how do wild horses survive in the winter

How do Wild Horses Survive in the Winter?

How do those wild horses survive different seasons in the wild and especially when it’s winter season?

Having horses as pets. We have to take good care of them throughout to ensure they enjoy a good quality of life. We did, after all, choose to have them around.

So it’s only natural that we provide food, shelter, and adequate security for them no matter the season.

It’s simple. Wild horses have various coping mechanisms to ensure their survival in winter. From knowing where to forage for food to growing a thick coat to help keep them warm, wild horses are well equipped to handle the winter season.

To understand how well wild horses can survive the winter, this post is going to expound on some of these coping mechanisms.

A Brief History of Horses

An enormous amount of time has been spent trying to trace the exact origins of horses with some degree of success. A lot of mystery remains around this particular issue, however, one thing that we have so far discovered is the time frame for when their domestication occurred.

According to evidence gathered, it may have started as early as 6000 years ago, around the regions of modern-day Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Though this is the case, another aspect worth considering, which is still under investigation, is whether domestication occurred in this single location only. It’s plausible other areas with wild horses could have been doing the same even if not in the exact time frame.

In another light, we also have to question whether it was horses that had been domesticated in these horse-taming regions that spread around the world, or if it was the actual practice of domesticating horses that got spread around.

Though the exact and true literature of horse domestication is scarce, we still have to thank these pioneers for engaging in the practice.

Thanks to them, we have gotten to enjoy the company and services of these magnificent creatures.

Wild Horses vs. Domesticated Horses

In the modern world today, much of the population of horses is made up of domesticated horses.

Over the years since domestication began, their numbers (wild horses) have significantly declined due to several factors.

Some of these factors include:

  • Integration into the domesticated pool
  • Getting wiped off due to natural disasters
  • Poaching

With this in mind, it’s worth knowing that a majority of the horses we now call ‘wild’ may not be that wild at all. What does this statement mean?

It means that the current stock of ‘wild horses’ actually has roots in previously domesticated horses. Because of various reasons, they happened to end up outside the care of their owners.

As a result, they got to roam around freely, fending for themselves, reproducing, and surviving on their own in the wild.

These horses are also referred to as feral horses. They enjoy freely roaming in the wild, and in many countries, they get protection from governments as wildlife. The areas they occupy are also protected and, entry is limited to preserve them.

The only true wild horse remaining on the face of the world is the Przewalski’s horse. This horse breed is found in Mongolia, and its numbers are dangerously low.

An aggressive repopulation campaign for this breed is however ongoing and their numbers could soon grow again.

What Do Wild Horses Need for Winter Survival?

As a horse lover, you may be worried about how wild horses survive on their own. This worry may arise because compared to the domesticated ones, you imagine wild horses have to be living a harder life, right?

Well, those worries have you overlooking something. Horses were domesticated, meaning they had lived comfortably in the wild several years before we domesticated them. This implies they have always known how to survive all the seasons, including the winter!

That aside, looking at the subject from another angle, let’s highlight what wild horses need for survival. Let’s look at it in terms of what humans need for general survival, the three (or four) basic needs, and how they get them all on their own.


Horses are herbivores, meaning they only eat plant matter for their food and nutritional needs.  Even in the winter season, this fact doesn’t change, despite the snow covering most of the plants and vegetation.

Wild horses are familiar with several feeding points where they know they can find food even in harsh conditions. These spots, even when under snow cover, are accessible to them.

They simply use their feet to dig out the snow and reach the covered grass and other vegetation they want to eat. Some shrubs also don’t wholly go under the snow and can still be easily reached by the wild horses.

Water is also a crucial part of survival, and just like the vegetation, they also know where to find a constant water supply to cater to them throughout the harsh winter.


Unlike domesticated horses, they don’t enjoy the luxury of stables or any other point of single shelter.

Wild horses are naturally used to living under no specific shelter. They are continuously moving, searching for areas to feed and graze on.

Remember, horses spend almost an entire day awake, feeding, and roaming around. This fact may be why they’ve never really had a permanent point of residing.

They might revisit a specific point during their travels, but only because it’s part of the trail they follow depending on the season. (i.e. when they exhaust food in one area, they move to another to allow that place to replenish, and they can come to feed off that spot again later)


Horses are social creatures, meaning they live together and form herds for survival. This act in itself is a way to ensure their security since, in numbers, they can ward off predators.

They also have a hierarchy whereby the alpha male and females take charge of the herd. When they’re moving around, the alpha female is usually in the front, and the alpha male and his counterparts are at the back, guarding the herd.

Horses can also sleep while standing up so that they can act out a fight or flight response as soon as danger appears. They also sleep in turns, ensuring there’s always a lookout that can warn the rest of the herd of impending danger.


Horses don’t wear any clothing in the same sense we do, nor do they need to. They are wholly self-sufficient on this account, thanks to their coats.

In other seasons around the year, their coats are short in length. This level of coat growth is enough to protect and shield it from the moderately varying temperatures experienced in these seasons.

When it’s winter season, the temperature is extremely low, and the normal coat length won’t be enough to help keep them warm. That’ why in winter, their coat grows out, increasing in length so it can provide more cover and avail sufficient warmth for the entire winter season.

Body Adaptations that Help Wild Horses Survive Winter

Aside from knowing how to cater to their basic needs, horses in the wild have other means of surviving the winter. Some bodily adaptations go a long way in helping them live through the winter.

They include:

Their Legs and Feet

Equine legs are unique in that they don’t have any muscle below their knees. The area below the knee comprises tendons, bones, and other light tissue.

These components aren’t very susceptible to the cold compared to other areas having lots of muscle and flesh. The feet are also hooved. Hooves are made of keratin (like human nails), which don’t transmit cold.

This combination ensures they can avoid getting frostbite despite walking around in the snow.

Body Fat

The importance of body fat can be regarded in two ways. The first is that it’s an important energy source in the event of a food shortage. The fat can be used up as an energy reserve in such cases. Another way is that it’s integral in helping regulate body temperature.

Body fat in wild horses increases as winter approaches and gets spread out more evenly across the body. This is important since fat acts as an insulator against the cold.


The skin as an organ comprises several other parts. The hair that grows on it and the layers beneath it that house arteries and veins.

Beneath the coat, there grows some short hair. These hairs can trap some air, which in conjunction with the thick coat that grows in winter, create a layer that helps insulate the horse against the cold.

The arteries, on the other hand, have features called vasodilation and vasoconstriction. Vasodilation means that they can expand to accommodate transporting more blood than usual. Transporting warm blood quickly across the horse’s body is absolutely essential in keeping it warm throughout the winter.

The Wild Winter…

Always keep in mind that horses were always wild and flourishing on their own before we started interacting with them. Their survival in the wild has always been something they could pull off.

Nonetheless, this article has hopefully shed some light on how wild horses survive the winter and has helped ease any nerves you may have had as an equine lover.