by Jessi Hartline
The American mustang has a long and unusual history. Its origin spans hundreds of years and at least three continents. In tracing back the mustangs’ heritage, one will see that it is as diverse as the heritage of America itself. The word ‘mustang’ comes from the Spanish word ‘mesteno’ meaning lost, stray, or ownerless horse.
The mustang’s history begins as far back as the 8th century, when the Moors invaded Spain, bringing with them their agile desert horses. These Berber or ‘Barb’ horses were crossed with the Andalusian and Jennet to produce very fine Spanish stock horses. By 1492 Spain had retaken the country and begun exploration to the New World. The king of Spain ordered in 1493 that all ships sailing under the Spanish flag carry horses. So, horses came to Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage.
Spanish Barb mixes reached the mainland of the Americas in the early 1500’s through several explorers. In 1519 Cortez brought 16 horses to the mainland on his march to Mexico City. The natives there had not seen horses and thought horse and rider were one animal. Twenty years later, De Soto’s exploration from Florida to Mississippi started with over 200 horses. Coronado brought over 500 horses in 1540 when he began exploring Mexico and what is now the southwest United States. As horses escaped, were lost in battle, stolen, or traded, wild herds began to form.
Prior to 1620, there is no mention of Indians riding horses, but there were Navajo stealing horses. By 1640 Native Americans were acquiring horses. This eventually changed their way of life dramatically and by the early 1700’s most all tribes had horses. The horse was now a permanent fixture in what would become the southwest United States. The Comanche Indians became the leaders of the Plains Indians Horse Culture.
Wild horse populations continued to grow rapidly over the centuries. English stock including riding horses and drafts from the East also made their way into the wild herds. The horses did not pose a problem until people started settling out west with their cattle and other grazing animals. The land could not support both the mustangs and the settlers’ stock. The policy on some ranches was to simply shoot the wild horses. Others would shoot the horses for no other reason than sport. From 1900 to 1926 the population of approximately 2 million horses was cut in half, prompting efforts to preserve these animals.
In 1971 the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed to protect these important pieces of America’s history. Now the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) takes action to manage and preserve the wild herds. Research has and continues to be done to find humane and cost effective methods for managing herd sizes as opposed to slaughter. Thanks to the adoption program many thousand wild horses have been removed from the range and placed into good homes.
The ancestors of the mustangs were some of Spain and England’s finest as well as some of Uncle Bob’s plow horse. This hardy and intelligent breed well represents the country that is its home; all different backgrounds, from different places coming together to make a new breed and a new home. The mustang truly is an American original.
“The Origin of the Spanish Barb Horse.” SPANISH BARB BREEDERS ASSOCIATION. www.spanishbarb.com/the_spanish_barb/.
“History 1492-1620 The Spanish Colonial Period,” “History 1620-1800 The Indian Horse Period,” “History 1800-1890 The Indian Horse Period,” “History 1890-Present.” AMERICAN INDIAN HORSE. 8-18-2007. Red Oak Tree, Copyright 1999-2006. www.redoaktree.org/indianhorse/index.htm.
“National Wild Horse & Burro Program: Adoption Information.” US DEPT OF THE INTERIOR BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT. www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html.