August 24

The Fascinating Feral Horses of the Namib Desert


August 24, 2018

Seeing a herd of glossy feral horses galloping through a parched desert plain might make you think you’ve teleported into a scene straight out of the American Old West. Blink your eyes once and you’ll realise, somehow, you’re still in the southern African country of Namibia. One of the most mythical creatures on the continent, the Namib Desert Horse has miraculously tamed the world’s oldest desert and made it a haven. There’s no reason a horse should flourish in the intense heat and dryness – and yet, these do. Here are eight fascinating facts you may not know about this incredible animal.

1. No horse is native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The Namib Desert Horse is considered an exotic species. But, because the feral horses have become such an iconic feature (and major attraction) of the location, they’ve been allowed to remain an undisturbed part of the sparse Namib wilderness.

2. It’s rare. Very rare.

The Namib Desert Horse population is the only herd of feral horses in the whole of Africa, and its group size ranges from somewhere between 90 and 150 individuals. The horses live in a 350 square kilometre stretch of the desert. Somehow, this small group of incredible animals have conquered the land and built their own sanctuary away from human interference.

Picture Credit: Rhino Africa Image Bank

3. They live in herds of about 10.

The herd, known as a “breeding group”, is comprised of one or two stallions, a few mares and a number of foals. These groups are led by a mare, who decides when to move and when to stop. The mare will also decide when it’s time to head towards a water source.

4. Their survival in the arid environment is extraordinary.

This breed of horse is remarkably hardy – it has to be, because the Namib Desert, though beautiful, is harsh and difficult terrain. Despite all this, the horses are in near-perfect health despite an environment that would be extremely stressful to any other breed. In their untamed state, they’ve tamed the land.

Photo Credit: Namibia Wild Horses Foundation

5. Nobody quite knows where they came from.

The Namib Desert Horse is one of the most genetically isolated groups of horse in the world. After decades of testing, their origin still remains unclear. Of course, there are theories. Their closest family is the Shagya Arabian, a Hungarian horse breed which had been imported into Southern Africa during Namibia’s period of German colonisation. Interestingly, though, the feral horses don’t at all resemble the Shagya Arabian in appearance. The likeliest theory is that the Namib Desert Horse descended from escaped South African military horses breeding with the Shagya Arabian species.

6. Their adaptation over the past 100 years is astounding.

Horses weren’t exactly made for the desert – but these ones are managing just fine, thank you. During times of water scarcity, they can go without water for 30 hours in summer. In winter, they can manage water-free for a full 72 hours. Several studies have shown that, in 100 years of living in these arid conditions, the Namib Desert Horse population has developed physiological mechanisms that vastly improved its ability to conserve water. It’s evolution before our very eyes.

Photo Credit : Namibia Wild Horses Foundation

7. This horse is rather handsome.

Athletic and muscular in build the Namib Desert Horse is also very strong-boned. Its coat, almost always deep brown in colour, is beautifully glossy – in fact, the animal is often described as having the appearance of a well-bred riding horse rather than a feral desert dweller.

8. Their natural predators are few and far between.

The hyena poses the biggest threat to foals, but the mare can always be relied upon to protect her young. It’s the stallion who deals with threats to the herd as a whole – but, these threats are minimal. They’re free to roam across the desert plains as they please.

Need another reason to visit Namibia and the oldest desert in the world? We’ll give you seven:

7 Reasons Why Namibia is So Special

Featured Image Credit: Namibia Wild Horses Foundation


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About the author 

Lesley Marchant

Everything Lesley has done has been for the love of language – she studied journalism, spent a few years writing for magazines and followed her wanderlust to South Korea where she taught English. Don’t assume writing is her only talent – she’s also wildly skilled at pairing any reality show with the perfect glass of wine. When she’s not on the hunt for people to beat at her ever-growing collection of board games, she’s seeking beauty out in nature (a very easy pastime when you live in the world’s prettiest city).

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