Mustangs are the wild horses of the Western United States. The nomadic equines descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish colonizers in the early 16th century. Indeed, the word “mustang” comes from the Spanish word “ustengo” which means “ownerless horse”, or “stray horse.” Technically speaking however, this is a misnomer for as the breed descended from once-domesticated animals, they’re actually feral horses.

Where did the Mustang horse come from?

When the Spanish conquistadores landed in what is now Mexico in the early 1500s, they brought with them horses of Iberian and Arabian descent. Over the next three hundred years some of these animals escaped or were released and became the foundation stock of the feral Mustang breed. Modern mustang horses still retain the characteristics of the early Spanish bloodlines and overtime these were infused with Thoroughbred, Tennessee Walker, Quarter Horse and draft horse elements.

mutangs in the land of the Sioux

Wild Mustangs are found inhabiting the grasslands of the western United States, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada. These wild horses are found living in herds led by a stallion and dominant mare.  Interestingly, the pack is led by the female horse, or mare, and a stallion she chooses that’s over six years of age. In dangerous situations, the head mare will lead the others to safety and the stallion will stay and fight. In the wild, Mustangs can live up to 40 years. Hurt or disabled horses are protected by the herd and can live remarkably long lives when compared with other animal species that live in the wild.

Indigenous Mustangs in western North America were estimated to number just under two million animals before human activity reduced their numbers. The land was cleared for cattle, sheep, and domestic horses and cattle ranchers rounded them up by the thousands. Some were broken and sold but many ended up in slaughterhouses. The U.S. Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act which regulates their roundup wasn’t passed until 1971. Today, alternative methods of population control regulate their numbers. In March 1, 2018, the US Bureau of Land Management estimated the country’s wild Mustang population to be about 67,000.

What is a mustang horse?

Mustangs live in herds led by a stallion and a dominant mare. (Bob Langrish photo)

A wild horse, the mustang breed is the classic free-roaming horse of the Western United States. They’re descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish.  In that sense the breed developed overseas before it arrived in North America. The animals were first improved by breeders in the Iberian Peninsula during the reconquest. They were brought to the Americas for the improvement of New Spain (Mexico). These horses are mid-size and weigh between 320 and 360 kilograms, and they are very muscular and athletic; they can easily travel twenty miles per day over wild terrain.

Modern mustangs still retain many of the same characteristics as the early Spanish horses but their time in the wild saw their bloodlines become infused with Thoroughbred, Tennessee Walker, Quarter Horse, and draft horse elements. One unique and valuable trait is their feet: mustang hooves are uniquely hard and durable in comparison to other equines and especially domestic horses. They’re able to travel in various environments without experiencing nearly as much injury or wear.

What are mustang horses used for?

Historically, American settlers liked these horses because they have good stamina and speed. Plus, their stockier legs make them less prone to injury and better suited for long journeys.  Today, Mustangs compete successfully in reining, barrel racing, endurance riding, and even dressage competition.  Mustangs are ideal mounts for scouting and trail riding because of their muscular bodies and hard hooves.

In the Wild West, cowboys would catch, tame and sell mustangs. These cowboys were called “mustang runners.” Today, the Mustang Heritage Foundation holds an annual Extreme Mustang Makeover where trainers must select, tame, and ride previously untouched Mustangs or wild horses within one hundred days.

What do mustang horses eat?

wild horses in red rock canyonWild mustangs eat grass, brush, tree leaves, berries and whatever else that’s green they can find in nature. Adult horses can stay healthy on small amounts of food for prolonged periods of time. When any type of fodder, either grass or leafy bushes is available, adult mustangs will eat between two or three kilograms of forage per day.

Despite the food shortages that may come from living free, wild horses are generally found to be healthier than some domesticated horses because of their mixed diets. A horse in nature has more variety and greater choice of grass, flowers, berries, leaves, seeds, and even fruits which provide more of the nutrients their bodies require. Domesticated mustangs, by contrast, typically eat only hay which no longer contains many of the vitamins found in their previous wild meals. This is why supplements and alfalfa is good for their diets.

Are Mustangs bigger than domestic horses?

Averaging approximately 14 to 15 hands in height (140-150 cms / 56- 60 inches), the Mustangs’ size is comparable to other mid-sized horse breeds.

Mustangs come in a wide variety of colours. Usually they are bay, which is a reddish brown, or sorrel, which is a chestnut colour. They can also have a variety of patches, spots, and stripes.

Are Mustangs fast horses?

mustang in the wild

Mustangs are not especially fast. Quarter horses and thoroughbreds are considered the fastest horses in the world and dominate the horse racing industry, while Arabian horses are known to excel in endurance riding and long distance racing.  The average Mustang gallops between 40 to 48 kilometers per hour (25 to 30 mph). The world record for a mustang horse galloping over a short, sprint distance is 88 kilometers per hour (55 mph). In a normal gallop, the average horse can maintain a speed of 25-30 mph for some time.

Some mustangs have the natural gait which old timers called an “Indian Shuffle.” It’s a strange term (and politically incorrect,) that refers to a smooth, ground-covering gait where two legs on the same side of the horse move forward before the opposite two legs move forward. In the pure Indian Shuffle, each foot hits the ground a fraction ahead of the other, this results in 4 beats or hoof falls for each full movement of all four legs. It is very similar to the stepping pace or broken pace, the primary difference being the shuffle has less knee action and lower hoof elevation. The horse moves with a rolling motion of the shoulders and hips, the motion of the horse is absorbed in its back and loins giving the rider a smooth, gliding ride. Also, because the movement is broken into four separate beats or hoof falls, it lacks the side-to-side motion of the true pace.

Are Mustangs friendly horses?

Smokey the Ojibwa mustang

Spanish Mustang stallion Smokey. (

Wild mustangs are stereotypical bad boys. Mustangs taken straight from the wild that have never been handled, gentled or “broken” will take a lot of time to build trust. These horses are not for the faint of heart and they are definitely not suitable for new riders. They will continue to be unsafe until they’ve been through a training program and or been fully domesticated by a professional.  Passive horses are typically easier to train and tend to bond more quickly with humans, making them ideal for first-time adopters.  Being prey animals, they depend on the companionship of other horses to protect them against threats, real and imagined.

How can you identify a Mustang horse?

Mustangs have long, sloping shoulders and muscular loins, a round croup and a low tail-set. They are smooth muscled with short backs, and rounded rumps. The horses are well balanced with an upwards build. The girth is deep, and they have laid back shoulders and pronounced withers. They possess a straight or concave facial profile and wide foreheads. Necks are well crested in mares and geldings and heavily crested in mature stallions. Chests are moderately narrow but well-defined.

For fun facts about Mustangs and Wild Horses, click here.

For more information, visit:
Mustang Heritage Foundation