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Not one Mustang, or any other horse, was found in the Western Hemisphere when the land was newly discovered, but the evolution of the prehistoric horse has indeed been traced to the Americas, through many fossil discoveries.
The wild horses that became common in both North and South America came from stock introduced by the Spaniards, when these people came to claim the land and conquer indigenous peoples. So the origins of mustangs are not that of a horse that derived from the wild, these horses were left, strayed, or stolen and became wild or feral
The people from Spain came for exploration, for Christianization of natives, for colonization, and they brought their horses. After a time, mustang herds dotted the vast lands, running free and forming their natural horse societies, producing new foals each spring time. Even the name they became know by, derives from a Spanish word for strays
The Spanish horses were known as a type, with various characteristics that were rightly valued and prized. Only one of these characteristics was hardiness, but this was a characteristic that would enable the strays to flourish on their own in nature, totally free from the influence of man and a characteristic that bred true, honed by the need for survival in nature.
The mustang was not the first horse of the Indians. Indians got their first horses from the Spaniards and not from wild stock. Indians from Mexico to Canada were presented with more and more opportunities to acquire horses and they eventually began riding them, and breeding them. Wild horses were not numerous until well after the Indians had begun riding and were well mounted. However Indians added hugely to the herds of Mustangs and were responsible for their appearance in some regions.
Horses flourished on the new continent and wild mustang herds were constantly on the rise, aided by the life style of the many Indiana tribes. One Indian might own one hundred horses, a tribe would own into the thousands. A nomadic tribe of people cannot hold or drive on the open range without losses to the wild. The more Indians dealt in horses and the more they acquired, the more they lost. Also when sickness and epidemics hit the tribes, thousands of horses ran wild. The escaped horses were scattered over half a continent and multiplied freely.
As North American was colonized horses were brought over by the English, French and Dutch and some descendants of these horses ran wild. As the mustang population grew across the western lands, their characteristics changed in their cauldron of survival. By the 1800’s no one’s estimation of a western mustang would compare this wild horse to the Spanish type by any stretch of the imagination, yet one characteristic remained steady that of hardiness.
Until the white man interfered, the wild horse herds did not degenerate any more than deer, moose, buffalo or other wild animals left to themselves.
Deterioration began in the mid 1800’s only when professional Mexican and Anglo-American mustangers began to corral and take all the choice horses, turning the lesser quality back into the wild mustang herds. Always though, a certain percent of the hardiest, faster, most intelligent horses escaped. The inferior ones came to be called broomtails, although that name was often used for all mustangs.
The day of the wild horse was a time period others have called the Age of Horse Culture, involving not only the wild horse herds, and the Indians, but the Spaniards who had mapped the continents, the padres, the early American explorers and trappers, the mule trains, the first fast post made possible by the Pony, the frontiersmen and cavalrymen, rangers and sheriffs. Everyone believed in the horse and the mustang was part of it all.
Eventually the Spanish horse was crossed so often with the popular Thoroughbred horse and other breeds that Spanish characteristics were bred out in many populations, just like the Spanish Longhorn was replaced by other cattle breeds. Mustang herds continued to survive in Nevada, Wyoming and other Western states, although in many herds only a trace of Spanishblood was left.
Mustang herds were killed off to save grass and to prevent other horses from going wild. It even became a sport to shoot these horses for no good reason, although many of the horses were canned for dog food.
The history of mustangers is long and colorful - whether for fun or profit, this was an intense and exciting time period and many myths and stories of heroes both horse and human have survived.
The relevance of the wild horse in history is retained yet today in many place names: Wild Horse Mountain, Red Horse Creek, Spotted Horse Creek, Horse Plains, Broomtail Flat, Pony Hills, Mustang Bayou.
The mustangs were once seen in many colors: coyote duns, smokies, blues, blue roans, snip-nosed pintos, flea-bitten grays, black-skinned whites, shining blacks, rusty browns, red roans, toasted sorrels, stockinged bays, splotched appaloosas, cream-maned palominos and shadings of color as varied as hues of the sunset. And those who know, who were there, and who saw much to admire in the wild horse, say the look of eagles in a tame horse’s eye is but a poor reflection of the steady radiance which was the essence of the wild ones.