The Mustang is a feral horse of the American West. It is often referred to as a “wild” horse, but since the Mustang’s ancestors were domesticated, they are not truly wild animals.
The horse as a species developed in North America but disappeared about 10,000 years ago from the continent. Most people think Cortes was the first European explorer to bring horses back to what is now America. He did, in fact, bring horses with him on his conquest of Mexico in 1519, but it was probably several years before the horse made its way north.
The man credited with bringing the first horses to what is now the United States is Juan Ponce de Leon. On his second voyage from Spain to Florida, in 1521, Ponce de Leon brought with him a small herd of Andalusian horses, along with cattle. Subsequent explorers to Florida brought horses with them, including Hernando de Soto, Don Diego Maldonado, and Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Some of these Spanish steeds were traded to Native Americans, some were stolen, and some escaped to form small herds of feral equine which came to be called “mustangs” – derived from the Spanish word for stray animals, mestenos.
Meanwhile, out West, horses had made their way to the Great Plains and drastically altered the lives of the Native Americans who became the “horse tribes.” These tribes did not generally have secure enclosures for their horses, so some of the stock escaped and survived on their own, breeding and growing their numbers.
As the Eastern US became more populated, the wild herds of the East were pushed westward. They eventually crossed the Mississippi River and joined the western herds of feral horses. Most of these horses were of Andalusian, Barb, and Arabian blood.
With westward migration and cattle ranches being established in the 1800s, more horses joined the feral herds – some by accident and some purposely released. Many ranch owners released much of their horse herds to roam free in the winter and graze on wild grasses. In the spring, when the ranch horses were rounded up, Mustangs would often be among their numbers. A few ranchers, in an effort to improve the feral herds, shot herd stallions and replaced them with purebred horses.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, North America was home to about 2 million feral horses. Since that time, the population has suffered greatly. Many of the horses were captured and trained for cavalry units, some were caught and used as ranch horses, and thousands were slaughtered for dog food. Some of these animals were poisoned, and others were chased with airplanes until they were exhausted, making easy targets for rifles. In 1959, the first law offering the feral horses some protection was passed. In 1971, The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, offering more protection. Today there are more than 33,000 feral Mustangs, more than half of which are located in Nevada.
Mustangs of today vary greatly from herd to herd. Some have obvious draft horse lineage, some indicate Friesian blood, while a few isolated herds have been proven by blood tests to be almost pure descendants from the old Spanish horses.
Many Mustangs have been adopted from the Bureau of Land Management. It usually takes an experienced horseman and trainer to handle a Mustang. Once the animals receive sufficient handling and training, however, many become as gentle and dependable as any other horse. Some Mustangs make excellent endurance mounts because of their stamina and hardiness from generations of natural selection.