Western Mustangs: Wild Americans or Feral Spaniards?


The wild mustang is an icon of the American West. It is difficult to picture the landscape of the West without herds of mustangs galloping across grassy plains. Currently, the Bureau of Land Management allows mustangs to roam 34 million acres of public land [3]. The untamed freedom of the mustang captures the spirit of the old Wild West. In her book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, Deanne Stillman says, “With all due respect to our official icon, the eagle, he of the broad wing-span and the ability to see across great distances, of patience born of the ages and majestic flight, it is really the wild horse, the four-legged with the flying mane and tail, the beautiful, big-hearted steed who loves freedom so much that when captured he dies of a broken heart, the ever-defiant mustang that is our true representative, coursing through our blood as it carries the eternal message of America.” [1]

But are these majestic creatures a true symbol of America, are they even American? Did wild horses always roam the American West? Or is the untamed western mustang simply a myth?

Some people believe that wild horses always roamed America. However, this is not the case. Horses belong to the genus Equus, which originated about 4 million years ago in North America [3]. These horses spread to Eurasia about 2 to 3 million years ago [3]. But the horses in America died out roughly 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age [2]. There is a lot of compelling evidence that supports this. There is no fossil record of horses in North America dated later than 10,000 years ago [2]. There are also no recorded sightings of horses by Europeans when they first entered the New World [4]. In addition, none of the Native Americans that the explorers came into contact with had a word for “horse,” and the stories of these Native Americans did not mention any horse-like animals [4]. This means that the mustangs of the American West are not really American horses. The horses living in the American West today are descendants of Spanish imports brought to the Americas after the discovery of the New World [2]. This also means that American Mustangs are not true wild horses. Instead, they are feral animals that have returned to an untamed state after escaping captivity. The only true wild horse that exists today is Przewalski’s Wild Horse. These animals live in Mongolia and, unlike the ancestors of the American Mustang, have never been domesticated [2].

Other myths about the American Mustang are that they are descended from horses that were abandoned by various Spanish conquistadors such as Cabeza de Vaca, DeSoto, or Coronado. But it was Juan de Onate and his colonists who were responsible for the original mustangs [2]. Onate brought many stallions, mares, and some foals to the New World [2]. After colonizing what is now northern New Mexico, this herd increased to around 1,100 horses [4]. It was the horses that escaped from this herd that would become the ancestors of the Western Mustang. In this pre-barbed wire era, few could afford wooden or stone fencing to contain their animals. Thus, it is highly probable that some of the 1,100 horses were stolen by Native Americans or strayed from the rest of the herd [4]. These horses eventually burgeoned to fill a range from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west [2].

When provided with a favorable climate, sufficient forage, and few predators, unmanaged, free-roaming horses have an astounding growth potential. Hypothetically speaking, a group of just 10 horses could create a population of over 80,000 in 100 years [4]. So even if just a few horses managed to escape from the northern New Mexico’s colony’s herd, their offspring could have easily reached tens of thousands after a few decades.

The horses from the New Mexican colony were not the only horses to escape from the Spanish. Many Spanish missionaries who traveled the American West brought horses with them. In fact, the majority of the horses and livestock brought to Arizona were associated with the mission system [4]. These horses served the Spanish missionaries and soldiers. Neighboring Indian tribes, such as the Apaches, stole some of these mission horses. Still others escaped and added to the ever-growing number of wild mustangs that were roaming the west [4].

Even though the American Mustang may not really be a wild American horse, it is still seen as a symbol of the American West. In 1971, the United States Congress created the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. This act states, “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands” [5]. So although the wild American Mustang may be a myth, it is still an integral part of the heritage of the American West. Many Americans today see the American Mustang as a symbol of the free spirit that they feel defines the American West.

Although they are not currently classified as endangered, American Mustang numbers have decreased from about 2 million to 25,000 within the last hundred years [3]. But as seen in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, actions have been taken to protect these beautiful animals. Some people hope that further action will be taken to protect the American Mustang. For as long as these animals roam the western states, the untamed spirit of the old Wild West will never truly die.

Alexandra Shirley


[1] Stillman, Deanne. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. Boston, MA: Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

[2] Bennett, Deb. Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship. Solvang, CA: Amigo Publications, 1998.

[3] Bradford, Alina. “Mustangs: Facts About America’s Wild Horses.” LiveScience. June 24, 2014. Accessed November 13, 2015. http://www.livescience.com/27686-mustangs.html.

[4] Steiguer, Joseph Edward. Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America’s Mustangs. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2011.

[5] The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Public Law 92-195. U.S. Statutes at Large 85 (1971): 649-651


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