The horses that roam wild in the foothills west of Sundre may have a Russian connection — but just how that happened is likely to be the subject of more than a few theories.
DNA testing has been done on 44 of the wildies, as they are known, and early recent results are showing the surprising Russian horse lineage, but also not surprising, a connection to draft horses.
Darrell Glover, a spokesman for Help Alberta Wildies (HAW), said Monday that the initial results show the trend is mostly draft horse of mixed breeds but they’re also showing markers of the Russian Altai horse, an ancient breed.
There’s no sign of any connection to the Canadian horse breed, or to Spanish mustangs, he said.
“So somehow we got Russian horses mixed in with our drafts here,” said Glover, a member of HAW, a group that wants the province to protect the horses.
Alaska used to be part of the Russian empire until it was sold to the Americans in the 1867. In the 1700s, the Russians ran a fur trade in Alaska, so it’s possible the horses are connected back at least 300 years, he said.
Another theory is that Russian horses may have come across a land bridge even before that. “We’ve got something here — they might be quite ancient.” HAW is now investigating further and contacting a Russian scientist. A scientific paper on the DNA results is going to be published.
As for the draft horse connection, they know that a lot of horses were released into the wild at the beginning of the 20th Century, he said.
The Alberta government, which has authorized annual roundups of the horses, maintains they are feral — descendants of domestic horses, and not due special protection. It is in the process of developing a long-term population management program for the horses.
The latest count showed there were 851 wildies, down from 880 in 2015. Some of the horses rounded up under special licences are then sold for personal use, but many are sent to slaughter.
The Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS), another group that supports the horses, has saved some of them by buying them and offering them for adoption.
WHOAS has also completed the first year of a five-year pilot project to control the population of the horses by darting mares with a contraceptive vaccine. So far 73 mares have been vaccinated, and 16 received a booster shot, which makes them even less likely to conceive.