How Are Wild-Captured Mustangs Different From Our Domesticated Breeds?

My "Cover Girl" Mustang, Bella

My "Cover Girl" Mustang, Bella

This is a question I am asked occasionally when people find out I have a Mustang. I’ve had Bella for four years now so have been very interested in this question myself, and have made quite a few observations and gathered a good bit of data.

First, it is important to clarify that the Mustang is not really a breed per se. While all wild horses in America are descended from Spanish equine bloodlines, they have been mixed with many other different strains over the years, so herds from different areas can differ vastly. My mare, for example, comes from a Wyoming herd that has strong Percheron genes from draft horses released by the old-timers in those parts (theoretically to strengthen the wild herds), so she is uncharacteristically large and heavy (16 hands, 1400 lbs.) for a horse from the wild.

The word mustang is from the Spanish word mesteno (w/a tilde over the ‘n’ por favor), which basically just means wild and untamed. So the variety of wild horse types can really run the gamut and still fall into the category of  “mustang.”  But, while that is true, and while Mustangs definitely come in all different personality types as well, there do seem to be a few common traits that wild horses exhibit, and that don’t seem to exist or be as strong in domesticated breeds. Here are a few that I know about:

  • Horses brought in from the wild seem to have “naive” immune systems, so many do not do well with, and often have reactions to, drugs and chemicals, vaccines and de-wormers. Every single one of the Mustangs a dear friend has adopted — one per year for many years now — has taken months, if not years, to clear of side-effects from all the vaccines and drugs they were loaded with when captured. I have heard veterinarians confirm this same theory. Liken it to isolated tribes in the world who are especially delicate and vulnerable to all kinds of maladies and diseases once they are discovered and exposed to other cultures or communities.
  • Many Mustangs do not seem to adapt well when moved into a climate that is extremely different from that in which they were wild. One of the most common examples of this has been horses who develop systemic, disabling sweet itch when relocated from arid, high elevations to low, humid environments. Again, there has been case after documented case of this type syndrome.
  • All horses are self-preservative, but Mustangs seem to have an extra-heightened sense of awareness. And their reactions to a dangerous situation often seem to be more “thinking” than those of their tame counterparts. They don’t just automatically lose their head, turn and flee if they need to protect their herd, for example.
  • Mustangs have a keen awareness of their body in space — where they are and how they need to move. One of my friends who rode Bella for me for a month when my back was hurt, and who is a very experienced rider and seasoned horse person, commented on this by saying: “When Bella and I go out, I can tell she knows exactly where she is at all times, and when we turn around to go home she almost steps in her own exact footprints to get back. I’ve never seen a horse do that.”
  • Mustangs’ shoulders are structurally adapted for moving forward, not side-to-side, because they run from predators in the wild. Therefore some trainers believe they are not well suited for certain types of performance or work that requires great shoulder flexibility and lateral movement — like reining or cutting or side-passing in dressage. This has been confirmed by more than one person I know who has tried different forms of training with their Mustangs.
  • Mustangs have VERY strong opinions, no matter their temperament. They seem to need to understand the reason behind your request. If you don’t believe me, just ask a Mustang owner.

These are just a few of the differences one may find in the Mustang. If anybody reading this blog has other input about this fascinating topic, please send it in. We Mustang folks would love to hear it!

And oh, to see Bella as a cover girl, check out this book, especially if you have  Mustangs and want to manage their care naturally and holistically:  Holistic Horsekeeping – How to Have a Healthy, Happy Horse – From Stable to Stadium, by Dr. Madalyn Ward, DVM.

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7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    megan said,

    I have a mustang at home who was caught when she was a year old and all of these behaviors are prominent every time i take her out. Also I wanted to add that she is very aware of herslef and environment but when she gets scared she does not run off or freeze but she kicks out trying to protect herself. She is so much fun to watch because she thinks she is so bad lol!! When riding a mustang you better pay attention because you know they are!!!!

    • 2

      Thanks for your comments, Megan. Yes, you’d better pay attention when riding a mustang! Which brings to mind the blog post I am just about to write, right now: “That Mustang Thang!” Hope you will read it and enjoy! Leta

  2. 3

    […] How Are Wild-Captured Mustangs Different From Our Domesticated Breeds? […]

  3. 4

    […] We are all very relieved that our dear Gabriel is no longer suffering, and that he can finally find rest from his long and difficult life, but we are now grieving as much for Bella as for him and will be putting all our efforts in the next days and weeks to help her, and ourselves, adjust to such a tremendous loss. *************************************************************** YOU CAN READ MORE ABOUT GABRIEL HERE, AND MORE ABOUT BELLA HERE. AND MORE ABOUT HOW MUSTANGS ARE DIFFERENT HERE. […]

  4. 5

    […] How Are Wild-Captured Mustangs Different From Our Domesticated Breeds? November 16th, 2009 | Tags: Horse Training, horses, Mustangs, Quarter Horses, Rescued Horses | Category: Horsin' Around, Leta's Blog, Leta's Philosophy 101, Mustangs, Personal Stuff […]

  5. 6

    Beth Fiorino said,

    We have recently added a gelding mustang into our herd of 17 and he is showing aggressive signs to the other geldings and mounting mares, if he remains with the herd will this behavior continue, or will he have to have a small herd in order to get along with others?

    • 7

      Hi Beth – Thanks for writing. I’m no expert on the subject, but I imagine your gelding’s behavior has a lot to do with his past environment, exposure, training, and perhaps even his age. So I would hate to say what might help without knowing all that, but you may be onto something re getting him into a much smaller group–or maybe even with one other horse. I would be very interested to hear the outcome if you feel like following up in a while. Just so you know, my “active” blog is now at a different URL: http://www.herbsandanimals.com, so I hope you will follow it there. Hope to hear from you again, and good luck with this!


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