Feral Horse Counts

2017 Feral Horse Survey Count Summary

Survey Time Period: March 2017

Areas Covered: Brazeau, Clearwater, Elbow, Ghost River, Nordegg and Sundre Equine Management Zones

Number of Horses Counted: 1202

Summary Reference:

Alberta’s 2017 feral horse count is complete. The 2017 feral horse count was completed over 9 days in the first two weeks of March.

A total of 1202 feral horses (including adults, subadults/yearlings, and foals) were physically observed during the course of these counts. Only the total number of horses counted during the flight is reported. This is considered a total minimum population and represents the absolute minimum amount of feral horses on the landscape. In all zones feral horses are known to exist but some animals may have been missed on the day of counting.

Changes from Previous Survey Counts

While in 2015 the department performed counts in three of the six Equine Management Zones (EMZs), for the past 2 years a count was conducted in all six zones.

For many years, the count was done without differentiating between adult horses and yearlings. More recently, observers have tried to split out the number of subadults, or yearlings, from the number of adults. The hope is that this additional information can be used in the development of a long-term management strategy.

After the minimum count flights were conducted the Sundre and Ghost EMZ were flown again using a new count methodology called distance sampling. This is a common method used for conducting wildlife surveys. When analysis is complete the new data set will produce an estimated total number of horses in each of the zones based on the number of horses seen during the flight.

How Feral Horse Survey Counts are Conducted

Feral horse survey counts are conducted using a rotary-wing aircraft (helicopter) because such aircraft have greater maneuverability. During the count, a group of horses may be circled several times so the observers can first count the total number of horses in the group and then determine if there are any yearlings or foals in the group.

If the observers are unsure if a horse is a yearling or a small adult, it is classified as an adult to minimize the risk of overestimating the number of yearlings.

While performing the count it can seem as though the total number or the number of yearlings relative to adults is low, even to experienced observers. It is difficult to truly get an idea of population size and the number of yearlings in the population until the count is complete and the data analyzed.

Male-Female Ratios, Recruitment Rates and Management Plans

When managing native wildlife such as elk, staff in wildlife management considers the recruitment rate of a wildlife population to be the number of young per 100 females that survive to one year of age. When it comes to feral horses, we know that only part of the total population is female, but we do not currently have an accurate ratio of males to females. Once we know male-to-female ratio, we can calculate a recruitment rate for feral horses.

While the average recruitment rate is important for developing a long-term management plan, for the time being we will break down the percent of the total population that are yearlings.

The rate derived from this method is more conservative and lower than the recruitment rate because it is relative to all animals, male and female.

To use the Sundre Equine Zone as an example, there were a total of 661 horses counted:

  • 552 adults
  • 105 yearlings
  • 4 foals

This means that yearlings made up 16% of the total population (not including 2017 foals) with a ratio of 19 yearlings per 100 adults. This is not a true recruitment rate, but gives a rough idea of how many foals are surviving to become yearlings which informs long-term population trends.

Past Survey Count Summaries

Review previous years’ maps and charts summarizing the results of Alberta’s feral horse survey counts. Survey counts are conducted annually in the province’s Equine Management Zones (EMZs).


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Updated: Jan 15, 2018