When the Spaniards traveled to the New World, they brought horses of mixed lineage to aid in their explorations. However, some escaped and multiplied in a feral state. (Indeed, mustang comes from the Spanish word mestengo, “stray animal.”) Others were taken by Indian slaves making a dash for freedom.

The Native Americans quickly found that Spanish horses were a valuable possession. With the horse, Indians could travel rapidly enough to pursue herds of bison. Furthermore, horses were useful in trade with early American settlers. These pioneers likewise valued the mustang for its wisdom and hardiness.

However, as settlement moved westward, Americans increasingly viewed the mustang as a menace. After the Civil War, the federal government aggressively pursued a policy of eliminating the mustang in hopes of squelching Indian resistance. Even after the Indian threat ended, the mustang inconvenienced ranchers by competing for grazing land. After World War II, widespread hunting of mustangs began in an effort to free up the range.


However, Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston of Nevada alerted the public to the diminishing numbers of the wild horses and to the cruel practices of aerial roundups. The result was a 1959 law that prohibited the poisoning of waterholes and the use of aircraft and motorized vehicles to capture wild horses. Other methods of hunting mustangs continued until a 1971 law granted them federal protection.

The Bureau of Land Management subsequently launched the Adopt-a-Horse program as a more humane way to remove excess horses. But controversy has surrounded the program. Ranchers who lease BLM land protest the loss of grazing land. Environmentalists fear that mustangs damage the ecosystem and thus harm native wildlife. Meanwhile, well-meaning but inexperienced people often adopt pet mustangs with unfortunate results. Many adoptions end in slaughter for the export market.

Today, the number of feral mustangs in America is in doubt. The BLM places the figure at 58,000, while the Humane Society suggests the number is far less. Only a tiny percentage of mustangs display characteristics of the original pure Spanish breed, known as the Spanish Colonial Horse.


Many mustangs are simply enjoyed for pleasure riding. However, the mustang is the epitome of a good trail horse, and it can excel at competitive endurance, as well.

Mustangs have proven their worth on the ranch time and time again. Western competitions are not beyond their capability, either.

Less common uses for mustangs including jumping and driving.



Although mustangs are technically feral, meaning escaped domestic animals, in temperament they are truly wild. Owners agree that a mustang has far more personality and intelligence than a domestic horse. It observes everything around it and displays an uncanny wisdom in taking care of itself. When unused to working with humans, it can prove feisty and downright rebellious.

A younger mustang is easier to train than an older one, but all mustangs are fast learners. Their trust must be carefully earned, but a clear pecking order must be established, as well. The observant nature of a mustang makes it quick to realize whether or not any given person is a suitable leader.

But a kind, firm person can form a deep and special bond with a mustang experienced with few other types of horses. A mustang can be extremely loyal. In the wild, mustangs typically look after their herdmates. A mustang will gladly do the same for a person who earns its trust and respect.


Few horses are as rugged as the mustang. It suffers from no breed-specific genetic defects, and it is structurally sound, as well. Most mustangs do not need shoes, depending on the type of work they do.

Unfortunately, most people who adopt mustangs fail to appreciate that their needs are different from those of most domestic horses. Mustangs fatten readily. When overfed and provided with a sedentary existence, they will develop metabolic syndrome. Horse owners should manage their mustang’s weight carefully and provide their horse with ample exercise.

The frame overo color found in some mustangs is associated with lethal white syndrome, a genetic defect. Frame overo horses should always be bred to horses of some other color to avoid producing a foal that will die of complications from an incomplete colon a few days after birth.


  • Availability.
  • Low purchase cost.
  • Strong survival instinct
  • Ability to withstand extreme heat and cold.
  • Low maintenance requirements.
  • Extreme hardiness.
  • Longevity.
  • Speed.
  • Endurance.
  • Agility.
  • Surefootedness.
  • Smooth gait, depending on the individual horse’s ancestry.
  • Good cow sense.


  • Need for experienced training.
  • Need for large amounts of exercise.

Helpful Resource

“North American Colonial Spanish Horse Update”
Detailed information on the history and genetics of the true Spanish mustang. Describes significant and rare feral, rancher, and Native American bloodlines.

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Horse & Donkey Breeds