Year of the (Przewalski’s) Horse

Late December, the Hurstville Library in southern Sydney, Australia, contacted me about participating in an exhibit, “Stories of the Zodiac: Exploring the 12 Animal Signs in Asian Culture” now underway.

They were particularly interested in a photograph of a horse I had taken in Xinjiang in 2010, they believed would tie in nicely with the symbolism of the new year.

It was, in fact, the Przewalski’s Horse, a wild animal I spotted wandering not too far from the highway in northern Xinjiang. Our guide was driving us to the beautiful nature reserve Lake Kanas (喀纳斯湖) bordering Kazakhstan when he quickly pulled over. With a piece of naan bread in hand, he sought to coax the steed.

Shouldn’t they eat apples, I asked, thinking of friendly mares called Old Benji grazing alongside farmers in fruit orchards.

Not in Xinjiang, he laughed. They are wild so you should be careful, he warned.

We fanned out and approached slowly for fear of spooking to take a closer look. The horse stared at us quietly, and took a step backwards, then forward as if to test our intentions. It had a dun-colored coat in varying shades and a short mane. Blending into the sparse terraine, the animal’s body structure seemed functional with its stocky girth, short legs and large head. He nipped at the naan we tossed at it, and kept watching us. Suddenly, its ears pricked up and it trotted away into the wilderness.

You don’t see them often, our guide murmured, but when you do, they really are quite amazing.

Przewalski's horse closeup

The Przewalski’s horse or “wild horse” – 野马 (ye ma) in Chinese and Тахь (Takhi) in Mongolian is a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse native to Central Asia, China and Mongolia. Considered the only remaining truly wild “horse” in the world, it may well be the closest living wild relative of the domesticated horse, and cousins to the zebra and wild ass.

The horse is named for a 19th-century Russian explorer, Colonel Nikolai Mikhailovich Przewalski, who reported its existence to the Europeans sometime after 187. In one account, the horse was first mentioned by a Tibetan monk Bodowa in 900 A.D. Other versions mentioned that Genghis Khan had encountered a pack of them in 1226 which spooked his horse, causing the great Khan to fall to the ground.

In effort to preserve them, Przewalski’s horse breeding centers have been established in Mongolia, Ukraine, Germany, Hungary and Uzbekistan. Less reported is a breeding center in Xinjiang less than 200km from Urumqi which was established in 1985. The horses were bred and eventually released into the wild in the Kalamely Mountain area, and the closest paved road was the National Highway 216. It was along the highway that we found the grazing Przewalski’s horse.

Digging deeper, I found fascinating snippets from a 1994 book called “Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species” that described its origin and behavior of the animal. Stallions dominated in a certain manner, ate their young to maintain their hierarchy and more importantly, how man in the last few centuries had tried to domesticate and transport them (presenting them to Emperors and Kings) with tragic results. I also highly recommend “The Wildest Horse”.

The Hurstville Library in Sydney was very kind to share some photos of the exhibit now underway. Those fortunate enough to be in the vicinity, please send photos!


Hurstville Museum & Gallery



  • Reply January 25, 2014


    The photo. And what a magnificent animal…how lucky you were to meet up with one. And you were honoured by my country. Lucky Year of the Horse to you, Sue Anne.

    • Reply January 26, 2014

      Sue Anne

      Cheers Rob, had no idea you were Australian! As we near the long holiday, wishing you a Happy Chinese New Year as well.

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