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America's Wild Horse - The Mustang
No discussion on the horse breeds that had an effect on Western riding would be complete without talking about the American Mustang. According to the the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who oversees the Mustang herds in the United States, there are approximately 48,624 Mustangs living in 10 western states today.
Breed characteristics show that Mustangs come in all sizes, shapes, colors and types of build. The average size is 14.2 hands but it is not uncommon to see one as short as 13 hands or as tall as 16 hands. The most common color seen is sorrel and bay, but any color is possible. The flashier colors such as Paints, Appalossas, Palominos, Buckskins and black seem to have been bred out of the breed over the years, but again, it is not uncommon to see those colors.
The word "Mustang" comes from the Spanish word, mesteno, meaning "stray or ownerless" horse. This term aptly describes all wild horses in the United States. The modern horse evolved over three million years ago and was thought to have disappeared from this hemisphere 10,000 years ago. However, in September of 1993, some miners in the Yukon uncovered a horse and paleontologists were called in. Initially, nobody thought too much about the well preserved, brownish red horse in the permafrost layer. It didn't look much different than any other horse that had died and been buried in the mud.
You can imagine the surprise when analysis revealed it was about 25,000 years old! Even the stomach contents were still in the gut, and the flaxen mane hung over the neck of the hide covered skeleton. The horse's hooves were solid, just like modern horses. Scientists might have been looking at a near carbon copy of some of the smaller wild horses in the West today. The specimen was named Equus lambei and seems to be fossil proof that horses evolved fully in North America, although there is still debate in the scientific community on whether this truly proves this theory or not.
The most widely accepted theory is that the wild horse did in fact die out and was only returned to this continent when explorers Cortes and DeSoto came mounted on magnificent Barbs from Morocco, Sorraia from Portugal and Andalusians from Spain. The Pueblo Indians learned to ride and passed this skill on to other Indians. In 1680, the Indians revolted against the Spanish rule and the Spaniards left thousands of horses behind in their hasty retreat. The Indians could have rounded up these horses, but chose to let them run wild. It was much easier to raid the Spanish settlements and steal horses.
In an effort to stop the Indian raids, the Spanish government shipped a steady flow of mounts to the New World. It was hoped that the Indians would catch the "wild" horses and leave the Spaniards alone. Tens of thousands of the Spanish-bred horses were herded to the Rio Grande and turned loose in a 200-year period. These horses soon met up with draft horses and cowboy ponies that escaped from the ranchers and farmers arriving from the East.
At the turn of the century, there were approximately 2 million wild horses roaming in at least 17 western states.
Unfortunately, as the land was settled and domestic livestock competed for range and grazing land in the mid 1800s, ranchers began killing these horses to protect the range land for their cattle. By the year 1970, fewer than 17,000 horses remained. During the 1950s in Nevada, Velma B. Johnston, later known as Wild Horse Annie, became aware of the ruthless and indiscriminate manner in which wild horses were being gathered from the rangelands.
Ranchers, hunters and "Mustangers" played a major role in harvesting wild horses for commercial purposes. Wild Horse Annie lead a grass roots campaign, involving mostly school children, that outraged the public and ultimately got them fully engaged in the issue. Newspapers published articles about the exploitation of wild horses and burros. In 1959, Congress passed a bill that became known as the "Wild Horse Annie Act, prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on all public lands, however, it did not include Annie's recommendation that Congress initiate a program to protect, manage and control wild horses and burros.
In response to public outcry over the next several years, stating that Mustangs were "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West," the United States Congress finally passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971, which protects the Mustang in the United States.
Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for managing the nation's public lands. With the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, the primary responsibilities of the BLM are to preserve and protect wild horses and burros and to manage for healthy range lands. When an over-population of wild horses and burros exists on the range, the excess animals are removed and offered to the general public for adoption.
Thus, the herds have been brought back to the populations enjoyed today. At no time does the BLM ever send these animals to slaughter. Horses and burros who are not adopted are returned to the wild.
To be able to see these magnificent animals in the wild is truly a grand site, as they run across the plains, wild and free.
With the wild horse and burro adoption program, not only are these horses and burros being saved, but many people are enjoying a relationship with an animal straight out of the Old West. Mustangs can be seen in many types of competitions today, including Western Pleasure, Trail, Endurance, Dressage, Roping Events, Team Penning and many others. For more information on the American Mustang, visit the U.S. Bureau of Land Management web site at www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov .