Mustang Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Wild West. The American Frontier.

The folklore that surrounds this brief period of time in westward expansion from the East Coast to the West has a certain romanticism about it. Even if the idea of a Manifest Destiny fueled the fire to move away from the initial colonies, there was only one way to travel to the west: by horse.

Those horses needed to come to the United States in the first place since there were no horses here when Europe’s first explorers stopped by for a visit.

By combining both events together, we find the story of the Mustang beginning to develop. We have cowboys on horseback managing their livestock herds in vast prairies. There are stories of daring robberies, brave lawmen, and homesteaders working hard to create a better life for their children.

The period of time for the Old West falls between 1783-1920, but the Wild West, the stories of the American Frontier, all fit into a 25-year period at the end of the 19th century.

It was a time of optimism. It was a time of hardship. There were gold rushes where fortunes were made and gold busts where people lost everything. Those who lost everything would keep their horse as their last final straw of hope. If they could not even support that horse, they would turn it loose.

And that is where we begin to tell the story of how the Mustang horse became a legendary part of the American Froniter. 

What Is the History of the Mustang Horse?

Horses were once native to North America, but are believed to have died out in the aftermath of the last Ice Age. Fossil evidence, along with DNA evidence, suggest that there were two closely related horse species throughout what would become Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

When Christopher Columbus came to North America during his exploration efforts, he brought horses along for the ride during his second journey in 1493. These horses were settled in the West Indies from Spain.

When Cortes arrived on the mainland in 1519, his domesticated horses came along with him. In just 6 years, there were enough horses to begin breeding programs in the New World.

That means the first horses that would be classified as Mustangs were actually Colonial Spanish Horses. As settlers moved west and explorers continued to look for new frontiers, horses were often the casualty of such ventures. It was costly to maintain a horse and many just didn’t have the resources to do so. Rather than slaughter them, many just turned them loose into the wilds of the US West.

Over time, more horses joined the herds that roamed the mountains and valleys of the west. Some ranch horses would escape their confines and join these herds as well. A few are even descendants from cavalry horses that were turned loose after the wars in the west. These horses mixed their lineage as the herds continued to grow and this resulted in a modern Mustang that can be quite varied.

As the herds continued to move West, many cultures began to integrate them back into their cultures. Native and First Nations tribes quickly incorporated the use of horses into their culture, using them for transportation purposes. Horses made hunting easier, gave warriors an advantage in battle, and allowed far-away tribes to interact with one another on a regular basis. 

What Are the Characteristics of the Mustang Horse?

Although it no longer exists, the American Mustang Association once created a set of breed standards as an attempt to formalize the breed instead of maintaining the classification of a semi-feral horse. Height variations do occur with Mustangs, but most are generally between 14-15 hands high. Because of some draft horses being let loose into the herds over the decades, however, there are some Mustang stallions that can exceed 18 hands, though the breed standard excludes any horse above 16 hands.

Each herd is isolated from one another throughout the US West, which means each is genetically different from the other. Distinct traits can be traced to specific herds.

The herds also tend to develop their own characteristics to deal with conditions where they reside. In Nevada, for example, there are two herds that are known to produce Curly horses. In Wyoming, there are some herds that produce consistent qualities that are similar to today’s gaited horses. Then there are certain Mustang lines that are quite consistent with modern Spanish horses.

For most herds, the light riding-type body style is what predominates. Mustangs can have any coat color and may have primitive markings, though horses with a clear Spanish ancestry tend to have a dun coat. Draft horse characteristics and coloration exist as well. Some herds have racehorse-type characteristics.

In general terms, the withers should be average in height and the shoulder should be long and sloping. A short back is common with the modern Mustang, while the facial profile is typically slightly convex, but can be straight. The croup of a Mustang is rounded, neither goose-rumped or flat, with a tail that is low-set.

The hooves of a Mustang are dense and round to support the horse in the changing environments of the wild.

What About Today’s Mustang?

In the United States, Mustang herds are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There are Herd Designated Areas that are established, determining the number of horses that can be sustained as a free-roaming, but still feral, population. There are herds of horses that have moved into Alberta and British Columbia as well. 

The US Government has established the number of horses that can be managed at 26,000.

Managing the Mustang herds has always been a costly and somewhat controversial venture. At the end of the 19th century, there were an estimated 1 million horses in the Mustang herds roaming the empty lands of the western states. By 1970, there were just 17,000 horses remaining. Since then, the number has doubled, and that has brought new calls to bring the population numbers back under control.

An amendment to a 2018 Interior Department spending bill would potentially authorize the US Government to slaughter thousands of Mustangs as an effort to save money.

It is possible to adopt Mustangs that are corralled as the BLM manages the population. It is a minimal fee to purchase the rights to adopt the horse, but the government is required to verify that the new owners have the means, capabilities, and skills to work with their horse so it can be properly domesticated. The adoption fee can be as low as $125.

More than 225,000 Mustangs have been adopted through this program since 1971.

Are Mustangs Inbred and of an Inferior Quality?

Breeders who work with domestic horses sometimes dismiss the Mustang as being an inferior breed. Because these horses are classified as being feral instead of wild, due to their history of being released or escaping, there is a belief that many of the herds suffer from inbreeding. This would create herds with genetic bottlenecks that would create foals that were of an inferior quality.

Critics of the Mustang would point at their generally smaller size and traits that would add weakness to individual horses as evidence of this inbreeding.

It could also be argued that Mustangs are smaller because of the difficult living conditions where they exist in the deserts and mountains of the western United States. Natural selection would then take care of any weaknesses that could be found within the breed.

One question typically remains about the Mustang: should they still be considered feral or should they be classified as a wild horse?

Proponents of having the Mustang be “wild” point to the fact that horses used to live in North America and were once wild, so Mustangs are simply reclaiming that heritage. The government and critics would argue that a domesticated horse that escapes or is turned loose is hardly a wild animal. 

What we do know is this: population management will continue to be a subject of some controversy for people on both sides of the aisle. There is a desire to protect these horses and allow them to explore their natural state. There is also a desire to reduce the amount of money spent on maintaining these herds and to increase the amount of public lands that can be leased for development purposes.

There is no easy answer that will solve the problems that the free-ranging Mustangs face today. The best solution at the moment is to pursue adoption when it is made available. By knowing the history and characteristics of the modern Mustang, it may just be possible to find a solution that works for all parties.