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Mustangs: horses of the Cimarron

Published: 2023-02-15 08:47:59 Categories: Guides Rss feed


Mustang breed is known by most people (not only from the Disney animated movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron). These horses are frequently used by Native North Americans. The word mustang derives from Spanish word mestengo (mesteño) and monstrenco, which were translated by the English lexicographer J. Minsheu in 1599 as “stray”. Both words described farm animals as “wild and without an owner”.

“Mustangers” (in Spanish “mesteñeros") were cowboys (vaqueros) that caught and saddle brake wild horses in order to sell them – first in Spain, then in North America (Mexico, Texas, and California).

Wild mustangs – breed history

Mustangs derive from horses brought to North America in the 16th century. Spanish conquistadors used those horses to conquer New World. Horses that survived battles with Native Americans, either escaped or were purposefully released into the wild. Then domesticated horses that escaped from their owners joined them. It was probable that some mares were even captured by wild stallions. Over time, those horses spread and found good living conditions in the grassy prairies. Since they were independent, those horses became wild again.

Over time, the number of mustang herds rose; horses didn’t need to defend themselves from their natural predators (because of their small number). Spanish horses and other breeds brought by Spanish conquistadors (including Iberian horses) mixed and created new breed.

These herds were a source of horses for Native Americans and cowboys. They frequently caught wild mustangs because of their small cost and resilience. These horses have strong legs, ready to cover long distances.

Soon after, people started to cultivate the prairie and the number of cattle breeders rose. Big ranches started to appear that required much faster and bigger horses. This resulted in mustangs being labeled as enemies and participants in food competition with cattle. People started to kill mustangs to the point in the 20th century when only a small number of horses survived.

In 1957 a stud book for this breed was created and American Mustang Association cares about the preservation of the population.


Currently living mustangs

Mustangs appeared in the 16th century but only in 1971 did the American Congress declared that “wild, free roaming horses and donkeys are a living symbols of historical and pioneer spirit of the West”. From that time, mustangs were under protection.

These days, still existing wild herds are those that were pushed into nature reserves in Wyoming, California, and Kansas (breeding done by humans) and free roaming ones in Nevada, California, Oregon, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming. The management of the existing herds was entrusted to the US Bureau of Land Management. Their job is to protect and control the horse population.

It’s estimated that in 2017, the number of wild mustangs rose to 72 thousand, while in 2019 it was up to 88 thousand. In the previously mentioned breeding herds, there are another 45 thousand horses. This fast-growing population created a difficult situation, especially because the number of animals may soon exceed the amount of available feed. The cause of increasing population is mainly the lack of natural predators (wolves were historically rare and today they don’t live in those areas). The number of horses is only regulated by BLM.


The most frequently used method for population control is catching. Unfortunately, there are no instructions of how horses are supposed to be caught. Many methods used are extremely stressful for the animals, sometimes even fatal to them.

To catch the mustangs, people use trucks, quads, helicopters, and guns to drive them into enclosers or “traps”. This frequently results in horses being extremely exhausted, seriously injured or dead. Bait trapping is another frequently used method; this includes leaving hay or water in a camouflaged pen with a door that closes when the horses are inside. Another, less stressful method includes using tamed horse, called “Judas horse”, which has been trained to lead wild horses into a pen.

Captured mustangs can be adopted by individual people– after a year of adoption, people can apply for ownership. Unfortunately, the number of adopted horses is small. Previously, people had to pay 125 dollars to adopt a mustang, however, from March 2019, the USA gives 1000 dollars for adoption. Horses that are not adopted are relocated to farms, which raises a fear that they will be sold to slaughter.

Mustangs – physique

A characteristic mustang’s physique includes a big, convex head, often paired with a closed-coupled neck, compact body, slopped croup, and strong legs. Also, tough hooves and strong teeth.

Currently, there are two mustang lines:

  • with a more noble physique resembling more a Spanish horse
  • with a more primitive physique, resembling more Iberian horses

Height: 135-150 cm

Coat: all colors and markings possible

Average lifespan: around 20 years


Mustang – a wild horse


Mustangs eat only plants – grass, leaves, herbs, and seeds. These animals help with plant fertilization (undigested seeds are excreted with excrement). Because mustangs live on American perries', they adapted to the harsh living conditions – they are more efficient at finding food and water (even in frozen ponds).

Herd life

A herd usually consists of an adult stallion as well as a few mares and foals. Typically, a mare gives birth to one foal. A herd has their own territory in which they move around. They tolerate other herds that have territories next to them. A small herd moves faster and is more efficient at finding food. Each herd has their lead mare, that in case of danger will take a herd into a safe place. The stallion will stay to face the danger.

An adult stallion (around 3 years old) must leave their herd and create their own. This is the time when stallions fight with each other for mares.


Mustangs – roles

These days, a mustang that is correctly trained and cared for can become an amazing horse. Mustangs are great at reining, barrel racing, endurance racing, and even show jumping.

Get to know other horse breeds

Mustangs are one of the horse breeds. Get to know other horse breeds that we wrote about: