It is one of the iconic images of the Wild West – a sweeping vista of sun, sand and desert, the stillness broken by the thunder of hooves as, just over the horizon, a herd of mustangs race forward in synchronized beauty, hooves kicking up dust, coats gleaming, manes tossing in the wind – so majestic, so wild, so American.
For generations of children, American and otherwise, innumerable dreams were fueled by movie images such as this, of vast tracts of open land populated by grazing cattle, cowboys and Indians, and thriving herds of wild American mustangs. But the history of the mustang begins long before this western era portrayed in hundreds of shoot ‘em up Westerns.
Anthropologists have determined that, about a million years ago, North America was the first home to a small, horse-like creature named the eohippus. These animals spread across connecting land masses to Europe and beyond, but when the connections were severed, the European eohippus became extinct. Their North American cousins lasted a bit longer, but scientists believe the early development of hunting tribes of humans wiped them out - just the first incidence of what would be many negative impacts of man upon the horse.
Of course the horse did not disappear forever like the saber tooth tiger, but spread northward, across the Bering land bridge and into Asia. As millions of years passed, the horse’s evolution proceeded in other regions of the world.
The popular belief is that the horse had been extinct in North America for some eight thousand years before Columbus arrived in the late 1400s. There are currently some dissenting voices who believe the original horse-like creatures endured, perhaps secreted away in canyons of the west and mated with the Spanish horses. But most experts believe the herds of wild horses discovered by white explorers in the 17th century were descendants of horses brought over by Spanish conquistadors. These conquerors arrived in Old Mexico the 1500s, and by most accounts the natives fell easily before warriors mounted on the sturdy horses who had survived their ocean passage from Spain, to Cuba and then to Old Mexico.
Deanne Stillman, in her book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, writes, “Shortly after their return to the New World, horses swept through the deserts and plains like a fast-moving secret. They partnered up quickly with Native Americans, players taking to the script with astonishing ease. From the Apache and Comanche to the Zuni to the Hopi to the Navajo to the Ute; from the Shoshone to the Flathead, Crow, and Nez Perce; from the Arapaho to the Ponca, the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Mandan, the Ojibwa and beyond, horses allied with tribe after tribe – perhaps not in that exact order, but the deed was done, and by the early 1700s, it was as if their kind had never disappeared from their native turf.”
Indeed, these horses introduced by the Spaniards were uniquely suited to the vast plains of the American West, possessing superior stamina and adaptability. Produced by the breeding of Arabian and Barb horses, the Spanish horses were smaller in stature than the heavy European horses favored in many areas of the Old World and had the intelligence and speed that made them perfect partners for men in conquering the New World.
Native Americans reacted at first with fear of the mounted Spanish conquerors, seeing horse and rider as a unified monster. Finally, turning on the encroaching empire builders and realizing the horse was a living creature and a not mythological god, they began to steal horses for food. Then Apaches, Utes and Navajos became horsemen, as well. Anthropologists have labeled the period from the late 1600s to the late 1800s as “Indian horse culture.”
The Native American adapted to the horse and, as a result, transformed their way of life through increased mobility for hunting and warfare. The horse became a valuable possession and a commodity traded for wives and other necessities and luxuries. Horses became symbols of wealth and prestige.
All the while, the wild horse population grew, adapting to their environment, as well, with ears that grew larger and eyesight more acute in order to better hear and see approaching danger as they roamed free in herds.
In her book, America’s Last Wild Horses, Hope Ryden reports conflicting sources for the name “mustang” that came to be applied to the wild American horses. One theory says they were called “mesternos,” coming from the word “mesta” meaning Spanish stock grower. Another theory has “mustang” evolving from monstrenco which means “roving, rough, wild.” Another theory suggests “mustang” came from mesteno, Spanish for “stray.”
Tribes such as the Apaches, Comanches and Osages acquired branded horses from Spanish settlers and traded them with still more tribes. Many of these trained horses slipped through the hands of their captors and found freedom on the plains with the mustangs - breeding, blending and further affecting the evolution of the mustang. Tribes further to the north and away from the easy trade sources of trained animals turned to the wild mustangs as replenishment for their stock. Other tribes looked to the wild mustangs when war, disease or raiding depleted their own herds. For the most part, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, wild mustang herds grew virtually unimpeded, populating most of what we now call the Western states.
As white settlers advanced across the country during this same period, conflicts grew with the nomadic Plains Indians. Settlers felt that nomadic Native Americans had too much mobility and freedom on lands that the settlers claimed were “unused.” In the name of gold fever and manifest destiny (a doctrine proclaiming Americans’ “divine right” to populate the West), buffalo were annihilated and ancestral lands were stripped from one tribe after another.
In the mid-1860s, around the end of the Civil War, the era of the cattle drive dawned. Longhorns had flourished in Southwest – escapees, like the wild mustangs – from the first Spanish explorers. The mythic figure of the American cowboy appears at this point, spawned by the Indians of Mexico, Peru and Argentina who were called vaqueros, skilled horsemen dedicated to herding cattle and horses. According to western lore, the cowboy loves his horse even more than his sweetheart as his sturdy mustang pony helps keep him alive along the long, dusty trail. The cattle drives were aimed at beef and horse markets in Kansas City and St. Louis or to the military outposts to the west where Native Americans were often being held prisoner and needed to be fed.
According to Deanne Stillman in Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, “From the close of the Civil War through 1888 or so, a million horses, six million cattle and thirty-five thousand men traveled from deep Texas, through the Indian Nations’ territory that later became Oklahoma, and into Kansas. The figure of a million horses refers to those that were taken from what is still called the Wild Horse Desert. An unknown number of horses did not even survive the cullings.” Perhaps another half million horses were ridden by the cowboys during the drives.
Stampedes, snakebites, dust storms and killing winter blasts all fed the legend and lore of mustangs and cowboys in the West. Before the advent of the telegram, the Pony Express briefly grabbed attention as intrepid horsemen saddled their trusty mustangs to gallop from Missouri to California on an eight-day journey through dangerous Indian territory and all kinds of weather to deliver the mail.
In the late 1800s entertainment acts such as Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West Show” traveled the world, spreading the mystique of the Old West – of wild mustangs, guns and cattle. The end of an era was captured in the art of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell as they showcased cowboys on “buckin’ broncos,” Indians on painted ponies in full war regalia, and landscapes with wild mustangs and buffalo in great roving herds as they would never be seen live again. The first western movie was the silent film classic, “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Novels by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour further immortalized this uniquely American experience.
But by the close of the 19th century, Native Americans had been forced onto reservations and encouraged by the government to turn to agriculture as a means to long-term survival. The large herds of horses, integral to the Indian way of life for two centuries, were now labeled as “worthless” and a “Horse-Removal Program” commenced.
Domestic herds were greatly reduced, and although wild mustang herds continued to exist, the amount of land available for grazing was shrinking. Overgrazing was a serious problem. According to Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, “At the end of the nineteenth century, there were two million wild horses ranging across seventeen states, from California to Missouri … Most of them had retreated to Nevada, staking out territory in the remote mountains and deserts, steering clear of those who would round them up and ship them off to wars or to the slaughterhouse or simply shoot them for sport.”
The value of wild mustangs fluctuated as they were deemed necessary for war, for pet food, chicken feed, glue, food and clothing. “Mustangers” who hunted wild horses for profit became famous figures in first Nevada, then Montana, and other states. The Great Depression seized our country’s economy and, driven by overgrazing and drought, many areas of the west became a great “Dust Bowl,” as the wild American mustangs were further decimated. Wild mustang round-ups using airplanes came into vogue, and the mustang was seen as an unwanted and highly disposable creature.
Through the first part of the 20th century, state and federal governments wrestled with the problems of land management and overgrazing while in Nevada, a woman who came to be known as “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston took up the plight of the endangered wild American mustang. A polio victim whose face was permanently disfigured by treatment for the disease, Annie had been raised on a ranch and loved all things of nature. She and her husband owned a ranch where they invited handicapped children to come enjoy their horses.
In 1950, Annie noticed a trail of blood coming from a truck carrying tightly-packed and buckshot-wounded mustangs. The horses were in terrible condition, having been run in by airplane, shot and then carted to a rendering plant to make chicken feed.
Sickened by the sight of the animals’ suffering, Annie began to work to outlaw the use of airplanes and motorized vehicles in the round-up of wild mustangs in Nevada and then, the entire country. It was a tough battle, as the tax-funded hunters were fighting for their livelihood, and she was fighting against centuries of contempt and disrespect for the wild American mustang.
But sentiments were changing. America was tuning in to scientists who were bringing up issues of ecology and natural preservation. While some hard-nosed westerners continued to see the mustang as a feral animal, not worthy of saving, others began to understand the unique and important role this animal had played in Native American culture and in the settling of the west.
Finally, in 1971, through the efforts of Wild Horse Annie and others, the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act made it illegal to capture, brand, harass or kill the wild mustangs who roamed public lands.
At the bill-signing ceremony, President Richard Nixon quoted Thoreau and said, “We need the tonic of wildness.” He added, “In the past seventy years, civilization and economics have brought the wild horse to 99 percent extinction. They are a living link with the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the western Indians and pioneers to our own day … More than that, they merit protection as a matter of ecological right – as anyone knows who has stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free.”
But enforcement and management of this act has proven to be a challenge. Unscrupulous hunters continued to use violence and inhumane methods of round-up, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) struggled to deal with a host of land-use issues, a burgeoning wild mustang population and an adoption program that has not always run smoothly. Wild animal activist and writer Hope Ryden in America’s Last Wild Horses called the first decades of the BLM’s management “Twenty Years of Mustang Mismanagement.”
Today, the wild American mustang endures, though still facing harsh odds.
For further reading on the history of the wild American mustang:
• America’s Last Wild Horses, by Hope Ryden, first published in 1970, with updated editions in 1978, 1990 and 1999, published by the Lyons Press.
• Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, by Deanne Stillman, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
• Honest Horses: Wild Horses in the Great Basin, by Paula Morin, published in 2006 by University of Nevada Press.