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For many people, the horse – not the dog or the cat – is the true ‘man’s best friend.’ They’re our workhorses, friends, and companions, and they’ve been a part of our culture for thousands of years.
But even though horses are a common sight in Alberta, they’re not native to our province. Because they’re not a natural part of our ecosystem, they have few natural predators. When their population grows unchecked, they compete with native species for food – and that can have serious consequences.
What are feral horses?
Alberta’s free-ranging horses are descended from (and in many cases, still are) domestic animals – not wildlife. That’s why we call them ‘feral’.
Where did they come from? Well, in the early twentieth century, lots of horses were used in logging and mining operations – and when those operations stopped, all the horses were turned loose.
The offspring of these horses have become ‘feral’ horses that live in areas close to the initial logging and mining operations. When other domestic horses are turned loose or escape from ranches, they join this population.
Why do we need to manage them?
Once these animals become part of the landscape, it might make sense to see them as ‘wild’ animals. But it’s not that simple. Because feral horses are not part of our natural ecosystems, their population can grow very quickly, and put serious pressure on our native plants and animals.
Essentially, the equation is simple: scarce food + too few predators = trouble.
Grasslands are a very popular food source in Alberta – both for wildlife, like elk, and for livestock, like cattle.
In the spring, when the plants are still growing, these grasslands are sensitive to over-grazing. That’s why we prohibit livestock grazing until the summer months, and issue more hunting licences when we need to keep certain wildlife populations in check.
Alberta’s feral horse population eats the same grasses as other species do, and they tend to graze heavily in the spring. To prevent overgrazing, we need to keep their population manageable.
The research we’ve done shows that feral horses don’t really have any natural predators – they’re sometimes killed by wolves and cougars, but not often. With no natural check on their population, wild horse populations can quickly grow too big for the landscape to support.
This is the first post in a three-part series about how we manage Alberta’s feral horse population. You can read the second and third posts here: