Mustangs of the American West

Posted on History

By Walter Mow

The blood line of the American Mustang has its roots in Spain during the middle Ages; a mixture of Andalusian and Barb plus the estray animals of settlers and adventurers.

NOTE: estray; a legal term for lost or strayed domestic livestock.

The Andalusian is the original Spanish War Horse, a native of the Iberian Peninsula. The Barb or Berber Horse entered Spain with the Moors in the 8th century. These two breeds and the cross breed mixture were introduced to the New World in 1519 by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. Cortes had enough horses by 1525 to begin a regular breeding program and the Spanish Colonial Horse, the ancestors of the American Mustang was established in the Americas; the saga of the Mustang had begun.

Juan de Onate brought the first horse herd to present day Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1598. By 1620 Onate’s breeding program had produced some 800 horses. The basis for the American Mustang was now in what would become the United States.

A Spanish law prohibited the indigenous population to ride, or own horses, but the Spaniards often enslaved and used the Indians as tenders and handlers for the horses. The Indians often retaliated by stealing horses when they escaped the harsh hand of Spanish rule.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 drove the Spaniards out of northern New Mexico, forcing them to abandon several thousand horses. The Pueblo tribes quickly began to trade the abandoned horses with horse-less tribes. Less than a hundred years later, the Spanish Colonial Horse was wide spread from Mexico to Canada and from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains extending into the Pacific Northwest resulting in major tribal boundary changes as many of the American Indian tribes went through a cultural revolution with the arrival of the horse.

The American Mustang reached its maximum population of approximately 2 million about 1840, about the time the greatest expansion of American settlement west of the Mississippi began. The US Army began to utilize the mustang as a cavalry mount, pack horse and draft animal during the 1850s. Civilian use of the mustang expanded as ranching became a major industry in the newly opened west. This profligate use would leave only remote pockets of the Mustang strain by the end of the First World War.
The few strains of the original Mustang that remained were in remote areas and some Indian reservations. The largest pool being with the Nez Perce tribe, the original breed kept the characteristics of the Spanish Andalusian. Introducing other bloodlines and selective breeding, the modern Palouse Horse, more commonly known as the Appaloosa came to be.

Completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad would open Nevada to settlement and ranching. The few pockets of Mustangs that ranged the Great Basin would be augmented by estray animals from the scattered ranches, farms and small towns. Shortly after the First World War it was recognized that the Spanish Colonial Horse was disappearing; in 1934 J. Frank Dobie said the 50,000 to 150,000 feral horses on public land had little of the Spanish bloodline left.

The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 created the United States Grazing Service to manage grazing rights on public lands managed by the General Land Office and the US Forest Service. In 1946 The General Land Office and the United States Grazing Service was combined to create the Bureau of Land Management. The Forest Service and the BLM were determined to remove all feral horses and burros from lands under their jurisdiction.

NOTE: It is at this point that I no longer function as an historian, as the government became more involved in the Mustang Controversy, my ability to be objective becomes suspect. I find I have become an advocate of the Mustang due to the actions of the BLM, USFS and other land grabbing federal agencies.

I make no apologies for my affection for horses; that excludes a particular ornery Roan that I always considered a candidate for the glue factory. A more disagreeable animal I was never subjected to. His disposition was such that he did not like anybody (humans in particular) and was going to make absolute certain no one liked him either.

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, the ranching and mining interests demanded and received more acreage to the detriment of the Mustang. They have been squeezed into smaller and smaller allotments of acreage, more often than not onto land that could not support domestic cattle. The latter half of the 20th Century began to see corrective actions undertaken.

Advocates for the Mustang began to push legislation that stopped the poisoning and fencing of water holes and shooting horses as population control. Estray horses (Mustangs) that drifted onto grazing leases were often shot by the ranchers, public awareness finally brought about more humane treatment but many horses were slaughtered for dog food after capture.

The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 brought closure to many of the distasteful acts of kill and or capture. The BLM and USFS began a Horse Adoption Plan that was quite successful in its initial stages. It became a scam that allowed adopters to adopt large numbers of horses, unfortunately many of these horses ended up in the slaughter house.

This is conjecture on my part but the Adopt a Horse or Burro drive has either reached saturation (unlikely) or the costs and regulations that accompany adoption have become so onerous that adoption rates have dropped off sharply. The nation’s economic malaise under the last administration may have had some bearing on adoption rates.

All BLM and USFS lands are multi-purpose use; fishing, hunting, camping and yes, grazing domestic livestock even in the so-called “reserves for the Mustang” that have been created force the horses to compete for the scarce resources the land provides with domestic cattle and the native wildlife as well. This in my view is a large part of the problem, to force the Mustang to share land with domestic livestock that was declared a refuge for the horse shows an overall lack of concern for the horse. The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southern Oregon by contrast, hosts NO domestic livestock.

The BLM operates 3 Wild Horse Reserves; Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range in Montana, The Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range in Colorado and the Nevada Wild Horse Range and 1 dedicated to the burro, the Marietta Wild Burro Range also located in Nevada. In addition the BLM operates 270 HMAs (Herd Management Areas) across 10 western states and the USFS operates 6 Wild Horse Territories across 6 western states.
A simple comparison of the horse and domestic cattle clearly shows that horses are far better at utilizing the sparse graze. Cattle will travel 6-8 miles per day in the search for graze and water; the horse may travel 30 in a day. Cattle need to drink daily, where as the horse can get by drinking every other day.

Over grazing is a problem, so is allowing too many grazing permits. Pressure by the Cattle Industry continues to lobby for additional permits when the land is not capable of supporting the native wildlife that originated here, the wild horses that have been on the land since the early 18th Century and the latest arrival, the rancher and his domestic animals. The native wildlife and the Mustang co-existed on the land, surviving the years of drought that plagues many of the western states. Problems arose when the rancher demanded more graze.

The American cattle rancher is not about to disappear into the pages of history. Proper management of the range, curtailing some grazing permits and water rights to ranchers and miners along with modern management tools to control the wild horse population is doable. It just takes the commitment and hard work.

Among the management tools available; geld more of the stallions and colts and inoculate mares with infertility drugs to reduce the number of live births in the herd. Reduce the number of domestic animals allowed per grazing permit. Allocate permits according to the measurable precipitation for that particular area and set aside additional acreage restricted to the horse.

Of course gelding horses and inoculating mares is plain old hard cowboy work. Not another desk job in the city, but hot, dirty work. Honest work but vital if we are to retain this iconic symbol of the American West… The Mustang