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From Feral to Friendly, Meet the Mustang

From Feral to Friendly, Meet the Mustang

Mustang horses are probably the most well known wild horse in the United States. The name "Mustang" is derived from the Spanish words "mesteño" or "monstenco" which is synonymous for "stray", "ownerless" or "wild." Mustangs come from domestic horses which reverted to a wild state after becoming separated from their human caretakers. They currently roam primarily on public land  in the southwestern United States of  Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, California, Arizona and New Mexico, but mostly in Nevada, where the majority of the country's remaining feral horse population resides. The Mustang is often called "The Symbol of the American West" and is known for their rugged endurance.  Other names you may hear are: American feral horse,  Range horse  Indian Pony, Cayuse Pony,  American Mustang, Spanish Mustang, meste’os and BLM  horse, which refers to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that oversees their protection and adoption.

In 1492, Columbus discovered there were no horses in the New World, so today’s Mustang horses descended from the domesticated warmbloods brought to the New World by Spanish explorers, and by Columbus himself on his 2nd voyage. Some of these horses ran off; or swam to shore from wrecked ships; or were left behind as the Spanish came and went over the years. When European settlers came farther west they brought their horses with them, including draft horses.  French horses were introduced to the gene pool from French settlers in the region around New Orleans. German horses may also be among the genes of the Mustang. During the late 1800's and early 1900's, the U.S. Government purchased 150 old-style East Friesian Warmblood stallions from Germany each year, over a 10 period, to pull artillery or heavy wagons for the U.S. Cavalry. A few of those may also have escaped to join the wild herds where survival of the fittest and natural selection over 4 centuries has built the breed.

Some horses were lost to Indian raids. Others were freed by feral stallions tearing down fences to steal the tame mares away to their own harems.  Tame horses escaped from the owners, or were left behind as owners died on the trail, or in battle, just as the original horses in North America had escaped from the Spanish. It is possible that some horses   The Indians often bartered horses between tribes as well as captured horses from other tribes, making the distribution of the various bloodlines more diverse.

While their Spanish genes have been diluted, many of the Mustangs have Spanish and Andalusian characteristics. For decades, people believed that there were no pure Spanish-type horses remaining in the wild on the ranges. But a few small isolated herds were found by the BLM in 1977, and blood and DNA tests show them to be strongly related to the Spanish horses of the 16th century. The BLM has separated these "Spanish Mustang" herds out to preserve their purity.   Among these are the Kiger and Cerat Mustangs. Kiger mustangs carry the breed color traits, which include dun and gruel, among others, along with markings such as a dorsal stripe, zebra stripes or a facial mask.  Horses of draft conformation are also kept on separate ranges by the BLM.

In other words, the Spanish mustang is a descendant of the horses brought to the Americas by the early Spaniards; while the American mustang is the descendant of escaped light riding horses and draft horses, mixed with the Spanish-bred and others. In general, American mustangs are thought to have little-to-no remaining Spanish blood.

From an estimated 2.3 million horse at the turn of the century, the population of Mustangs has dropped rapidly. As settlers started ranches in the arid west, they started to kill the wild horses because they were competing with cattle for grazing land. Horror tales about the cruelty of their removal abounds. From missionaries' journals in 1807 is a report of two herds of 7,000 mustangs each that were driven into the ocean at Mission Santa Barbara to drown. And at the San Diego Mission, Mustangs by the hundreds were shut in corals to starve. Another tells of horses being shot from moving trains for sport, and left to die.  

By 1926 there were only about 1 million Mustangs remaining, and by the 1950's their numbers were reduced to an estimated 25,000. The population continued to decrease until 1971 when the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro act was passed to protect these animals. Unfortunately, this caused the population to rise to dangerous levels; livestock could not get enough to eat again, and the horses were a nuisance - again. The BLM's  Adopt-A-Horse program began 1973 as a humane way to distribute these excess animals to concerned citizens.

Currently, less than 33,000 Mustangs remain, with many herds already below the minimum population levels necessary to sustain healthy populations and preservation of the species, according Dr. Gus Cothran, the equine geneticist at the University of Kentucky. The minimum number of horses in each herd management area (HMA) needs to be at least 150 animals, says Cothran. But under BLM plans, about 70 percent of the HMAs will have fewer than 100 animals.

Mustangs come in all sizes and body types, and also in the full range of colors. Their average size is 14.2 hands but it is not uncommon to see one as short as 13 hands or as tall as 16 hands.  They are very hardy, healthy horses, rarely suffering from any kinds of leg or hoof injuries; or ailments that so often affect other domestic breeds, and they tend to live a bit longer than the domestics, too. Their lifespan is 25 to 30 years.

Mustangs that have been removed from the wild require experienced handlers, but they usually become as tractable as any horse that was raised from birth on a farm. But properly gentled Mustang can be a willing partner and a great family horse. If an American Mustang bonds with its owner, it will bond quite strongly, as that is a survival trait in the wild -- to bond with the herd.   They are very intelligent and will do as they please, but if treated well they will quite often comply. Mustangs can be trained, if they want to be trained, and they learn quickly. With patience, they can be trained by experienced handlers to excel in many disciplines including English, Western Pleasure, Dressage, Driving, and rodeo, among others. It is not unusual for Mustangs to win in equine shows and competitions, and, in fact, many have.

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