Mustang Horse

  • HEIGHT: 13.2–15 hands, average about 14.2
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: North America, particularly the Great Plains
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Toughness, cleverness, adaptability
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Trail riding

No other horse is quite as American as the Mustang. The genuine history of these horses is often so overshadowed by folklore, however, that most people are unaware how deeply these tough, enduring horses reflect the history and influences of the many nationalities and peoples that came west or were forced to confront westward expansion. The American Mustang, just like the American people, is an amalgamation of everything that went before. The word Mustang comes from the Spanish musteño, meaning stray, which in turn comes from the Latin mixta, meaning mixed animals. Mustangs are exactly that: mixed strays, or mongrels.

Christopher Columbus brought the first load of horses, five broodmares and twenty stallions, to the New World in 1493. From that point on, horses were carefully and selectively bred with great success on the islands of the Caribbean. By 1501, one ranch on Hispaniola had sixty broodmares. For a while, Spain continued to send mares and stallions to the Americas, but it needed horses for military purposes at home and stopped exporting them as soon as breeding capacity in the New World reached sustainable levels.

You cannot look at Mustangs without thinking of the Old West.

The first imports to the Caribbean included some very fine animals along with many very average ones. The Caribbean herds quickly expanded, and it was not long before horses were exported directly from the Caribbean islands to the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America. The Conquistadores preferred the island-bred horses because they were easier and quicker to obtain and also because they tolerated the climate better than did horses coming directly from Europe.

Not pretty but typical, the mare’s profile is long and slightly convex. She has good bone. This is the most common type, one that has done well in North America since the late 1500s.

A shipment of fifty horses arrived in Florida with Ponce de León in 1521. The Indians promptly ran off the settlers, who left behind their horses. Eighty more horses arrived in Florida in 1528. Eighty-nine horses were brought to the coast of South Carolina in 1526. DeSoto arrived in what is now Tampa Bay with five hundred men and three hundred horses in 1539. By that time there were already horses on the Outer Banks and possibly in other parts of North and South Carolina, offspring of horses that had been left in the 1520s when a Spanish colony was abandoned. By 1541, Cartier had landed with twenty horses at the future site of Quebec. Thus, in about twenty years, horses were introduced along a two-thousand-mile coastline that was rich in grasslands and fresh water and quite suitable for the species. The total number of horses actually brought to these shores in that time period was probably fewer than six hundred animals.

Quite early in the Spanish conquest, there was also a tremendous surge in horse numbers in Mexico. The first real economic boom in Mexico occurred with the opening of large silver mines. With the mines providing the market and the money, cattle ranching began in earnest on the Mexican high plains, requiring large numbers of horses. Everywhere the Spanish went, even as explorers, they were driving livestock, first as a food source and then to establish herds as settlements were formed. For this reason, “cow sense,” already present in the Spanish horses, was consistently selected for as the Spaniards became ranchers.

In the mid-1560s, Francisco de Ibarra took horses and cattle to the fertile river bottoms and grassy plains of the regions now called Durango and Sinaloa in Mexico, where the numbers of both horses and cattle increased dramatically. Ibarra dared to cross the Sierra Madre range, a trip so difficult that thirty-eight horses froze to death along the way. He founded a town that lasted for two years, but ultimately the settlers were run out by Indians and were forced to leave behind horses and cattle. When, two decades later, Hernán de le Trigo tried to reestablish the lost province, he was astonished to find more than 10,000 horses and cattle grazing on the plains. From that point on, the numbers exploded.

Despite the best efforts of white men to stop them from achieving the advantage of learning how to ride, the Indians rapidly became familiar with horses. They stole horses or caught them, traded for them with other tribes, and won them in battle. Some tribes, notably the Apache and the Kiowa, became some of the finest horsemen in the world. By 1687, when one of the first Spanish expeditions crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into what is now Texas, they encountered Indians mounted on horses. The Indians traded horses extensively with each other all the way from the Rio Grande to what is now western Canada, and also with the French and the English when they were able to do so. All Indian tribes that came to have horses were mounted by 1710.

By the 1620s, horses were also coming to this country from England and Sweden and then from Flanders by 1660. France was shipping horses to New France (Quebec) by 1665. Each of these countries sent horses of the types and breeds with which they were familiar, including draft horses, saddle horses, and, fairly early on, racehorses. The northern European people were inclined to bring bigger, heavier horses than those the Spanish brought.

Horse housing and fencing were rare in the early days, so there were plenty of loose horses. By the 1690s, their numbers increased so successfully that large, free-ranging bands of horses had become an agricultural problem in Virginia. By that time, huge herds were also ranging on the western plains, most originating from the vast herds in Mexico. By 1700, there were very large herds of horses both in the Southeast and in the West. Initially the ancestry of both groups was largely Spanish, but as time passed it became increasingly mixed.

Also at that time, horses were being exported in large numbers from Canada to New England for sale to the sugar plantations of the West Indies and for use in the “western territories” of Detroit and Illinois. Many loose horses in central Canada also made it into the wild horse populations of the Mississippi Valley and ultimately to the western herds. Quite soon there was a strong genetic influence from the Canadian breeds and types, the ancestry of which usually traced back to France.

In addition, large numbers of horses were taken everywhere as military transport. Some were sold, some traded and stolen, and some escaped or wandered off all along the way. Later on, horses provided much of the pulling power for the huge migration west, and those horses also wandered off or were stolen from time to time. The grasslands of the western plains were ideal for horses, so the equine population boomed.

As time passed, the Mustang herds became a blend of every type of horse that was ever brought to or bred in this country, Canada, or Mexico.


Many organizations register Mustangs, BLM horses, Spanish Mustangs, and Spanish Colonial Horses. The following information was compiled from several sources:

• In the 1800s, the estimated population of Mustangs ranged from 5 to 10 million.

• Around 1900, the estimated population was two million wild horses in the United States.

• By 1926 that number had been cut in half, and by 1935 there were estimated to be only 150,000.

As of February 2002:

• The estimated population of wild Mustangs was 34,496.

• 10,822 were removed for adoption.

• Of those removed, 5,987 were adopted.

• About 8,500 remain in long-term holding facilities.

In western Canada:

• There are an estimated 300 wild Mustangs.

• “Sport” shooting of these animals is allowed on private land.

Mustangs are as much a part of our heritage as the land. Some must always run free.

Mustangs in the West

In the 1850s, the westward migration was in full swing, as was the attempt to eradicate all native peoples and their horses. When the U.S. Army did not kill the Indian horses outright, in an attempt to slow down the better-mounted Indian tribes it turned out particularly coarse draft stallions to run with Indian pony mares, producing large, heavy-boned, coarse offspring. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the U.S. government bought 150 East Friesian stallions each year. These were heavy-boned coach horses, suitable to cross into cavalry herds to produce animals to pull heavy wagons or artillery. Everywhere the Army went, horses with a good bit of East Friesian blood also went. Many of these horses also eventually ran with the wild herds.


Some, but not nearly all, modern Mustangs show decided Spanish traits, notably the characteristic head, arched neck, comparatively narrow chest, short back, low tail set, fairly well-angled croup, pasterns of good length, and well-formed upright hooves of extreme hardness. Such Spanish-type Mustangs are considered by contemporary horse historians to form a separate subgroup of Mustangs. Genetic testing has confirmed their close kinship to the early Spanish horses. A couple of particularly interesting small pockets of horses, the Cerbat and the Kiger Mustang, have been discovered since the 1970s in Arizona and Oregon and have been proved by genetic testing to be virtually uncontaminated links to the original Spanish horses. See also the Pryor Mountain Mustang. A small herd of free-ranging Nokota horses on park service land also has Spanish traits. It is quite possible that the tiny, very isolated populations of wild Mustangs in western Canada will also prove to have strong, nearly direct links to Spanish ancestry.

As ranches became established in the West, ranchers increasingly saw wild horses as competitors with cattle, sheep, and domestic horses for available grazing. They particularly despised wild stallions because they ran off with or bred ranch mares. For these reasons, wild horses were routinely rounded up and sold for slaughter, run off cliffs, and shot. These brutal activities continued until the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1971 gave responsibility for the management of wild horses on public lands to the Bureau of Land Management. Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages nearly all of the free-ranging herds on public lands in the United States. Excess horses are periodically rounded up and made available for adoption.

Breed Characteristics

Mustangs are wiry and tough and generally have strong, very hard feet. They are known for their endurance, and many make excellent, athletic ranch horses. Some still are naturally smooth-gaited, displaying an ambling middle-to-fast gait.


Although horses showing decided draft characteristics can still be seen in Mustang herds, the type that predominated, shaped by the environment, was small, ranging from about 13 to 14.2 hands. A 15-hand Mustang is still considered to be quite large.


Mustangs come in an enormous variety of colors, reflecting the genetic contribution of many breeds.