INTRODUCTION FOR BEGINNERS
Wild horses prefer to graze on flat, grassy plains where they can see in all directions and this is your first clue if you would like to find them and see them in person.
There are a few clues that can help you separate wild horses from domestic. First, tame horses typically only pay attention to you when you get very close to them and some will even approach you or perhaps just walk or gently trot away slowly.
Wild horses on the other hand, will raise their heads, point their ears, and tense their bodies even when you are a great distance away.
If you don’t try and approach wild horses too quickly or aggressively, you can often observe them for long periods of time. If you violate their safety zone, the boss mare and/or lead stallion will let you know with their body language. If you notice the horses shy or move away from you, then you are too close.
Horses can live into their forties or even older, but most have life spans of up to 30 years. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect the lifespan is a little less for wild horses because no one is managing their health or providing preventive or corrective medicine in the event of an injury.
Over time, and without man’s interference, nature selects horses with the qualities best suited for survival in the wild. Horses will become leaner, smaller, and possess stronger bones, teeth, and hooves, and be more alert.
WILD HORSE FAMILY GROUPS
Wild horses live in family groups consisting of but not led by one of the dominant breeding stallions (usually 5 years old or older), one several breeding mares, their nursing foals (birth to 1 year old), one or more colts (males) and fillies (females). The wild horses of Missouri herds tend to be anywhere from 8 to 14 members based on my experience over the last decade.
COLTS & FILLIES
Colts reach sexual maturity at about age three and they are typically driven from their herd by the lead stallion, especially during the spring breeding season.
Fillies at or prior to their first heat are usually driven out or leave the herd, and then join a stallion in a new herd.
These are key pieces of information to remember when you are looking for wild horses. During these seasons, I try and see if I can identify horses that were previously part of another herd. I look for special markings on them and record all of this information in my journal.
Watching the joyful play and exploration of colts and fillies is pure joy. Often they will engage in mock battles as they rear up and drop down quickly to try and bite the legs or bellies of their playmates. I’ve seen this several times and I have had the opportunity to photograph this behavior too. It can come up out of nowhere and you have to be ready in a split second because it typically is over with in just a few seconds.
They chase each other in exuberance, pivoting quickly on their hind legs and rearing slightly as they stop and change direction. These skills are used to manage predators and man uses these skills with domestic horses to hunt game or herd cattle.
Herds of stallions (bachelor bands) are common with the wild horses in the west, but the wild horses of Missouri have well defined herds and to my knowledge, there are no bachelor bands. I have seen a colt driven from a herd and I have seen a younger stallion take the lead position when the current lead stallion was caught in a round-up as part of a herd management plan. He immediately went into lead mode within minutes of the lead stallion being gone.
If you surprise a herd of wild horses, the stallion will typically stand his ground and you will know that he is the leader of the herd.
Breeding season for wild horses is spring to early summer and this is not a time to test your boundaries with wild horses and especially with stallions. It is also a time of great fun and joy because you will be able to see the courtship and affection between stallions and mares as they prepare for mating.
During the breeding season, a stallion will aggressively prevent his mares from leaving the herd by driving them back when they stray. The lead stallion will lay his ears back and twist his head side to side while low to the ground. This is known as the “snaking” motion. Herd members quickly learn what this means and they rarely need the painful bite that can occur if they don’t follow his lead.
The lead stallion is also an enforcer. They are known to prevent herd members from drinking at a water hole before thoroughly investigating it for predators or man. Horses drink in order of rank and stallions will watch over the herd while grabbing quick mouthfuls of grass. You will also notice mares trade sentinel duty to be on alert for approaching danger.
In regards to the boss mare, a combination of age, length of time in the herd, size, and temperament are all key factors in determining the ranking mares. It is common for a mare to have a foal at her side when she goes into “foal heat” to bread again. This is bread into them to ensure no interruptions occur in the production of young. Mares can start baring young as early as two years old. Mares have an 11-month gestation period with most foals being born in April, May, and June, but it is not uncommon for new foals to be born as early as February. I have seen new foals born in the wild horses of Missouri as early as February and as late as mid-summer.
A mare will nurse her new foal during the spring, summer, and the first part of winter after its birth, and weans it just before giving birth to the new foal. If a new foal is not born, the current yearling can nurse until the offspring is quite large. I have seen this first hand with two of the wild horses of Missouri herds.
Many people don’t realize that herds are actually led by the boss mare and the lead stallion brings up the rear and takes on a protective role. You can frequently identify the lead stallion at the end of a herd if they are in a line.
VIEWING & WATCHING WILD HORSES
In order to successfully view and enjoy wild horses for more than a few seconds, it is important to approach them in a non-predatory stance.
Horses are prey animals with eyes on the side of their heads to help them watch for predators while grazing.
Their ears and nostrils can detect you before you ever see them.
Never walk briskly and directly towards wild horses because they will most certainly run.
You want to act uninterested and meander slowly and keep your eyes averted away from them because they will perceive you as less of a threat.
The sooner you can sit down or get lower to the ground the better chance you will have for watching them for longer periods of time. I love to get down on my knees to photograph the wild horses anyway because it creates a very inanimate connection between the horse and the viewer.
Herds that frequently see people are more likely to tolerate visitors. This can be a good thing or it can also be unfortunate, depending on the behavior of the visitor.
Wild horses that are used to positive interactions with people can become quite bold.
I have seen this first hand with yearlings. They are incredibly curious and want to explore everything new.
I’ve had to literally almost jog away from yearlings because of their curiosity and lack of fear of me.
Don't be fooled, foals and yearlings can move much faster than you realize, so you need to always have an exit plan at all times.
To see the other wild herds, you will oftentimes need to look off the beaten path. Depending on the season and the dynamics of the herd at any given time, this can all play into your chances of seeing them.
Early mornings and late evenings before sunset is always a good time to try and find the horses.
The next time you are near one of the fields or prairies where the wild horses are known to frequent, look for “stud piles” (large piles of manure to which each stallion adds his “calling card” to the top of the pile). This is an indicator that stallions are shopping for mares or some fighting is likely within the herd.
During the hot summer months, it is a good idea to keep in mind that horses need to stay close to a water source.
They need to water at least once a day and they can frequently be found near their watering source in early mornings or late in the evenings before dark.
Unless disturbed, wild horses usually confine their daily travels to a four to five mile radius of their water hole and location of their favorite grass.