Mustang is a free-roaming feral horse of the North American west. It first descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish. The name "Mustang" is also popular for high-performance products and sports mascots.
In 1971, the United States Congress recognized Mustangs as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.” Today, Mustang herds vary in the degree to which they can be traced to original Iberian horses. Some contain a greater genetic mixture of ranch stock and more recent breed releases, others are relatively unchanged from the original Iberian stock, most strongly represented in the most isolated populations.
Mustangs are often referred to as wild horses but, since all free-roaming horses in America descended from horses that were originally domesticated, the more correct term is feral horses. Today, the only true wild horse is the Przewalski's Horse, native to Mongolia.
The English word "mustang" comes from the Mexican Spanish word mestengo, derived from Spanish mesteño, meaning "stray" or "feral animal". The Spanish word in turn may possibly originate from the Latin expression animalia mixta (mixed beasts), referring to beasts of uncertain ownership, which were distributed in shepherd councils, known as mestas in medieval Spain. A mestengo was any animal distributed in those councils, and by extension any feral animal.
Prehistoric North-American Horses
Horses lived in North America in prehistoric times; dying out at the end of the last ice age around 10-12,000 years ago, possibly due to climate change or the impact of newly-arrived human hunters. They were re-introduced by the Conquistadors, beginning with horses brought from Spain to the West Indies by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, and to the mainland by Cortez in 1519.
Origin of Mustangs
The first Mustangs descended from Iberian horses brought to Mexico and Florida. Most of these horses were of Andalusian, Arabian and Barb ancestry. Some of these horses escaped or were stolen by Native Americans, and rapidly spread throughout western North America.
Native Americans quickly adopted the horse as a primary means of transportation. Interestingly, in light of the horse's prehistoric existence in the Americas, many Indian myths and stories about the arrival of horses claimed that "the grass remembered" them. Horses replaced the dog as a travois puller and greatly improved success in battles, trade, and hunts, particularly buffalo hunts. Many tribes bred their horses carefully to improve them for their purposes. Among the most capable horse-breeding people of North America were the Comanche, the Shoshoni, and the Nez Perce. The latter in particular became master horse breeders, and developed one of the first truly American breeds: the Appaloosa. Most other tribes did not practice extensive amounts of selective breeding, though they sought out desirable horses through capture, trade and theft; plus quickly traded away or otherwise eliminated those with undesirable traits.
Mustangs in the 19th century
Starting in the colonial era and continuing with the westward expansion of the 1800s, horses belonging to explorers, traders and settlers that escaped or were purposely released joined the gene pool of Spanish-descended herds. It was also common practice for western ranchers to release their horses to locate forage for themselves in the winter and then recapture them, as well as any additional mustangs, in the spring. Some ranchers also attempted to "improve" wild herds by shooting the dominant stallions and replacing them with pedigreed animals.
In some modern mustang herds there is still clear influence of other domesticated horses being added to feral herds. Some herds show clear influence of Thoroughbred or other light racehorse-type stallions being turned into the wild herds, a process that also led in part to the creation of the American Quarter Horse. Others show the addition of heavy draft horse breeding, where farm horses were turned into wild herds in the wake of the Dawes Act, in a misguided attempt to create workhorses and force Indian people to become farmers. Other, more isolated herds, retain a strong influence of original Spanish stock.
By 1900 North America had an estimated two million free-roaming horses. Since 1900, the mustang population has been reduced drastically. Mustangs were viewed as a resource that could be captured and used or sold (especially for military use) or slaughtered for food, especially pet food. The controversial practice of mustanging was dramatized in the John Huston film The Misfits, and abuses, including hunting from airplanes and poisoning, led to the first federal wild free-roaming horse protection law in 1959. Protection was increased further by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
The Bureau of Land Management is tasked with protecting, managing, and controlling wild horses and burros under the authority of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to ensure that healthy herds thrive on healthy rangelands and as multiple-use mission under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
Today, free-roaming horses have disappeared from 6 states and, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), their remaining population is fewer than 25,000, with more than half of them in Nevada, with other significant populations in Montana, and Oregon. A few hundred free-roaming horses survive in Alberta and British Columbia.
Free-roaming horses have benefited dramatically from the romance surrounding the horse in the American West. However, there are multiple viewpoints on the issue. Supporters of the preservation of wild horses point out that feral or wild herds of horses pre-date modern ranching practices and are part of the ecology and history of the Western United States. Essentially, the argument goes, Mustangs have at least as much right to be on public lands as do cattle, another "non-native" species.
On the other side are cattle ranchers and others who depend on the cattle industry, who argue essentially that feral horses are a non-native species that degrades rangeland and competes with private livestock for public land forage.
Some breeders of domestic horses[attribution needed] consider the Mustang herds of the west to be inbred and of inferior quality. However, supporters of the Mustang argue that the animals are merely small due to their harsh living conditions and that natural selection has eliminated many traits that lead to weakness or inferiority. Some mustang supporters[attribution needed] also maintain that some "inbreeding" actually concentrates the traits of hardiness and durability, making the mustang a valuable genetic resource.
Regardless of these debates, the Mustang of the modern west has several different breeding populations today which are genetically isolated from one another and thus have distinct traits traceable to particular herds.
Land use controversies
There is also debate as to what degree Mustangs and cattle compete for forage. Most current Mustang herds live in arid areas which cattle cannot fully utilize due to the lack of water sources. Horses are better adapted by evolutionary biology to such climates; they may range nine times as far from water sources as cattle, traveling as much as 50 miles a day. This allows them to utilize areas not grazed by cattle. In addition, horses are "hindgut fermenters," meaning that they digest nutrients by means of the cecum rather than by a multi-chambered stomach. In practical effect, although horses may eat more pounds of forage per day than cattle, horses can obtain adequate nutrition from poorer forage than can cattle, surviving in areas where cattle will starve.
Related to the debate is the question of whether Mustangs have a natural role in the ecosystem of the American west. Because horses lived in North America in prehistoric times, some scientists argue that the mustang could also be considered a reintroduced wildlife species. Yet, they were extinct in North America for around 10,000 years until their reintroduction from Europe. Therefore, there is debate over the question of whether feral horses such as Mustangs are an introduced species, or a reintroduced wild species.
The Bureau of Land Management controls the mustang population through a capture program, intended to control competition with cattle. Most horses that are captured are offered for "adoption" to individuals willing to pay a small fee to cover paperwork and a few basic costs. In order to prevent the later sale of mustangs as horse meat, adopted mustangs are still protected under the Act, and cannot be sold in the first year except when certain very specific criteria are met. However, there usually is a much larger pool of captured horses than of prospective adoptive owners, which in part gave rise to the controversial "Burns rider," noted below
One of the BLM’s key responsibilities under the 1971 law is to determine the “appropriate management level” (AML) of wild horses and burros in areas of public rangelands dedicated specifically for them... Healthy adult Mustangs have few natural predators aside from mountain lions, and their herd sizes can multiply rapidly.
To help restore the balance, (or, some argue, to make room for cattle), the BLM gathers some Mustangs and burros, then offers them for adoption or sale to individuals and groups willing and able to provide humane, long-term care. The adoption fees vary from $25 to $125. Shooting or poisoning Mustangs in the wild is illegal, and doing so can be prosecuted as a criminal felony under the Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Protection Act. This does not prevent theft, nor does it stop captured horses that are "adopted" from eventually being slaughtered. However, slaughter of old or infirm animals is a common fate even for domesticated horses.
In January 2005, a controversial amendment known as the "Burns rider" was attached to an appropriations bill, Congress and modified this program to allow the sale (with the result usually being slaughter) of captured horses that are "more than 10 years of age" or have been "offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least 3 times." Due to the controversy provoked by this rider, there is also a considerable political movement to have it repealed and the original language restored.