Wild horses can be found in the US States of Oregon, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Idaho and in Canada in Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC and on Sable Island off Nova Scotia (for more info about Canada’s free-roaming equine populations, see “Where The Wild Things Are“)
The mustangs of the western United States are descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish. Often referred to as ‘wild’ horses, they are actually feral, having been descended from once-domesticated horses. The Tarpan and the Przewalski are the only two breeds of truly wild horses to ever be discovered.
About 100 years ago, about 2 million mustangs roamed the North American plains and foothills. The BLM estimates that as of March 1, 2019, more than 88,000 wild horses and burros are currently on BLM-managed public land. Wild horses in the four regions of Canada total about 2,500.
Mustangs got their name from the Spanish word mustengo, which means “ownerless beast” or “stray horse.”
Wild horses come in a variety of colours, such as grey, black, bay, pinto, chestnut and sorrel; however, about half of all wild horses are variations of roan.
Mustangs exist on a diet of primarily grass, but will feed on leaves, twigs and even tree bark when that is the only food source available. Adults eat about 5-6 pounds of plant material each day.
The dominant stallion in a herd does not lead the group, but instead stays at the back to warn of predators approaching. A dominant mare usually does the leading.
When defending the herd and its territory, a stallion will snort fiercely while pawing the ground and raising a cloud of dust.
Mustangs can travel over thirty kilometres a day, even over difficult terrain, thanks to their tough legs and extraordinarily hard hooves.
Most mustang bands consist of just a handful of animals to a dozen or more, with a single adult male with a ‘harem’ of mares and their young. When colts comes of age around two they must either challenge the dominant stallion or leave the herd.
Without human intervention, the population of wild horses can double in size every four years. Culling and contraceptive treatments have been used to help slow the population increase.
In the wild, healthy mustangs can live up to 40 years. Hurt or disabled horses are protected by the herd and can still live remarkably long lives.
To encourage more adopters to give a wild horse or burro a good home and help keep the population down, the BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program provides qualified adopters up to $1,000 to adopt an untrained animal.