The iconic symbol of the American West is the free-ranging Mustang horse. Found on the public lands of many of the western United States, these animals have captured the hearts of horse lovers everywhere. They are hardy, strong, free and wild in spirit. To Americans, they reflect the character of the pioneers who settled the vast and untamed West.
They are a small horse, usually between 14 and 15 hands, and can be found in any color. They have strong feet which usually don’t require shoeing. Their squared head is topped by long and tangled manes. They have no breed standard, other than “the strongest survive.” Thus, they usually maintain good health throughout their life; Mustangs have been known to live to 40 years old. They are surprisingly easy to train and eager to please.
The word “Mustang” comes from the Spanish word “mesteno” which translates into English as “livestock animal without a permanent home”. It was assigned to the bands of free-roaming, free-ranging horses that descended from Spanish breeding stock brought to the North American continent in the early 1500’s.
These horses were of Iberian blood. The Iberian horses originated on the Iberian Peninsula in the countries of Spain and Portugal. There are 17 breeds that are considered Iberian, among them the Pura Raza Gallega, the Andalusian, and the Hispano-Breton.
Mustangs are not the original wild horses of North America. There were wild horses roaming the continent in prehistoric times. These animals became extinct approximately 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. It is believed that there were no horses in North America until they were reintroduced during the explorations of Columbus. For this reason, there is a disagreement over whether Mustangs are “wild” horses” or are merely “feral horses,” meaning they are the undomesticated off spring of domestic stock. To be a true “wild horse,” they must be descendants of the native North American horses, which is not the case.
In the 1800’s, more blood was introduced into the feral herds by settlers and pioneers whose horses either escaped or were set free. Many ranchers had the practice of turning their working horses out to forage on their ranges, which usually resulted in them joining up with the bands of wild horses. When it was time to use the ranch horses, the cowboys would go gather the entire herd of horses, feral and domestic, and would tame and use the mustangs along with their own horses. Some ranchers even believed they could improve the genetics of the mustangs by disposing of the lead stallions and replacing them with domestic stallions of better bloodlines.
By the early 1900’s the mustang population had grown to over 2 million horses. At this time it became popular to “run mustangs” also called “mustanging.” A good book to read that describes the “mustanging” process is Ben K Green’s, “A Thousand Miles of Mustangin’. It details how the mustang hunters would gather the horses to use as stock horses and for slaughter. These horses were an easy source of pet food and their by-products were used for soap, glue, etc.
This extensive hunting thinned their population drastically and methods of dispatching the animals, such as shooting from a helicopter and poisoning them, led animal activists to push for protection. In 1959 the “Wild Horse Annie” act gave them some measure of relief. The Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 furthered this relief by declaring it a felony to shoot or poison them in the wild. It also put them under the protection and management of the Federal
Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This act also declared that the mustang is an important part of U.S. history and a symbol of the pioneer grit that settled the continent.
Today, it is estimated that 30,000 Mustangs freely roam eight U.S. states: Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon.
Currently in the United States, there is much controversy over the management of the American Mustang and the lands upon which they roam. The party responsible for both land and animals is the BLM. One of the main disputes is whether the mustang is a native species or an introduced invasive species.
Many ranchers, and others who derive their livelihood from rangelands shared with the Mustang, feel that the animal destroys habitat and competes with other livestock for forage. Proponents of Mustangs feel that the horse was a part of the environment before modern land management practices and therefore have the right to be a part of the landscape.
Some research has been done as to the impact of the feral horse on the land. Studies have shown that the horse ranges farther from water than cattle and can utilize forage more efficiently. These characteristics allow it to survive in areas where cattle could not. Regardless of which side of the controversy you are on, most agree that the Mustang population must still be managed for their own good to avoid disease and extinction.
Adopt a Mustang
BLM manages the population of the mustang primarily through their public adoption program. Several times a year, horses are offered to the public for adoption. These horses are domesticated as stock horses, pleasure horses or pets. You can purchase them untrained or trained. Some penal inmate programs in the U.S. saddle train these horses for public adoption as well.
There are requirements to be able to adopt. You must have the proper facilities to handle undomesticated horses. The BLM requires a sketch or description of the corral or facility in which the animal will be kept. If it does not meet the housing requirement, the applicant is not allowed to adopt.
The applicant must be at least 18 years of age. Further, he can’t have any convictions of animal abuse or inhumane treatment or any violations of the wild horse and burro act. The
applicant submits a $125 deposit and is allowed to bid on an animal. The minimum bid/fee is $125 for a single animal and $250 for a mare and foal. A saddle trained Mustang would require a fee of under $1000.00.