I read with interest Jeff Hanson’s letter Seeking feral horse solutions.
It seems that many people are confused whether the free roaming horses on public lands in Alberta are feral horses or wild horses.
This is partly because the word feral can be applied to either an individual animal or to an entire species. Feral means a domesticated animal or domesticated species that has reverted to the wild. In the case of the horse, it is likely not incorrect to describe the species as feral, because these horses probably have descended from horses that were once domesticated, even if you have to trace their lineage back to the breeds of Spanish horses that arrived in North America around 1500.
However, many generations of these horses have been born in the wild. These individual horses, born in the wild and having never been domesticated, are therefore truly wild horses, and the vast majority of the free-roaming horses in Alberta are in this category.
In fact, there have been so many generations of wild horses born in some areas of Alberta’s West Country that, through natural selection, they have evolved into an identifiable breed that is perfectly suited to living in that environment. The Alberta wild horse is generally shorter and stockier than most domestic breeds, with a short back, heavier bone, and marvelous feet and legs. They have a distinctive head with a shorter, broader muzzle, and larger eyes than domestic horses. The broad muzzle helps them to root in the snow to graze in the winter and the larger eyes aid in warning of predator attack. They have longer, thicker manes and tails for dealing with insects, like mosquitoes and flies. The lower legs grow long hair in the winter (known as “feathers”) to protect the heels and fetlocks from crusty snow.
The Alberta wild horse is a unique breed, with great historical significance, and a most appropriate symbol of the Alberta spirit.
Opposition to the 2014 wild horse cull conducted by the Alberta government was not just about preventing wild horses from being sent to slaughter. It was also about preventing the government from removing so many wild horses, in particular from the Williams Creek area, that the herd size was reduced to the point where maintaining genetic integrity was imperiled.
It has been erroneously suggested that the horse is an invasive species in Alberta. In fact, the modern horse, equus caballos, evolved in North America and spread naturally to all the other continents except Australia.
Many scientists believe that the horse became extinct in North America during the Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, and that it is in fact a native species that was re-introduced to North America by the Spaniards 500 years ago.
Other scientists argue that isolated herds of wild horses survived the Ice Age and that the horse was never completely extinct in North America.
In either case, the horse clearly has as much right to exist in the wild as any other native North American species of wildlife.