Name of breed: Mustang
Origin: United States of America
Breed origin: America’s wild horse, the mustang, is not in fact native to America. When Spanish explorers brought the breed’s ancestors to the New World in the 16th century, horses had been extinct in North America for almost 10,000 years. These Spanish or Iberian horses that colonised the Americas carried a huge variety of bloodlines including those of the Andalusian, the Barb and the Arabian. However, they were all of a similar type: strong, tough, intelligent and brave, able to survive on scant pastures and travel long distances without tiring. These characteristics also allowed them to thrive in the wild, whether they had strayed too far from home or were deliberately released. The Spanish released about 10,000 horses into the wild, hoping to deter Native Americans from stealing their domesticated stock. The name ‘mustang’ comes from the Mexican-Spanish word mestengo, which means ‘stray’ or ‘wild’.
As mustangs spread out across the vast continent, natural selection and genetic variation resulted in a highly adapted, highly successful breed. A huge number of breeds have been introduced over the centuries, deliberately and otherwise, from draught horses to sport horses. The result is that the characteristics of the mustang vary even from one herd to the next, shaped as they are by both nature and happenstance.
Populations of mustangs ran virtually unchecked until the late 19th century. At the start of the 20th century, there were about 2 million mustangs running wild. This became a problem when they competed with cattle and other livestock for resources, resulting in degraded land. Many ranchers solved this issue by shooting mustangs. The US army also captured many mustangs for the cavalry, the most famous example being Comanche.
By 1926, the wild mustang population had halved. Those that remained also bore little resemblance to the original Spanish type, and efforts were made to revive the ‘true’ mustang. Despite this, government culling became more organised and by 1950 there were only 25,000 mustangs left. It wasn’t until the 70s that acts were instated to protect America’s wild horses. Since then, governments, organisations and individuals have striven to find and maintain a balance between protecting wild herds and controlling their numbers. Culling and other population control measures are augmented with rescuing and rehoming efforts.
Distinguishing features: Many mustang herds are genetically isolated and show strikingly different traits. In some places, the mustangs are so different that they are considered totally separate breeds, such as the Spanish Mustang, Cerbat Mustang and Kiger Mustang. Typically, however, mustangs stand between 14 and 15 hands high and have a light yet muscular build. They tend to be well-proportioned, with a low-set tail and good, hard hooves. Mustangs come in every colour imaginable thanks to their mixed bloodlines, and primitive markings are also seen. They are surefooted, agile and hardy, with incredible stamina. Mustangs are known for their intelligence, trainability and even temperament.
Modern day Mustang: The Bureau of Land Management manages and protects wild herds, which now exist in selected areas in Nevada, California, Oregon, Utah, Montana and Wyoming. However, there is much controversy over the methods the federal government uses to manage herd numbers, as well as the sharing of land and resources by the wild mustangs and ranch-owned livestock.
Domesticated mustangs have proven to be extremely versatile, and are used for everything from pleasure riding to ranch work to endurance riding. One of the most famous mustang events is the Extreme Mustang Makeover, in which trainers compete to see who can train a wild mustang to the highest level in just 100 days.
Keen to ride a mustang? Then check out our ranch-based vacation in Shell, Wyoming!