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Mustang Overview

Mustang is a free-roaming feral horse of the North American west that first descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish. Mustangs are often referred to as wild horses but, since all free-roaming horses in America descended from horses that were originally domesticated, the more correct term is feral horses. Today, the only true wild horse is the Przewalski's Horse, native to Mongolia.

The English word "mustang" comes from the Mexican Spanish word mestengo, derived from Spanish mesteño, meaning "stray livestock animal". The Spanish word in turn may possibly originate from the Latin expression animalia mixta (mixed beasts), referring to beasts of uncertain ownership, which were distributed in shepherd councils, known as mestas in medieval Spain. A mestengo was any animal distributed in those councils, and by extension any feral animal.

In 1971, the United States Congress recognized Mustangs as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.” Today, Mustang herds vary in the degree to which they can be traced to original Iberian horses. Some contain a greater genetic mixture of ranch stock and more recent breed releases, while others are relatively unchanged from the original Iberian stock, most strongly represented in the most isolated populations.

Today, the Mustang population is managed and protected by the Bureau of Land Management. Controversy surrounds the sharing of land and resources by the free ranging Mustangs with the livestock of the ranching industry, and also with the methods with which the federal government manages the wild population numbers.

Mustang - History: Primitive horses lived in North America in prehistoric times, but died out at the end of the last ice age around 10-12,000 years ago, possibly due to climate change or the impact of newly-arrived human hunters. Horses returned to the Americas with the Conquistadors, beginning with Columbus, who imported horses from Spain to the West Indies on his second voyage in 1493. Domesticated horses came to the mainland with the arrival of Cortés in 1519.

The first Mustangs descended from Iberian horses brought to Mexico and Florida. Most of these horses were of Andalusian, Arabian and Barb ancestry. Some of these horses escaped or were stolen by Native Americans, and rapidly spread throughout western North America.

Native Americans quickly adopted the horse as a primary means of transportation. Horses replaced the dog as a travois puller and greatly improved success in battles, trade, and hunts, particularly buffalo hunts. Starting in the colonial era and continuing with the westward expansion of the 1800s, horses belonging to explorers, traders and settlers that escaped or were purposely released joined the gene pool of Spanish-descended herds. It was also common practice for western ranchers to release their horses to locate forage for themselves in the winter and then recapture them, as well as any additional Mustangs, in the spring. Some ranchers also attempted to "improve" wild herds by shooting the dominant stallions and replacing them with pedigreed animals.

By 1900 North America had an estimated two million free-roaming horses. Since 1900, the Mustang population has been reduced drastically. Mustangs were viewed as a resource that could be captured and used or sold (especially for military use) or slaughtered for food, especially pet food. The controversial practice of mustanging was dramatized in the John Huston film The Misfits, and the abuses linked to certain capture methods, including hunting from airplanes and poisoning, led to the first federal wild free-roaming horse protection law in 1959.Protection was increased further by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

The 1971 Act provided for protection of certain previously established herds of horses and burros. Today, the United States Forest Service administers 37 wild horse or burro territories in several western states.

Mustang – Ancestry: Historically, many of the Indian tribes bred their horses carefully to improve them for their purposes. Among the most capable horse-breeding people of North America were the Comanche, the Shoshoni, and the Nez Perce. The last in particular became master horse breeders, and developed one of the first truly American breeds: the Appaloosa. Most other tribes did not practice extensive amounts of selective breeding, though they sought out desirable horses through capture, trade and theft, and quickly traded away or otherwise eliminated those with undesirable traits.

In some modern mustang herds there is clear evidence of other domesticated horse breeds having become intermixed with feral herds. Some herds show the signs of the introduction of Thoroughbred or other light racehorse-types into herds, a process that also led in part to the creation of the American Quarter Horse. Other herds show signs of the intermixing of heavy draft horse breeds turned loose in an attempt to create work horses. Other, more isolated herds, retain a strong influence of original Spanish stock.

Contact: American Wild Horse Preservation - www.wildhorsepreservation.com