Tuesday, February 17, 2015


This entry is about mustang horses, and not about Ford Mustangs.  I don't want anybody to be confused about that.  There's a connection, though, because the name Mustang was probably chosen for the sports car because it makes people think that if they drive a Mustang, they can just speed along, wild and free, over the land, like a wild horse does.  Which is a good way to sell cars, I guess, but I am just a little dog who has never worked in advertising, so I wouldn't know for sure.  What I do know is that nobody has ever named a car model "The Chihuahua."  And that's a real shame, if you ask me.

But getting back to horses, I will just say that everybody pretty much knows that a mustang is a wild horse.  Except that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is responsible for the mustangs, says that they should be called feral and not wild, because their ancestors were tame at some point in the past.  The English word mustang comes from the Spanish word mesteño, which means "stray livestock animal."

Most mustangs are descended from the Iberian horses that were brought to North America by the Spaniards.  Some mustangs also have a large mix of ranch stock and more recent breed releases.  Mustangs in general are medium-sized -- 14 to 15 hands (56" to 60") tall, and weigh about 800 pounds.  The most common colors are bay, reddish brown, or chestnut.  But they can also have other colors, patches, spots, and stripes.

Mustangs live in large herds that consist of one stallion, plus about eight females and their young.  One of the mares serves as leader of the herd, along with the stallion.  If there is danger, the mare will lead the herd away from it while the stallion stays behind to fight.  Stallions who are leaders of herds are generally at least six years old.

Photo:  Melissa Farlow
National Geographic, February 2009
Most feral horses live in the grasslands of the western United States. There are also some living on the Atlantic coast and on the Sable, Shackleford, Assateague, and Cumberland Islands.  The BLM manages the mustang population and lets the horses run free on 34 million acres of public land.  Since 1971, about 271,000 mustangs have been removed from private land by the government.

Before people began settling in the western states, it was not a problem to have a large population of feral horses there.  But after cattle began competing with the mustangs for grazing land, some ranchers made it a policy to shoot mustangs.  In addition, horses were captured for military use or were killed for their meat, which was especially used in pet food.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about two million feral horses in the West, but by 1926, the population was only half that size.  Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971 to protect unbranded, unclaimed horses and burros.  The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service are in charge of administering the act.

The number of mustangs and burros that the BLM considers to be manageable is about 26,000.  But in 2010, there were 33,700 horses and 4,700 burros running free on public lands.  More than half of all mustangs currently live in Nevada, with quite a few more in Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon.  Another 34,000 are in holding facilities.

There is a lot of controversy about the mustangs' being on public lands.  Some people say they are part of the natural heritage of the American West, and that they have a right to be there.  Others think they are an invasive species, because they were brought in with the Spaniards and other Europeans.  The fact is that most current mustang herds live in areas that cattle cannot use because there is a lack of water.  Horses have evolved to range nine times farther from water sources than cattle can.  They can travel as far as 50 miles in a day, which allows them to use land that cattle cannot get to.  Also, the digestive system of horses lets them get nutrients from poor forage in places where cattle would starve.

Arizona Mustangs
Photo:  John Harwood
The only natural predators of mustangs are mountain lions, and sometimes grizzly bears and wolves.  Unfortunately, the number of predators has been reduced so much that the wild horse population has become too large.  In order to control it, the BLM rounds up mustangs periodically and offers them for adoption.  A person or group can adopt a mustang if they show they can provide humane, long-term care for the animal.  The adoption fee is $125, which is less than it costs to adopt a greyhound or even a chihuahua!

Mustang gelding adopted from the BLM
Photo:  Ealdgyth
For the first year after adoption, the mustang still belongs to the government.  This is to make sure the adopters are not trying to sell it for a bunch of money or make horse meat out of it.  At the end of the year, the adopters have to show that the horse has had proper veterinary care.  After that, they get a title and become the owners of the horse.

Image from NDomer73
As of 2010, almost 225,000 mustangs had been adopted, but sadly, there are still lots more captured horses than there are people to adopt them.  Right now, there are about 34,000 mustangs in holding facilities and long-term grassland pastures.  Several different solutions to this problem have been suggested, including euthanasia for older horses who have been passed over at least 3 times for adoption, federal wild-horse preserves in the Midwest, private sanctuaries, and more assistance in finding adopters.  One example of this last idea is a competition called The Extreme Mustang Makeover, where trainers have 100 days to gentle and train 100 mustangs.  The horses are then adopted through an auction.

©1997 Oklahoma State University
So now you know that if you want to adopt a mustang of your very own, you can get one from the nice folks at the BLM.  You just have to train it so you can ride it or whatever, and you have to
 promise not to turn your horse into dog food, which would be an icky thing to do anyway!

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