I’ve been considering posting more than a couple of times a week. The inspirational wild horse advocates I follow on Twitter got me thinking that I’d like to post more horse-related stuff. And that’s what Thursday posts are going to be about.
In my previous ‘horse’ posts, I’ve covered the more popular breeds and realised I’d yet to post about the mustang. How lax of me!
The word ‘mustang’ comes from Mexican Spanish ‘mestengo’, meaning ‘animal that strays’ and Spanish ‘mestengo’, meaning ‘wild, stray, ownerless’.
The modern horse – genus ‘Equus’, which includes all extant equines – evolved over 3 million years ago, with the oldest fossil to date, found in Idaho, being about 3.5 million years old. About 10,000 years ago, possibly due to the changing climate, disease or the arrival of human hunters, Equus disappeared from the Americas, along with other megafauna (large mammals) including mammoths and mastodons, short-faced bears, dire-wolves and the American cheetah.
It was the conquistadors – the soldiers and explorers of the Spanish and Portuguese empires – who were responsible for the return of the horse to the Americas, starting with Christopher Columbus.
An Italian explorer, Columbus’ voyages across the Atlantic Ocean were done under the patronage of the Spanish monarchs. This explains why he imported Iberian horses from Spain to the West Indies, and subsequently to South America and Mexico.
It was the expedition of the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, who brought about the fall of the Aztec Empire. With him came the first, domesticated horses to return to the main continent of what is now the United States of America.
Beginning in 1540, and for over 100 years, the Pueblo people of present-day New Mexico suffered hostile treatment at the hands of the Spanish, culminating in their enslavement. Used as servants, some were given the job of looking after horses. Although Spanish law prohibited Native Americans from riding horses, those whose job it was to look after the horses were able to learn horse-handling skills. Because the Spanish didn’t tend to keep their horses in fenced enclosures, a number of their horses wandered off and were eventually captured by the Native people. To begin with, the horses were usually eaten as the Natives didn’t appreciate how useful they could be. It was only when they were taught how to ride by those who had learnt and who had fled Spanish control that the tribes began riding horses and using them as pack animals.
The constant abuse of the Pueblo people finally drove them to rise up against the Spanish colonisers in 1680 in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México. 400 Spanish were killed in the Pueblo Revolt and the remaining 2000 settlers were driven out. A consequence of this was that large numbers of horses were left behind. Instead of being rounded up, the horses were left to run wild.
The Pueblo people eventually began to trade horses to the Apache, Navajo and Utes. The Southern Utes and the Eastern Shoshone, who acquired horses from the Comanche, became horse traders. Thanks to them, horses and horse culture spread from New Mexico to the northern plains.
By 1690, horses had reached what is now southern Idaho, and by 1700 the Northern Shoshone people of the Snake River plain of southern Idaho had acquired horses. By 1730, horses had reached the Columbia Basin (Pacific NW), and by 1750 the Blackfeet people of Alberta (western province of Canada) had horses. By 1769, most Plains Indians had horses.
The Nez Perce people who lived on the Columbia River plateau in the Pacific Northwest became master horse breeders and were responsible for the development of the Appaloosa, one of the first distinctly American breeds.
The ownerless Spanish-bred horses that had been left to run wild in the Rio Grande soon met up with the European breeds of farmers and ranchers arriving from the East. Domestic horses continued to escape from their owners and joined together to form herds that roamed throughout the west. By 1787, their numbers had grown; a roundup gathered nearly 8000 ‘free-roaming mustangs and cattle’ (J. Edward De Steiguer – ‘Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America’s Mustangs’)
Although height can vary, mustangs are small, usually 14 to 15 hands. Their small size is likely due to their harsh living conditions, with all available food being utilised to produce body heat, not additional growth.
Again, because of their environment, mustangs possess stronger legs and higher bone density than domestic horses. To endure the demands of running wild and traversing all kinds of natural terrain, they tend to be medium or heavy boned with hard feet.
Wild horses form herds, staying together for protection. Each herd has a stallion and a lead or dominant mare. The stallion mainly engages in herding and protecting the herd from attack by another stallion or predator. He stands guard, alert and positioned slightly away from the herd, ready to challenge any intruder.
The one who usually leads the herd is the dominant mare. She’s the one who controls the daily routine, leads them to grazing and to the water hole, and guides the herd to sheltered places in bad weather.
As mustangs are descended from domestic horses who escaped, were abandoned or released into the wild, they’re usually referred to as feral horses, not wild. A wild animal is one that has no domesticated ancestors.
Mustangs may well be feral, but that doesn’t diminish their importance in terms of America’s culture and history. They are synonymous with the Wild West, as much as the Native American, as much as the cowboy. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure the America that would have been shaped without the mustang would be very different to the America that exists today.
Next week, I’ll write about the fate of the mustang in the 20th century.