By: Peggy L. Henderson
Early forms of wild horses roamed the North American plains for millions of years. Ancenstors of the modern genus Equus migrated over the Bering Land Bridge into Asia and Europe, and the horse died out completely in North America about 10,000-12,000 years ago. This may have been due to climate change, or impact from human hunters.
Horses were re-introduced to North America by Spanish Conquistdors, starting with Columbus. He imported horses to the West Indies in 1493. When Cortes reached the mainland in 1519, he brought domesticated horses with him.
The first mustangs on the North American plains are descendant from Iberian horses that were brought to Mexico and Flordia. They were mostly of Andalusian, Barb, and Arab ancestry. Some of these horses escaped into the wild, or were captured by Native Americans. From there, they spread quickly throughout the western United States.
The plains Indians quickly adopted the horses as a primary means of transportation, and they replaced dogs to pull travois. By becoming horsemen, the Indians had a great advantage in warfare with other tribes, used horses in trade, and for hunting bison.
Some horses that belonged to ranchers, settlers, and explorers in the 1800’s escaped to mix their genes with the early Spanish-descended wild horses. Ranchers also commonly released their stock in winter to forage on their own, and recaptured them in the spring, which by then usually included a few wild mustangs.
By 1900, there were an estimated 2 million free-roaming horses in the United States. This number has been greatly reduced, as horses were being captured by the military and for slaughter.
In 1971, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed by Congress to protect certain established wild herds. Mustangs were officially recognized as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” These herds are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The feral population is now estimated at around 33,000 horses and 4700 burros, with more than half of these in Nevada. The BLM holds annual roundups and adoption of wild Mustangs to qualified individuals who must meet certain criteria.
Mustangs have many outstanding characteristics. They tend to have a sensible disposition, agility, alertness, and hardiness. They range in size from 13.3 hand to 15 hands, and tend to have a very smooth gait, a high endurance level, and strong hooves. Mustangs that live in colder climates are shaggy and small, and desert mustangs can survive on remarkably small amounts of food and water.
In my book, Come Home to Me, Jake Owens, a wagon train scout, rides a mustang.
Here is a brief excerpt:
Jake reined in his mare, and patted her on the neck. The stout little mustang had to be the best trained horse he’d ever sat on. A subtle shift of his seat backwards, and she stopped. If he leaned forward, she stepped out. A slight turn of his shoulders in either direction, and her body followed. At least the reverend had supplied him with a good mount, if nothing else. He’d almost forgotten the exhilarating feeling of sitting astride a horse, galloping across open country.
His eyes scanned far off into the distance. Open country was right. After leaving the Missouri River a few hours ago, the wagon train made its way west, first through sandy marshlands as they moved away from the river and onto the uneven, rolling hills they entered now. In the distance, the hills blended into steeply ridged sandy bluffs. Tall grasses swayed in tune with the wind as far as the eye could see. At least there was food here for the livestock. That might not be the case the further west they traveled.
Details about the wagon trains along the Oregon Trail, information he’d thought long forgotten from many history classes, seemed to come back to him now as if someone had implanted a computer chip in his brain. This land was foreign to him, but he hoped to get a better feel for it once they entered more familiar territory further west in Wyoming, or what would someday be Wyoming.
Judging by the map the reverend had given him, Jake guessed they were within an hour from a water source called Papillion Creek. Hopefully, the wagon master would agree to stop there for the night. They hadn’t covered much ground today, and after what happened earlier, Frank Wilson was not going to be his buddy on this trip. Jake wanted to get to Oregon as fast as possible, too, probably faster than the wagon master, but he couldn’t afford to be careless. The reverend had made it pretty clear that the safety of these people rested on Jake’s shoulders. He ran his hand through his hair. Dried grit and sand scraped against his scalp from the muddy Missouri.
Getting all the wagons across the wide river had been an exhausting undertaking. Jake absently rotated his shoulders, the muscles in his arms sore and tight. They hadn’t lost any cattle as near as he could tell during the crossing. Three men had volunteered to help him get the cattle and mules through the river. Two of the men were bachelors, without families to worry about.
Elijah Edwards heartily shook his hand once the entire train was safely across the river and the mules and oxen were hitched to their wagons. Beaming brightly, he had slapped Jake on the back, congratulating him on a job well done, and that he had great confidence that this trek to Oregon would go off without any trouble. He had invited Jake to eat supper at his wagon that night. His wife, Harriet Edwards, had shot her husband a look of outrage. Just to irritate the woman further, Jake wanted to accept the invitation, but he wasn’t going to stand up Rachel a second time.