When the Spaniards traveled to the Caribbean islands of the New World, they brought horses with them. These horses were of a wide range of types, from the finest Andalusian war horses to nondescript work horses of mixed lineage. The offspring of these various horses provided a source of mounts for further explorations. They also fit readily into life at the missions and cattle ranches of Mexico.
As the Spaniards traveled through North America, their horses became loose in many ways. (Indeed, the word mustang comes from the Spanish word mestengo, “stray animal.”) 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 quickly found that they had a valuable possession in the Spanish horses. With the horse, Indians 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.
Early American settlers frequently traded with Native Americans for horses. Mustangs had a wisdom and hardiness that no domestic horse could beat. They could carry trappers through the mountains, pull stagecoaches, transport important news on the Pony Express, herd cattle to market, and even serve in the cavalry.
However, as settlement moved westward, Americans increasingly viewed the mustang as a menace. It was the pride and strength of the Indian tribes resisting Westward Expansion. After the Civil War, the government aggressively pursued a policy of eliminating the mustang in hopes of squelching Indian resistance. 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.
Hatred for the horse persisted even after the Indian threat dwindled away. The mustang competed for grazing land, and the stallions tore down fences to capture domestic mares. 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 poisoned.
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 passed in 1971 granted them federal protection.
With the mustang protected by law, the Bureau of Land Management launched the Adopt-a-Horse program as a more humane way to remove excess horses from the land. But controversy has surrounded both the program and the horses. Ranchers who lease BLM land to graze cattle protest the loss of grazing land. Environmentalists fear that mustangs damage the ecosystem and thus harm native wildlife. 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 these display characteristics of the original pure Spanish breed, known as the Spanish Colonial Horse. This breed includes several distinct populations:
- 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 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, and a mustang will gladly do the same for a person that 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, and when overfed and provided with a sedentary existence 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.
- 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.
“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.