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“Mustang” derives from the Spanish “mesteno” and is synonymous for “stray”, or “wild”; mustangs are wild-living horses that stem from domestic horses which reverted to a wild state.
The direct ancestors of the Spanish Mustang, which became the ancestor of the wild horses of both, North, Central, and South America, were the horses that came with the Spaniards and Portuguese when they came to claim the land and conquer indigenous peoples. Horses were lost, escaped, or were stolen, and reverted to a wild status.
Once Indians began to actually ride horses, and then to breed them, the life style of nomadic tribes and their necessity of herding horses over vast tracts of land insured that many more horses found their way to freedom.
When ownership of horses by a tribe numbered into the hundreds and white man’s diseases caused epidemics, many, many herds of the Spanish mustang were constantly on the rise.
From Mexico to Canada, wild herds formed and flourished.
Once the rule of the Spaniards came to an end and they stopped bringing in more horses, and after the annexation of the Plains region by the United States in 1803, the Indian pony, as well as the mustangs, gradually became crossed with other breeds. By the end of the century bore little resemblance to the horses of the Conquest.
The type of mustang known as the Spanish mustang survived in some remote areas of the West, the two best herds being those of the Kiger mustangs in southeastern Oregon and the Sulphur Springs mustangs in western Utah.
The horses in any of the mustang registries and associations are actually not mustangs anymore (“mustang” meaning “stray” or “wild”) but are domestic horses of mustang descent. What the mustang breed associations try to do is breed horses of mustang ancestry while keeping as much as possible the traits that the mustangs developed in the wild: hardiness, surefootedness, instincts, fertility, etc.
There are mustang breed associations/registries that strive to preserve the Spanish-type mustang, the oldest of which is the Spanish Mustang Registry (SMR). Another is the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association (SSMA), which was founded a little later by the late Gilbert Jones.
Spanish Mustang Registry: SMR
In 1920, Robert Brislawn of Wyoming, and his brother Ferdinand of Utah, began the long effort that would lead to the SMR in 1957. They strove hard to search and capture animals from wild bands that appeared to carry untainted characteristics of the lost Spanish breed, and also selected some from Indian tribes.
Foundation stock was obtained by the two brothers from wild horse bands ranging in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana, Utah, and from ponies found on a few Indian reservations. The Brislawn brothers were trying to establish the purest line they could. The goal was to find horses that corresponded in disposition, conformation and size to the characteristics of the horses first found in the West by American frontiersmen in the 19th century. Since both brothers were born when the West was still fairly young, they relied on their personal knowledge of the mustang they had known, rather than personal experience with true Spanish horses.
The Brislawns were not trying to create a breed, but to restore one. To prevent inbreeding, they had to return as needed to the inclusion of new animals from wild herds.
The Brislawns were assessing the assumed status of their horses by checking the number of lumbar vertebrae of dead animals. They falsely believed the Spanish horse had to have only five vertebrae, not six as in most horses, a misconception that some breeders still cling to. This misconception may have originated by another myth, namely, that the Spanish mustang had Arabian origins.
Southwest Spanish Mustang Association: SSMA
The Brislawns and Gilbert Jones at first worked together then disagreed over the a tobiano issue, forcing Jones to found his own registry, which allows for tobiano-colored horses too.
The difference in the effort being made by the American Mustang Association compared to that of the SMR, or the SSMA, is that the American Mustang Association tries to improve on the captured feral horses through a breeding program, whereas the efforts of the Spanish Mustang Registry is solely toward restoration and preservation.
Some breed registries that were formed for mustangs from certain BLM herds, like the Kiger Mesteno Association, the Sulphur Horse Registry, or the Pryor Mountain Mustang Breeders Association, originally also meant to preserve the Spanish mustang, but some of their breeders now pursue more the idea of a “designer-type” mustang, irrespective of Spanish/Iberian characteristics.
In order to preserve the true Spanish mustang, one has to have knowledge of the true Spanish horse, something that few of today’s breeders of mustangs seem to have a clear idea of. What constitutes the Spanish or Iberian type?
Photos from left to right: relief of an Iberian horse, approx. 400 years B.C.; coin with Iberian rider motif, 400 years B.C.;study of an Iberian horse’s head, Middle Ages; the elevated carriage and movements of an Andalusian horse, early last century; and a modern Andalusian stallion showing that the old type is still present.
As can be seen, the characteristics of the Iberian horse (Spanish or Portuguese) have remained the same all through the ages, from prehistoric times through the Middle Ages. The Iberian horse (the Andalusian or PRE of Spain and the Lusitano of Portugal) suffered some influence of North European blood in the Middle Ages and in more modern times, and through selection towards the modern sport horse in recent years, but the characteristics are still present in most horses, especially those “out in the country”.
The typical trait the Iberian horse is immediately recognized by is a convex or subconvex head profile. The head is relatively narrow and long, the profile bends somewhat outward rather evenly from the poll to the nostrils, the muzzle is small. The ears are of medium length and sometimes even rather long.
The neck is relatively upright, and broad and arched. The Iberian horse has a natural tendency to develop a cresty neck when in good condition. The neck has a clean throatlatch, though, which allows the horse to easily bridle up. The withers are fairly prominent, but long, reaching far into the back, which is fairly short. The croup is rounded, melon-shaped.
A Spanish mustang stands about 14 hands to 14,3 hands, with a balanced weight per height. One might consider its chest narrow, as when seen from the front, the front legs may join the chest in the shape of an A, but the chest is very deep.
The front end of the horse is dominant, not the rear end as in a Quarter Horse. The slope of the hip is medium, not steep as in many pony and draft breeds, but not horizontal as in many Arabians. The tail set is medium again, not low as in pony and draft breeds, but not high as in Arabians. The shoulder is long and sloped well, allowing for elevated movements. The legs are fairly long, with long cannon bones which in turn lend to considerable knee action and elevated movements; especially the lope is an “uphill” movement and very balanced.
The mustang’s feet are thick-walled and thick-soled, and many don’t need shoes for ordinary riding. Their soundness and vitality is marvelous, and they hardly ever need veterinary care. They are tough and have great stamina, and are certainly less apt to break down than other breeds.
The horse has a natural aptitude to collect himself, to travel with elevated movements, to bridle up. In Iberia -- one of the earliest domestication centers of the horse -- the riding with a bridled up horse evolved! This was not by chance, but because these horses allowed for it, “asked” for it.
Typically, these horses tend to be “mutton-tailed”; they clamp down there tails rather than stick them up in the air. Even when running excited, they will not stick it straight up and lay the tail hairs over their rump and back, like a horse with Arabian blood will do.
These versatile horses are different than many other horse breeds. They bond to their owners, like all horses, and very often become very attached to that person, but they will not tolerate abuse and are never what is called a push button horse. Spanish Mustangs retained their instincts that allowed them to survive in the wild and are not apt to place themselves in a situation that may be dangerous. They are highly intelligent with a built-in instinct for safety and independence, if needed.
It is this horse that became famous all over the Old World, and was introduced into all European warmblood breeds, and helped develop them. It was this horse (back then called ginete, genette, jineta, jennet) that the Conquistadores rode -- the Spanish war horse, which later came to be known as Andalusian, or Lusitano. It’s also the horse that proved his agility and courage in the bull fighting arenas.
A misconception that stubbornly prevails especially in mustang circles is that of a so-called “Spanish Barb”. The term “Spanish Barb” implies that there was a breed by that name, and there never was. The term is most likely an Anglo-American invention, as the result of another myth, namely, that the Moors had brought into Iberia their Barb horses. Yet another myth has it even that Arabians had been brought into Iberia.
First of all, it was Moors, not Arabs, who conquered Iberia, and there is a great difference! Secondly, there is irrefutable evidence that the Moors did not, as always claimed, bring thousands of their Barb horses over to the Iberian Peninsular. Their own historians recorded that they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on foot, fought the first battle on foot, and found the horses of the infidels “more plentiful, bigger, and better than their own”, and mounted themselves with Iberian horses. Once they had conquered Iberia, and settled in, they bred the Iberian horses that they had found “bigger and better”. This is not to say that an occasional Barb horse was not shipped over, but in no way was the Iberian horse ever influenced by Barbs that would justify a term like “Spanish Barb”.
The Barb horse of northwestern Africa used to be similar to the Iberian horse, and moleculargenetic analyses prove the relatedness of the two. This could be due to Iberian horses shipped to Mauretania long before the conquest of the Moors, but it could also be that the original habitat of the wild horse subspecies that became the ancestor of the Iberian horse breeds (Andalusian and Lusitano) reached from southern Iberia into northwestern Africa at a time, when there was still a landbridge between the two continents.
The staying power and endurance of these descendants of the Spanish horse is the stuff of legends. This extremely sturdy horse has the aptitude to perform well in almost any equine discipline of today’s world, but has excelled in endurance riding.
Mustangs are part of the American heritage, but the fact that the original Spanish mustangs were altered by released Remount stallions, and by stray horses of all kinds, and horses left by ranchers and farmers that got broke and gave up to fend for themselves, is part of that history as well... It is fascinating that in spite of all that, Spanish-type mustangs survived in some remote parts of the West. At the same time, it is frustrating that so few people recognize them for what they are and try to preserve them. There are some great Iberian-type horses out there!