Horse Breeds

Managing Mustangs: the untamed legacy of Mustang horses

The Mustang is a breed of feral horse that is native to the western United States and it holds a unique place in the history of the United States.

Mustangs are known for their hardiness, agility, and stamina – traits that they have developed over generations since their ancestors arrived on the American continent.

Mustangs come in many different colours and sizes, reflecting their diverse heritage.

They have a strong independent nature, and due to their feral upbringing, they can be challenging to tame and train compared to domesticated breeds.

These horses have historically faced challenges due to competing interests for land usage, conservation concerns, and debates over whether they should be managed as wild animals or adopted for domestic purposes.

As the open range disappeared from North America in the early 20th century, the wild horses roaming the Great Plains were nearly hunted to extinction, turned into fertiliser and dog food.

In 1971, there were less than 20,000 left and they were protected.

But then the remaining herds began growing faster than what the government was prepared to deal with, and their numbers have grown exponentially since.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are close to 100,000 wild horses in herd management areas spread across the West, and the agency views that population as unsustainable.

They want to reduce the nationwide population to about 26,000 horses, according to a March 2020 report published by the agency.

To understand the Mustang better, we need to look at the historic, oral and archaeological records.

“Arrival of Cortés in Vera Cruz” Upon receiving word of Cortés’s arrival on the coast, Moctezuma, the leader of the Aztec empire, sends his ambassadors to meet the Spanish explorers.  Cortés orders a show of military strength to impress the ambassadors.

Some oral histories, like those of the Nez Perce, suggest that indigenous people’s interactions with horses go back thousands of years, to equines that may have survived the Ice Age.

However, analysis of DNA retrieved from the remains of two Ice Age horses found in Alaska (one from 26,100 years ago and another from around 28,400 years ago) have shown no direct ties to later North American horses, so there is currently no archaeological evidence to support the oral histories.

Scientists agree that wild horses first evolved in the Americas before dying out around 10,000 years ago, along with a lot of other megafauna.

Many oral histories of the native peoples of the American continent, tell of having horses well before those indigenous peoples ever crossed paths with the Spanish people.

And when you look past the limited perspective of the European documentation about horses in what they then called the New World, the archaeology and oral histories of the native peoples align.

In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus made landfall in what is now the Bahamas.

Columbus and his ships landed on an island that the native Lucayan people called Guanahani. Columbus renamed it San Salvador.

But it wasn’t until Columbus’ second voyage that the re-introduction of horses began, bringing Iberian horses to modern-day Mexico.

Other European ships brought with them more horses in the early 1500s.

The first horses that were brought over were smaller, due to size constraints in the smaller ships of the time, but eventually also larger horses such as draft horses were imported.

The horse revolutionised life for native peoples.

“The Last of the Buffalo” by Albert Bierstadt, 1880.

After their re-introduction in the 16th and 17th centuries, the horses changed the life of native peoples, who helped spread the animals across the continent.

The hunter-gatherer societies west of the Mississippi river all belonged to the Uto-Aztecan language group – and language would have played an important part in the dissemination of the horse throughout Northern America.

Previously, dogs were common pack animals used by indigenous people, and in many indigenous languages, the word for horse is closely related to the word for dog.

The indigenous tribes of the Plains would put packs on the dog’s back or use a travois.

A travois consists of two wooden poles with a platform, basket or netting suspended between them that could be pulled by a person, dog, team of dogs, or a horse along the ground.

Secured with a leather harness and tied together with sinew, a basket or platform was suspended between the two poles that dragged behind the animal. This was the part of the travois that carried household baggage, firewood, parfleches full of bison meat or other food and the tipi cover.

This kind of travois is far less efficient than a sled with runners, but the advantage lies in it being usable when there is no snow on the ground, which was very useful on the grasslands, prairies, and steppes of the Great Plains.

Kainai women and dog travois, c. 1910.

The dogs were pets of the family and were well treated.

Women were responsible for making and packing the travois. They also took care of the dogs and trained them from when they were puppies to carry the travois.

Depending on the size and strength of the dog, an individual dog can typically pull loads ranging from around 9-13 kilograms (20-30 lbs) or more. A team can pull more.

Once horses were introduced to the native peoples of North America, many tribes on the Plains began to make larger travois for horses.

Rather than make travois sleds, they would simply cross a pair of tipi poles across the horse’s back and attach the burden platform between the poles, behind the horse.

This way, the horse could simultaneously carry the tipi poles as well as some additional baggage.

Children would often ride in the horse travois.

Several Atsina on horses with travois behind them, c. 1908.

A horse could carry only about 90 kgs (200 lbs) on its back. But with a travois, it could pull 220-270 kgs (500-600 lbs).

It was the horse that made long migrations possible during the 1700s and early 1800s, allowing these indigenous groups to transport more goods than ever before and cover more ground.

Just as the horse transformed the geopolitical landscape in Asia and Europe, mastery of the horse transformed society and the way of life for Native Americans.

The Sioux became an expanding empire due to the horse, the Comanche were known as expert riders, and the Shoshone followed the waterways on horseback and were able to settle far in the north.

Native tribes had a lot of horse wealth.

The average Native American had at least three horses: a war pony, a travelling pony, and a hunting pony – and then their family would have additional horses.

Archaeological finds have shown evidence of Native American peoples culturally embracing horses by the early 1600s.

René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, was a French explorer who led an expedition down the Mississippi river and claimed the vast territory drained by the river and its tributaries for France.

When he reached the mouth of the Mississippi River and officially claimed the entire river basin and surrounding lands for France, naming the territory “Louisiana” in honour of King Louis XIV, who was the ruling monarch of France at that time.

In 1682 La Salle found horse-using indigenous people on the lower Mississippi river. He was also the first European visitor to the Blackfoot in Canada in 1754, where he found the whole tribe mounted on horseback.

Evidence from archaeological finds shows bony growths at the back of one horse’s skull, consistent with the use of a halter or bridle, another set of remains displayed dental damage seen from use of a metal bit.

What’s known as the Lehi Horse, is a set of remains dated to around 350 years ago, that show extensive signs of having been ridden bareback.

One of the most significant things about the Lehi Horse is that the horse was buried in the first place.

As Celinda Reynolds Caelin, ethno-historian and author explains, “We know that the warriors did not ride mares. This was a woman’s horse. And they know from all of their studies that this mare had been used for breeding purposes. What’s exciting to me, too, is that this horse was buried. Now, you buried something very sacred. There should be a woman’s burial near that, and she was probably one of the Twisted Hairs [people who bred horses].”

Analyses of diet-related chemical elements in teeth typical of particular geographic regions indicated that one early North American horse had grown up locally. And another horse was raised even farther north, probably part of a managed herd that was fed maize during part of the year, the researchers say.

Sioux chiefs with their horses, 1905, Edward Curtis.

Dr Thomas Andrews describes the husbandry practises in “Native Horses”, “If we were to visit a Native community in the 1700s or 1800s, that wouldn’t be immediately clear. You know, they’re not picketed. They’re not corralled. They’re essentially free-running. And those horses would wander off. Our best guess about where wild horses originate is that native peoples have enough horse wealth by the mid to late 1700s that those processes of abandonment or just horses doing their own thing, wandering off, that leads to scattered populations of unmanaged animals begin to essentially begin to do what horses do.”

The indigenous tribes in contact with European settlements would have initially drawn their supply of horses from them and in turn traded them with their indigenous neighbours, lost by theft or during raids and just horses being horses, wandering off to form horse societies on the Plains.

Explorers in western Canada would occasionally come across indigenous people riding horses with Spanish brands, attesting to how quickly they could be transported across great distances.

Pretty soon, with a large enough supply of horses of their own, the native peoples began breeding their own native stock.

DNA comparisons with a range of modern horses show that early North American horses were primarily of Iberian ancestry – even some of today’s Mustangs are nearly 90% Iberian.

Though, as horses became more popular and grew in number, they also began to form scattered herds that were unmanaged by any people.

By the late 1700s, Spanish government officials and American explorers were making note of the large numbers of feral horses. In the early 1800s, there were estimates that the herds on the southern plains numbered from anywhere from half a million to a million horses.

“Mustanging” became a very lucrative line of work, which involved rounding up feral horses and moving them to where there was a demand for horses.

That’s how the Mustang got its name.

The Spanish Mustang is a small, compact horse, standing at 14 hands (142 cm / 56 inches) which has allowed it to survive on little food and water.

Mustangs in general display a wide range of physical traits due to their diverse ancestry and adaptations to the harsh environments of the American West.

Though the term “Mustang” is often used to describe a specific type of horse, but technically speaking, Mustangs are not considered a breed in the traditional sense.

Instead, they are a population of feral horses that are descendants of various domesticated horse breeds brought to the Americas.

Breeds are established through controlled and selective breeding with specific traits and characteristics maintained and passed down through generations.

On the other hand, Mustangs have evolved through natural selection and adaptation to their wild environment.

They are the result of interbreeding among different horse breeds, including those of Spanish, Native American, and other European origin.

As a feral population, Mustangs exhibit a wide range of physical characteristics, temperaments, and conformations, making them diverse and unique compared to standardized horse breeds.

While some efforts have been made to manage and promote certain characteristics in captive Mustang populations (e.g., through adoption programs), their genetic diversity remains an essential aspect of their identity as feral horses.

While there is no single standardised appearance for Mustangs, some distinguishing physical traits include:

  1. Size and build: Mustangs are generally of medium size, with heights ranging from about 13 to 15 hands (52 to 60 inches) at the withers. They have a sturdy and compact build, featuring strong bones and well-muscled bodies that contribute to their hardiness and endurance.
  2. Coat colour: Mustangs come in a variety of coat colours, including bay, black, chestnut, gray, palomino, roan, and more. Their coat colours often blend well with their natural surroundings, providing camouflage in the wild.
  3. Mane and tail: Mustangs typically have thick manes and tails that can be wavy or straight. Their manes and tails are often darker in colour than their bodies, creating a contrast that adds to their distinctive appearance.
  4. Primitive markings: Some Mustangs can sometimes display primitive markings, such as dorsal stripes (a dark stripe running down the back), leg striping, and zebra-like markings on their legs. These traits are remnants of their ancestral heritage.
  5. Strong hooves: Due to the rugged terrain they inhabit, Mustangs tend to have strong, well-developed hooves that are highly resistant to wear and tear. Their hardy hooves enable them to navigate rocky landscapes and cover long distances in search of food and water. Thick bones under the knees also contribute to hoof and heart health.
  6. Adaptability: Mustangs have developed a unique ability to adapt to various climates and landscapes. They can withstand extreme temperatures, harsh weather conditions, and limited food and water resources, making them well-suited to living in the wild.

Due to interbreeding with other horse breeds and environmental influences, Mustangs’ physical traits can vary significantly among different herds and regions.

Mustangs also exhibit a diverse temperament due to their feral nature and varied ancestry.

They are known for their intelligence, resilience, and independent spirit, traits honed through generations of survival in the wild.

Their alertness is prominent, making them highly aware of potential threats.

This can often also make them very sensitive horses that require attentive handlers and riders to truly thrive in a domestic, urbanised setting.

They also display curiosity, despite wariness, investigating their environment. Mustangs are self-reliant, making their own decisions and finding food and water without human help.

Some Mustangs may also be ambivalent to human company even after training, never seeking out human connection the way domestic horses do.

Their remarkable resilience enables them to endure harsh environments with limited resources, including extreme weather and scarce food and water.

In the wild, they live in social herds with well-defined hierarchies, fostering a strong sense of community and having a horse already used to or born in a domesticated setting can help an adopted Mustang transition.

Individual temperament varies widely among Mustangs, with some being easily trainable and cooperative, while others may present challenges due to their wild instincts.

Adopting or working with Mustangs requires patience, understanding, and respect for their unique backgrounds.

Taking on the training and rehabilitation of a wild Mustang isn’t for everyone. But with proper training and care, Mustangs can become loyal and willing partners in various equestrian activities.

Today, the Mustang population faces unique challenges.

Although horses originally evolved in the Americas, they are still technically a recently introduced species to the American plains.

The feral horses have no predators and an ideal habitat, which contributes to their populations growing so explosively – the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports that herds can double in as little as four years.

Eventually, the horse populations began to compete with farmers and livestock for natural resources.

In the 19th century, as industrialisation and urbanisation spread, the significance of the the horse diminished.

Today they are managed under the purview of the BLM.

The BLM is responsible for preserving and protecting these feral horses on public lands, where the majority of Mustang herds roam.

The BLM employs several strategies for managing Mustang populations, including herd management areas, round-ups, and adoption programs.

Herd management areas are designated regions where the population is allowed to roam and breed naturally, although their numbers must be controlled to avoid overgrazing and habitat degradation.

Periodic round-ups are conducted to remove excess horses from the range and prevent overpopulation, and the gathered horses are made available for adoption to private individuals.

The management of Mustangs is a subject of ongoing debate and controversy.

Advocates for wild horse preservation argue for increased land protection and more humane management methods.

Advocates emphasize the cultural significance of Mustangs and their status as living symbols of freedom and the American West.

On the other hand, some stakeholders, including ranchers and wildlife conservationists, contend that Mustang populations need stricter management due to their impact on grazing lands and potential competition with native wildlife species.

As debates surrounding management practices persist, the fate of the Mustang remains intertwined with the preservation of American heritage and the responsible stewardship of public lands.

Some Mustangs are adopted and trained for recreational riding, trail riding, and competitions like endurance riding and rodeo events.

While thousands horses can be rounded up per year, adoption rates of those horses are only a fraction of the horses available, and most horses and burros end up in short- and long-term holding facilities.

Organisations like the Mustang Heritage Foundation are working to place more horse and burros in private homes, and have challenges like The Extreme Mustang Makeover and the TIP-program.

There are around 60,000 wild burros and Mustangs in holding facilities and they’re all waiting to be adopted to get a second chance at life.

Mustangs can be adopted abroad as well, not just in the United States and if you’re interested in a Mustang, I highly recommend you check out local resources to help you out with import, as well as the online auctions of the BLM.

You may also like...