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Fascinating Facts About the Magnificent Mustang Horse

buckskin mustang foal
Written by Nicky H

Wild Horses in the Wild West

With its mane flying and its hooves thundering across the plains, the wild Mustang symbolizes the power and unbridled freedom of the Wild West. Thought to be descendants of horses brought over by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, mustangs have been roaming the North American continent for hundreds of years.

“This land shall be ruled by the
By the spirit and unbreakable heart
Of wild Mustang.”
-Author Unknown

Over 70,000 wild Mustangs roam wild in the United States. Even more have been adopted and gentled. With their powerful legs and superior stamina, mustangs excel at endurance events, while their athleticism and movement make them naturals in the dressage arena.

band of wild horses drinking from river

Source: Canva

Mustang Horse 101

Mustangs get their name from the Spanish word mesteño or monstenco, meaning wild or stray. They are descendants of the Spanish Barb, a small, hardy horse.

The Mustang also inherited traits from various other breeds, including the Arabian, Andalusian, and the old-style East Friesian.

Mustangs come in almost any color and a range of body types, with the majority having the build of a light riding horse or even warmblood features. They exhibit some Spanish breed characteristics, such as a sturdy build and impressive stamina, but their speed probably comes from the Arabian.

To qualify as a Mustang, a horse must have a well-proportioned body and a refined head similar to the Arabian. It’s the Mustang’s physicality, however, that sets it apart from other breeds.

They evolved in a tough climate where intelligence, speed, agility, and stamina were essential for their survival.

gray mustang stallion by watering hole

Source: Canva

A Brief History of the Mustang

In 1519, the Spanish landed in Vera Cruz, bringing with them 16 horses—the first horses to set foot on American soil in over 10,000 years. The Spanish used the horses in war, giving them a psychological advantage over their enemies. They also used them to pull plows and vehicles.

For many years, it was believed that these horses were the ancestors of the Mustang, but recent research suggests that “horses of European descent had been integrated into indigenous cultures across western North America long before the arrival of Europeans.”

Wherever they came from, these horses quickly transformed the lives of the Native Americans, providing them with a new form of transport and revolutionizing their hunting techniques. Horses quickly established themselves as an integral part of the Native American culture.

Mustang horses were bred and traded for hundreds of years, spreading across the entire continent. When cattle ranching became a popular and viable source of income, the demand for land led to many horses being abandoned, turning to the wilderness for their survival.

By 1787, there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of wild horses roaming the plains.

In the early 1900s, thousands of these horses were rounded up for use in the Spanish-American War and the First World War, and the traits of the original Spanish Mustang began to disappear.

In 1920, the Spanish Mustang Registry was formed to protect the breed, and various other measures were introduced to control their population and breeding.

By the 1950s, their numbers had diminished drastically, with only 25,000 wild horses remaining.

In the 1970s, when the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was introduced that they gained any formal protection.

band of wild horses

Source: Canva

Today (2023), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates there are around 82,883 wild horses and burros in the US. Each year, approximately 7,000 previously wild horses and burros are adopted through the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Breeds Influencing the Mustang Horse

The Mustang is heavily influenced by its ancestor, the Spanish Barb, which gives the breed its solid build, stamina, and strong hooves. The Mustang also inherited the Spanish Barb’s natural athleticism, intelligence, and sound work ethic.

From the Arabian, the Mustang inherited speed, stamina, and strength. It also shares the Arabian’s small muzzle and wide-set eyes.

Arabian horse

Source: Canva

The Andalusian is a strong, compact horse known for its sensitivity and intelligence. They give the Mustang its gentleness and obedience, as well as sharing some of its physical traits, like a low-set tail and flowing mane.

The old-style Friesian influenced only a small sector of the wild Mustang population, lending it a stockier build reminiscent of modern draft horses.

Mustang Characteristics

Mustang horses have well-proportioned bodies, stocky legs, hard hooves, and a low-set tail. They generally have a muscular build similar to that of other light-riding breeds, a short back, and a narrow chest.

They are sometimes described as resembling a small Warmblood-type horse.

Mustangs come in almost every color imaginable, from solid colors like bay and black to spotted patterns reminiscent of the Appaloosa. Their wide-set eyes are usually brown, but may also be blue or even green.

sorrel mustang horse

Source: Canva

Mustang Sizes

Mustangs are small horses, typically standing between 14 and 15hh and weighing around 800 pounds.

Mustang Personality

Despite having their wild side, mustangs are generally inquisitive, friendly horses that display a willingness to work and an adventurous spirit.

Unlike other domesticated breeds, they rely heavily on their survival instincts and are naturally observant and keenly alert.

Although smart, the Mustang can also be headstrong and even a little stubborn at times. Their herd mentality can make them protective, especially around their owners, who they perceive as being the leaders of the herd.

Highly intelligent, mustangs learn quickly but are easily bored by repetition, which can make them aggressive and unresponsive. If you want a Mustang to work with you rather than against you, you need to put in the time to build a proper bond, after which he’ll be putty in your hands.

Events Mustangs Excel At

The combination of intelligence and stamina makes the Mustang an excellent working horse, and they are often used for ranch work. They also excel as trail horses and on the endurance circuit and have proved their abilities at high-status events, like the Tevis Cup 100 Mile One Day Western States Trail Ride.

Mustangs also excel in the dressage arena, competing in both traditional and Western dressage classes. They’ve also proved competitive in other disciplines, including eventing and showjumping.

Paint mustang horse

Source: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is special about Mustang horses?

Mustangs have retained more of their natural survival instincts than other domesticated breeds and have maintained their natural hardiness, agility, and strength. As a result, they are easy keepers that flourish on pasture and require little additional nutrition.

Although the Mustang’s strong, independent mindset can make it challenging to train, once you establish a bond, you’ll have a strong and loyal companion for life.

Q: What is the personality of a Mustang horse?

The Mustang is a naturally curious, approachable animal that exhibits natural intelligence. They can be stubborn at times but respond well to the correct handling and training. Mustangs learn quickly but need plenty of mental stimulation to keep them occupied.

Q: How fast are Mustang horses?

Mustang horses are fast, but they can’t compete with the fastest horses in the world. With a top speed of 54 mph, or 88 kph, the Mustang can easily outrun a draft horse but can’t quite keep up with a Quarter horse or Thoroughbred.

Q: What are Mustang horses known for?

Mustangs are known for their stamina, strong hooves, intelligence, and athleticism.

Q: What are some famous Mustang horses?

Picasso is one of the most famous wild horses in the world. First noticed in 2008 by a BLM employee, he was given the name Picasso because his markings made him look like a Picasso painting. Picasso lives in a 157,000-acre section of federal land in Sand Wash Basin, Northwest Colorado, where he continues to flourish at the great age of 32 years old!

Cobra is another famous Mustang who made a name for himself on the international dressage scene. In 2015, Cobra was at the peak of his career, winning a World Championship title in Level 1 Freestyle Western Dressage and being named USEF Horse of the Year in Western Dressage.

You can’t talk about famous Mustangs without mentioning the legendary Hidalgo. This fleet-footed Mustang theoretically belonged to the long-distance rider Frank T. Hopkins, who, according to legend and Hollywood, competed on him in an endurance race across the Arabian desert. (There’s much debate about whether Frank or Hidalgo ever existed.)

Parting Thoughts

Mustang horses are resilient, intelligent, and hard-working. They have incredible stamina and evolved to survive harsh conditions without the support of humans. Although friendly and inquisitive, they have a stubborn streak that makes them unsuitable for first-time owners, but when properly trained, excel at a range of disciplines, especially endurance events, trail riding, and dressage.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


Early dispersal of  domestic horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies

BLM Wild Horse Population Statistics

American Wild Horse Campaign

The Truth About Hidalgo

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