Few types of horses have become as iconic as the mustang, the symbol of the American West. Its name comes from the Spanish word mestengo, “stray animal.”
That word precisely indicates the mustang’s origin. Whenever Spaniards traveled to the New World, they brought horses with them. These horses were of a wide range of types:
- The finest Andalusian war and riding horses of Spain.
- Spanish Jennets, with their unique gaits.
- Barbs captured from the Moors.
- Cheap Sorraia packhorses from Portugal.
- Nondescript work horses of mixed lineage.
Many of these horses were kept and bred in the Caribbean islands, where their offspring provided a source of mounts for the Conquistadors on their further explorations. One of the advantages of using Caribbean-bred horses was that they were already adapted to the climate of the New World. They fit readily into the way of life in Mexico, first assisting in conquests and later becoming valuable assets at missions and cattle ranches.
As the Spaniards traveled through North America, their horses became loose in many ways. Some escaped of their own free will and multiplied in a feral state. Others were taken by Indian slaves making a dash for freedom.
These escaped natives found that they had a valuable possession in the Spanish horses. Not only did a horse symbolize liberty, but it represented wealth and an easy life. Most Native American tribes had previously relied on dogs to pull their belongings when moving from place to place. Now, with the horse, they could travel rapidly—rapidly enough to pursue herds of bison across the plains.
A nomadic life of hunting became the norm for the Plains tribes by the beginning of the 18th century. Some Indians, however, became wealthy horse brokers, acting as middlemen between their tribe and other tribes, as well as between Indians and Spanish, French, and English settlers. Through the native horse traders, the Spanish horse not only spread across most of the country, but it intermingled with nearly every type of horse in Canada, America, and Mexico, although Spanish blood predominated.
Throughout the early and mid-1800s, Americans came to value the horses of the West, whether wild or kept by Indians. They had a wisdom and hardiness that no domestic horse breed could equal. Mustangs were purchased from Indians or caught and tamed to carry trappers through the mountains, to pull stagecoaches, to transport important news on the Pony Express, to herd cattle to market, and even to serve in the cavalry.
However, as settlement moved westward, the mustang came to be viewed as a menace. It was the pride and strength of the Native American tribes that were resisting Westward Expansion with violence. The horse was derided as a “scrub” or a “broomtail” mainly because it was a threat to American civilization in the West. By the 1850s, the government had come to realize that eliminating the mustang was essential to eliminating the Indian. After the Civil War, the policy was pursued aggressively. Horses were confiscated from tribes, feral stallions were shot on sight, and Friesian and heavy-breed stallions were introduced into the herds to produce slow, cumbersome offspring that would prove useless to native warriors.
At the turn of the century, the mustang was a very different type of horse from the original Spanish escapee. The pure type survived on a few ranches and in isolated pockets in the mountains, but most mustangs showed strong influence from breeds familiar to Americans, especially since their herds frequently absorbed abandoned domestic horses. However, this did not improve the mustang’s reputation. Hatred for the horse persisted even after the Indian threat dwindled away. The mustang still caused problems for the settlement of the West, since it competed for grazing land and the stallions tore down fences to capture domestic mares.
The mustang, which had once numbered around 5 million (depending on the estimate), could claim a population of 1 to 2 million feral horses at the beginning of the 20th century. About a million of these horses were captured and pressed into service during World War I. After World War II, widespread hunting of mustangs began in an effort to free up the range for grazing. Entire herds were rounded up by aircraft to supply meat to the poultry and pet feed industries, while others were merely disposed of through poisoning.
However, the mustang found a champion in Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston of Nevada. After following a livestock truck packed with mustangs to the rendering plant, she took action to awaken the public to the diminishing numbers of the wild horses and to the cruel practices of the 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. Still, other methods of hunting mustangs continued until a law was passed in 1971 to grant them federal protection.
With the mustang protected by law, a more humane way to remove it from grazing land was sought. A few years later, the Bureau of Land Management launched the Adopt-a-Horse program. Since then, controversy has surrounded both the program and the horses without cease. In 1976, the roundup laws were amended to again permit the use of aircraft to capture mustangs. Furthermore, keeping mustangs on BLM land has come under attack from several directions. Ranchers who lease BLM land to graze cattle protest the loss of grazing land, while 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, while in 2004 killing mustangs for the horsemeat export market was legalized. As a result, many adoptions end in slaughter.
Today, the number of feral mustangs in America is somewhat in doubt. The BLM places the figure at 58,000, while the Humane Society suggests the number is far less.
A tiny percentage of the mustang population displays characteristics of the original pure Spanish breed and are designated Colonial Spanish Horses. These include several distinct populations, including:
- The Cerbat from northwestern Arizona.
- The Kiger Mustang from eastern Oregon.
- The Pryor Mountain Mustang from the border of Montana and Wyoming.
- The Sulphur Horse from southwestern Utah.
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 considered feral, meaning that they are simply domestic animals running free, in temperament they are truly wild animals. 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 it is unused to working with humans, it can be 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 very deep and special bond with a mustang that can be experienced with few other types of horses. A mustang can be extremely loyal. In the wild, mustangs typically look after their herdmates, and a mustang will gladly do the same for a person that earns its trust and respect.
Overall, the mustang has been built to last. 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 are required to do.
Unfortunately, most people who adopt mustangs fail to appreciate that their needs are different from those of most domestic horses. Mustangs fatten readily, and when overfed and provided with a sedentary existence will develop metabolic syndrome. Their weight must be managed carefully, and they must be provided 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.
- Low purchase cost.
- Strong survival instinct
- Ability to withstand extreme heat and cold.
- Low maintenance requirements.
- Extreme hardiness.
- Smooth gait, depending on the individual horse’s ancestry.
- Good cow sense.
- Need for experienced training.
- Need for large amounts of exercise.