Wild Vs. Feral

Something that people who are just starting to learn about wild horses seem confused about is what to call them.  It would seem that wild and feral are relatively interchangeable terms, but I personally find that they have different connotations. Wild implies that they belong on the range, as well as that the horses are wanted on the range. Feral implies that the horses were once domesticated, that they are not trainable, there for unwanted. It would be easy to remove all the feral horses and be done with it, but the removal of wild horses tugs at peoples’ hearts.

To the more scientific minded out there this reasoning may seem a little washy. For those of you that might be familiar with the horses’ history you’ll know that the modern-day wild horse was brought to North America by the Conquistadors, and they latter escaped or left behind. Based on that logic the horses would be a feral nonnative species. Yet the most important part of the horses’ history is the fact that they originated in North America before migrating across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and Europe. Based on that information it is easy to say that the horses in North America are a reintroduced native species and should be considered wild. After all, the Przewalski’s horse came from the same horse as the American Mustang and they’re considered native. Another name for Przewalski’s horse is Asian Wild Horse, not Asian Feral Horse, so naturally our wild horses should be called as such.

The last point that I will bring up about the wild vs. feral debate is the ability to be domesticated wild horses. It is true that wild horses can be trained, but that does not mean that the horse was any less wild than the horses that were allowed to go free. To me the horses’ willingness to be trained says something about their adaptability and intelligence. After all wolves adapted to humans to evolve into dogs, but people don’t turn to the modern day wolf to say that they’re any less wild than their ancestors. The difference between the modern-day horse and dogs is the horses are being forcibly removed from their homes. I try not to use anthropomorphism too much but I truly believe that the horses removed and trained would be happier free, and to me that adds to their wildness.

But as usual I don’t have all the answers, I love discussion, and look forward to what you guys think.

Nothing like seeing two stallions interact says wild better, in my opinion.

Nothing like seeing two stallions interact says wild better, in my opinion.


  1. Joy Said:

    My opinion — the word “feral” started being used by those who feel the horses don’t belong on the range. I wrote myself a note a while back to express how I feel about it…

    In today’s political world, unfortunately, “feral and wild” have become buzz words to prove or dis-prove whether or not horses should be allowed to remain in their Herd Management Areas. It’s sad to think that we have to think about lineage when trying to save horses which are wild, as opposed to tame, and which should be allowed to stay on the land they were given to protect them.

    The fact of the matter is these horses were not tame when the land was provided them, and had lived on their own for many years previous. It’s even sadder to think that serious issues and decisions are made or trying to be made based on the definition of a single word and not on the reasons why these HMAs were established in the first place.

    I like the term used in the NAS report — “free-ranging” — who can debate that?

    • Good points. The issue isn’t the so much words themselves, but the way they are used.

  2. Linda D Said:

    I love a good discussion, too, because I always learn something, and I also like to offer my viewpoints and observations for people to consider. There are always many sides to any subject and the more we are made aware of, the better the conclusions we come to and the decisions we make when there is one to be made.

    Your post is well-put and enlightening, and Joy’s summation is spot on in my estimation.

    I decided to do some language research for myself—sort of a “find out what the meaning of is–is”, venture. The following is what I found. The conclusion is what I have always, deep down, known, since the first time I looked into the eyes of my neighbor’s horse.

    On the subject of feral vs wild, I discovered that, altho my reaction to the word feral has always been somewhat negative, (which I think is because the picture I get in my mind at the mention of it is of feral cats and dogs who usually are unhealthy and unattractive, and somewhat threatening to my health if exposed to them), the actual definition of the word accurately describes the free ranging horses and burros so plentiful in our western states. My dictionary of our language says feral is “1) wild animal, 2) relating to or suggestive of a wild beast, 3) not domesticated or cultivated, 4) having escaped from domestication and become wild.

    The term wild has the meanings 1) growing or produced without human aid or care (which most of those animals are, except where we have insisted on intervening), 2) not subject to restraint or regulation (isn’t that what we all love about them?) 3) living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame or domesticated. I think the first part of #3 is the BIG one; but then when you think about the second phrase and how many tame or domesticated versions of many species there are, does that part really fit? Ducks are mentioned as an example. My neighbor has ducks and a goose who follow her around and get all happy when she comes home. I’m not sure if they were originally wild birds who have been tamed, or birds who were reared from hatchlings by humans. My guess is the latter. There are also “wild” ducks nearby who will scatter upon one’s approach.

    The discussion now needs the definition of the word domesticated which is used in defining both feral and wild. The applicable meanings of domesticate are 1) to bring into domestic use, 2) to adapt to life in intimate association with and to the advantage of humans.

    I’ve seen cases of pretty much any kind of animal there is having been tamed to one degree or another through a trusting relationship with a human being coupled with a dependency on them for survival, or companionship, or maybe just friendship or an occasional treat, like with deer who visit urban yards and inhabitants.

    Personalities of both human and animal, of course, affect the kind of relationship there will be and the behavior that will be exhibited. I haven’t had much experience with burros/donkeys/mules, but my instincts tell me they are very similar to horses in their capacity to form relationships with humans that range from disastrous to actually loving—such as is possible among humans.

    I’ve had some experience with horses, and I can tell you that I’ve been around some “tame” horses who I was more wary of as a danger to me than most of the “wild” horses I have come across. Of course, I have never tried to “do” anything with the wild ones, but I have spoken with people who have and read about the experiences of others and their conclusions are similar to mine.

    In studying the subject more since I’ve become so interested in the Pryor Mountain Mustangs, I’ve come to the conclusion that 1) horses (period) ARE a NATIVE species that have undergone changes in appearance and behavior just as MOST other species have over billions of years, and they have migrated according to survival needs as have many others,
    2) horses/burros/mules/donkeys are species that have had more of a capacity to adapt to the desires and handling of/by humans and have done IMMEASURABLE service to humanity, and if they hadn’t, they may have been better off, and 3) being able to just know there are these free-ranging animals living “wild—growing and producing without human aid or care, being relatively free of restraint or regulation, and living in a natural state” is what the fight for their survival is all about for me. The knowledge of their mere existence is spiritually uplifting. Their inner beauty—unpretentiousness and spirit—is admirable and rejuvenating and their appearance and strength is invigorating and exhilarating…for me.

    So I guess what I come away from this discussion with is that all these terms, feral, wild, free-ranging—apply to these animals and I believe the bottom line is they have earned the right to be respected and treated with dignity no matter what infringements of reality they must endure.

    The question really shouldn’t be “Are they wild or feral, native or non-native?”, it should be “How can we treat these fellow creatures with respect and dignity?”, as we ourselves would like to be treated.

    Sorry if I’ve taken up too much space and time. 🙂

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