What Is A Mustang?

When we speak of different kinds of horses, it can be quite difficult to identify each one without knowledge of their markers.

Some are easier than others, like it is easy to identify a shire horse because they are enormous, but when you get down to average sized horses it can get a little trickier. However, for some it can take either guess work or the keen eye of a professional to know which horse is which.

What is a mustang?

For example, identifying the various different types of mountain or moorland ponies in the UK would be a nightmare for the layman.

This is true in different parts of the world as well, as horses have adapted for different environments on different continents. The one that sticks out as a horse that people find difficult to identify is that of the mustang.

No, not the car, the mustang horse that inspired the car’s name. These enigmatic creatures are something that people know about vaguely in the back of their minds, but not an animal they are intimately familiar with.

So, what is a mustang then? Is it a special kind of horse? Or just a breed of horse? In this article, we will take a closer look at mustangs and give you the lowdown on what they really are.

So, What Is A Mustang?

Mustangs are actually interesting creatures, as they are not one specific breed of horse. The definition of a mustang is that they are feral horses that roam the US.

These horses live wild, but they are not considered wild horses because of their origins. Yet, their story is a fascinating one, as they have managed a full cycle for horse genealogy in America.

You see, the equine species is not originally from Europe or Asia. Horses actually are from North America originally, with the earliest known modern equid being Eohippus which lived about 52 million years ago.

This horse was a fox sized fruit eater and browser that kept to the forested areas, very different from the modern horses of today.

However, the climate of North America became drier and the first grasses began to evolve. This meant that the lush forests that the Equid family relied upon began to disappear, and the Equids were forced to adapt or die.

The members of the horse family gained grinding teeth, got far bigger, and their feet became single toed hooves instead of three toed feet, all of which was necessary for life on the plains.

During this period, there were tens of horse species, and they became very successful, radiating outwards and becoming masters of their new environment.

When the ice age came, a land bridge was formed between North America and Eurasia, where the Bering Sea is today. This allowed many new species from Eurasia to come to the Americas and begin to compete for food.

Among these were hypercarnivores, like big cats and bears, who took a liking to horses. Yet, this land bridge also allowed horses to spread into Eurasia, where they were well adapted for the grassland environments. Unfortunately, the horses in America did not survive and became extinct 13,000 years ago.

The horses in Eurasia thrived though and became companions to humans about 5000 years ago. Fast-forward to the 1400s, when the Spanish conquistadors brought over their horse companions back to their ancestral home.

Over the next couple of hundred years, horses escaped into the wild from the various groups of colonial powers coming to America and those that weren’t tamed by the native peoples, became mustangs.

A couple of hundred years later and there are still large feral populations of mustangs that keep living wild, just as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

Where Do They Live?

As you can imagine from their history, Mustangs live in the United States. Of the roughly 130,000 mustangs that exist, 45,000 live in holding facilities and 85,000 live as a free-roaming population.

More than half of all free roaming mustangs live in the state of Nevada and the rest are spread out over Utah, California, Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon.

The reason that the horses have chosen these areas to settle in is mostly that they are suited to the environment. These areas have huge swaths of land that are either arid desert, semi-arid, or grassland, all environments that most horses do well in.

Another reason is that, excluding California, most of these areas have few people in them comparative to their size. For example, Nevada is the seventh largest US state, but it is also one of the least populated with only 3 million people living there.  

Due to the feral and temperamental nature of the mustangs, the expansion of people into wild areas, the reintroduction of the horse into ecosystems, and the horse being a large and powerful animal, there have been some conflicts between them and humans.

Luckily, the bureau of land management created Herd Management Areas in order to manage the free-roaming horses. This is due to the special nature that “wild” horses are afforded under US law, thanks to the ‘Wild and free-roaming horses and burros act of 1971’.

This gave rights and protections to the horses in public areas, where not much had existed before. These areas are now managed mostly for the benefit of the horses, but not exclusively.

What Do They Eat?

What is a mustang?

Mustangs will eat what most horses eat, except that their diet will not include human made products. This will mean mostly pasture food, which is almost exclusively grasses. However, feral horses don’t have as many options as domestic horses, so their diet can vary a little more.

When there are not many grasses to eat, a mustang will feed on berries, tree leaves, and twigs, but they are definitely not its preferred food. These horses can also go long periods of time without eating or drinking, thanks to the environment that they live in being quite arid and barren.

With so little around to eat, you might think that mustangs are unhealthier than domestic horses, but this is where you would be wrong.

Mustang’s diets, although leaner in amount, are actually far more varied, with them eating different types of grasses, flowers, fruits, leaves, or seeds than domestic horses, who tend to eat one type of grass. As such, they get a variety of different nutrients that keeps them healthy.

The hind gut fermentation process that a horse’s digestion goes through means that they are always extracting the maximum amount of nutrients from their food as well, meaning that as long as they have eaten in the last few days, they will have energy to spare, even in this difficult ecosystem.

Final Thoughts

Mustangs are one of the few horses that we can consider wild today. Even though, technically, they are descended from domesticated stock and so are feral, they have taken to life in the wilderness as if their ancestors never left it.

They are wonderful creatures that represent not just a return of horses to America, but the adventurous spirit of the old west, and they may also represent one of the few ways we can see a horse truly at home in the wild.

Catherine McDowl
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