Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Impacts of feral horses on a desert environment

Stacey D Ostermann-Kelm1, Edward A Atwill2, Esther S Rubin3, Larry E Hendrickson4 and Walter M Boyce1*

Author Affiliations

1 Wildlife Health Center, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA

2 School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA

3 Conservation Biology Institute, PO Box 369, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, USA

4 Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, USA

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BMC Ecology 2009, 9:22  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-9-22

Published: 10 November 2009



Free-ranging horses (Equus caballus) in North America are considered to be feral animals since they are descendents of non-native domestic horses introduced to the continent. We conducted a study in a southern California desert to understand how feral horse movements and horse feces impacted this arid ecosystem. We evaluated five parameters susceptible to horse trampling: soil strength, vegetation cover, percent of nonnative vegetation, plant species diversity, and macroinvertebrate abundance. We also tested whether or not plant cover and species diversity were affected by the presence of horse feces.


Horse trailing resulted in reduced vegetation cover, compacted soils, and in cases of intermediate intensity disturbance, increased plant species diversity. The presence of horse feces did not affect plant cover, but it did increase native plant diversity.


Adverse impacts, such as soil compaction and increased erosion potential, were limited to established horse trails. In contrast, increased native plant diversity near trails and feces could be viewed as positive outcomes. Extensive trailing can result in a surprisingly large impact area: we estimate that < 30 horses used > 25 km2 of trails in our study area.