in 1969. The species was listed as extinct from the wild in the 1960s until reintroduction programs began. Currently, about 400 horses are living in the wild, with an adult population of 178 horses. The species' status has improved from extinct in the wild, followed by critically endangered, to a still-precarious endangered.

5. All the Przewalski's Horses Alive Today Are Descended From 12 Przewalski Horses

Captive breeding has increased the species' numbers from a shockingly low 12 to today's count approaching 1,900 individuals. Zoologist Dr. Erna Mohr created the first pedigree book in 1959, and a detailed studbook has been kept and updated ever since to minimize inbreeding, and maximize genetic diversity.

6. The First Cloned Przewalski's Horse Was Born in August 2020

Kurt, the first cloned Przewalski Horse foal
Scott Stine / Timber Creek Veterinary / San Diego Zoo

Despite the careful captive breeding programs, a significant threat to the species today is the loss of genetic diversity and disease. In August 2020, officials at the San Diego zoo announced the birth of Kurt, the first cloned Przewalski's foal. Kurt's cell line actually came from cryopreserved DNA from a stallion that died in 1998. Researchers hope that the foal will add valuable genetic diversity once it reaches adulthood.

In 2013, the National Zoo welcomed the first Przewalski's horse born through artificial insemination. This success represented an exciting breakthrough in preserving the species and the possibility of increasing genetic diversity without having to transport horses among captive breeding facilities.

7. They Live in Small Family Groups

Young stallions fight for the right to mate, standing on hind legs
Dieter Hopf / Getty Images

Like all feral horses, Przewalski's horses live in small family groups comprised of a stallion, 3 to 5 mares, and young foals. Males without mares of their own form their own "bachelor" groups. Bachelor horses fight fiercely for the right to mate and have a group of mares of their own (called a harem). They stay in sight of the rest of their herd at all times and communicate through many vocalizations, ear twitches, and scent marking.

8. Przewalski's Horses Turn Their Back to Storms

Przewalski's wild horses group with tails tucked close to bodies and backs to the wind
Ganbayar Urtnasan / Getty Images

Przewalski's horses grow thick, warm coats for the winter, complete with long beards and neck hair. Winter coats are essential in the harsh winter desert, where temperatures are often freezing. Przewalski's horses actually turn their backs to the storm in high winds while tucking their tail tightly between their back legs. This adaptation protects the eyes, nostrils, and sensitive reproductive parts from the Gobi Desert's severe winds and sand storms.

9. They Are Thriving in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Przewalski's horse the Exclusion Zone. Chernobyl
Anton Petrus / Getty Images

The four largest reserves where captive Przewalski's horses roam are in Le Villaret, France; Buchara, Uzbekistan; the Hortobágy-National Park, Hungary; and the Chernobyl exclusion zone (CEZ), Ukraine. Scientists released P-horses on the outskirts of the CEZ to increase biodiversity in the area and better balance the ecosystem. It also gave the horses a 1,000-square-mile habitat almost completely free of humans, allowing them to thrive. In 2019, researchers from the University of Georgia used motion-activated cameras to capture more than 11,000 images of the horses using the abandoned dwellings in the zone as shelter. Their study, published in the journal Mammal Research, suggests the horses use the buildings for sleeping, breeding, and refuge.

Save the Przewalski’s Horse

  • Support conservation organizations with captive breeding populations.
  • Learn more about genetic rescue with the Revive and Restore project.
  • Use your electronic devices as long as you can. Mining for minerals used in cell technology degrades their native habitat.
  • Support the creation of buffer zones to preserve grazing lands for the Przewalski’s horse.