The Mustang

To many, the wild mustang is a symbol of freedom, tenacity, and unbroken spirit. To those who live and work with them, the mustang is so much more.

“Most of all, I love their wisdom,” says Ramona Bishop. “Imagine what mustangs must know to survive in the wild: where to find food and water; which plants are edible in some seasons, but are poison in others; how to avoid prey animals; how to safely negotiate the most difficult trails. In the wild, they develop the heart, bone, feet, lungs, and the intelligence to survive. Who could ask for more?”

Bishop and her husband share their Oregon ranch with five treasured mustangs. At work, Bishop, a Bureau of Land Management adoption outreach specialist, strives to find new homes for the approximately 440 wild horses in the BLM holding pens in Burns, Oregon.

Following the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the BLM, and, in rare instances, the United States Forest Service, were charged with managing our country’s public rangeland and the wild mustangs that call it home.

The territory in the western states where mustangs still run wild is broken into Herd Management Areas. These HMAs are constantly evaluated to determine whether there’s sufficient forage and water to support the herds.

Currently, the government gathers wild horses from each herd every three to five years to prevent the group from growing larger than its HMA can sustain. That’s where such specialists as Bishop find their mission.

“I urge people to consider adopting a mustang,” she says. “There’s a wonderful variety available.” Her own experience is testament to that fact. Her mustangs include two trail-savvy geldings, 10 and 20 years old, a diminutive mare she uses for Pony Club riders, and two mares (one gaited) she uses for trail riding, low-level cross-country jumping, and dressage.

“They can do it all,” Bishop says. “People are surprised to learn that some wild horses are naturally gaited. Our mare from the Warm Springs herd single-foots, carrying us down the trail with no jogging at all.”

Bishop recounts a recent ride over a rocky, challenging trail. “My husband rode his 20-year-old mustang, and I followed with admiration as they avoided rocks and obstacles, while my non-mustang seemed to stumble over each and every one. The mustang dance is as smooth as silk!”

Read on to learn more about what just might be the ultimate trail horse: the mustang.

Hot off the Press

All the Wild Horses: Preserving the Spirit and Beauty of the World’s Wild Horses, by Dayton Hyde (Voyageur Press;, features unforgettable images by noted photographers Charles and Rita Summers. Hyde, founder of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and himself a national treasure, provides inspiring and informative essays. Buy it from the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary – Hyde will
autograph your copy, and proceeds will go to the sanctuary Cost: $40. Contact: (605) 745-5955;

America’s Last Wild Horses, by Hope Ryden (The Lyons Press imprint of Globe Pequot), is an updated reissue of a classic by a longtime wild horse advocate and award-winning author. A must-have. Cost: $18.95.;

Among Wild Horses, A Portrait of the Pryor Mountain Mustangs, by Lynne Pomeranz (Storey Publishing), is an intimate glimpse into the routines and relationships of one wild herd in the high desert and semi-alpine slopes between Wyoming and Montana. The breathtaking, full-color photos speak volumes. Cost: $16.95. Contact: (800) 441-5700;

Nobody’s Horses, The Dramatic Rescue of the Wild Herd of White Sands, by veterinarian Ron Hoglund (Free Press imprint of Simon & Schuster), is the engrossing – and true – story of the dispersal of wild horses living on New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. It’s a dramatic tale, full of heartbreak, heroes, and horses. Cost: $25. (Buy personalized books from this website, and a contribution will be sent to support the wild Outer Banks Horses.)

The Way of an Irish Horseman, by Neil UiBreaslain (Stone Horses), is a colorful, lyric biography of the late Robert Brislawn by his son. Brislawn’s preservation and protection efforts earned him the nickname Mr. Mustang, and this new book is chockfull of fascinating anecdotes and photos. Cost: $28.95; order soon to take advantage of a $25 introductory offer by the book’s producer. Contact: (260) 768-9150;

‘Hooked on Mustangs’

Gayle Hunt is a purchasing agent for the USFS. For 10 years, she lived at a ranger station that backed up to countless acres of Oregon’s Ochoco Mountain wilderness. Jogging with her dogs, she’d often sight a wild band of horses in the distance.

Eventually, the woman and the wild horses grew comfortable with each other. Sometimes, when Hunt sat to catch her breath, the herd’s lead stallion, whom she named Fargo, would approach and stand nearby, dozing in the sun. He’d come to her call, but always stopped just beyond arm’s length.

Years passed. The USFS, which managed the Big Summit HMA, determined that Fargo’s and another small band were encroaching on land not designated for their use. (There were no fences.) In this densely wooded area, the usual helicopter roundups weren’t practical, so hay traps were set, and 19 of the 20 wild horses were captured. Only Fargo was left behind.

“I brought home one older mare that they felt was unlikely to be adopted because of her age,” says Hunt, who’d moved to Prineville, Oregon. “Ribbon was opinionated, very wild, and pregnant.” When he was born, Ribbon’s colt was the image of Fargo. Hunt named him Lookout, for an Ochoco peak.

Eventually, USFS wranglers returned to hunt down the lone stallion and remove him from the mountains. In time, Fargo found his way home to Hunt. It was an extraordinary moment when the old mare and the (now) gelding set eyes on each other. “There was instant recognition,” Hunt reports. “Hearts filled the air.”

Fargo, Hunt says enthusiastically, “is impeccably, perfectly great on the trail! Nothing spooks him, he never panics, and he always seems to know exactly where to put his feet.” She had reservations about riding him on trails where they might encounter wild horses. “But when we did, he didn’t miss a beat,” she says. “I’m hooked on mustangs – they’re a partnership just waiting to happen.”

Meanwhile, Hunt founded the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition and wondered what to do with Lookout, almost a yearling, and, like his sire, full of spirit and gentleness. Then one day in Bend, Oregon, her car brakes went out, and she literally ran into a commercial building owned by Randy and Charla Sargent (brother and sister-in-law of The Trail Rider editor Rene E. Riley). Hunt believes there are no coincidences.

Heaven Sent

After the minor collision, Gayle Hunt left her Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition calling card with the occupants to forward to the building owners. When Charla Sargent called Hunt, she couldn’t resist asking about the organization. Her 8-year-old daughter, Katie, was enamored of horses and was taking riding lessons.

Before you could say “match made in heaven,” the Sargents welcomed Lookout into their family, and mustangs gained three strong advocates. Particularly a little girl who seems wise beyond her years.

“It’s important for people not to worry that mustangs are hard to handle,” Katie, now 11, says. “Lookout [now a 3-year-old] is loving and smart, and he has a great sense of humor. He likes to take my dad’s cell phone out of his pocket and hide it. He’s very playful!”

How do Lookout and Katie’s Arabian mare, Tiny Dancer, 17, get along? “They love each other – they’re best buddies,” Katie reports.

The Sargents became interested in the history and plight of the mustangs held in BLM pens, awaiting adoption. Katie’s Campfire USA group went to the Burns, Oregon, site for an informative tour. They learned what was required for adoption: a nominal fee and a safe home environment with at least 440 square feet of paddock with 5- or 6-foot-high fencing to be used until the horse is comfortable with his new home.

“Our Campfire group decided to raise money to buy portable fencing that new mustang owners could use,” Katie says. “That way, more families can bring a mustang home!”

The Sargents also did their homework, studying Pat Parelli‘s natural-horsemanship techniques, which work well with wild horses, and developing a network of professionals who have mustang expertise. During the Campfire USA tour, Katie spotted a young white-and-gray filly in a holding pen, awaiting adoption. “I just fell in love with her,” she says. “Her name is Pepper.”

As we go to press, Pepper is no longer in a BLM holding pen – she’s settling into her new home with the Sargents, on their just-purchased ranch.

Instant Karma

The first woman animal-control officer in Texas, Vickie Ives’ introduction to the mustang tragically arose out of the worst case of large-animal cruelty that state had ever seen. It was a life-altering experience for Ives.

Deer hunters wandered onto a property and discovered 30 dead horses. Brands and 157 survivors identified them as BLM adoptees. Ives was called to investigate.

“I got emotionally involved with the herd,” she says. “Thankfully, all the publicity motivated 500 people to offer homes. In the end, I took three that were in the worst shape. Two went to 4-H kids, and I kept one to prove there are no throwaway horses. I named him Titus Unlearning – Titus after the county, and Unlearning, because he was a horse trying to forget his past.”

When the gelding physically recovered, Ives discovered that he could outwork any of the Quarter Horses she’d bred. She tested him in North American Trail Ride Conference events, and when the dust settled, Titus Unlearning had earned two junior national championships. “He’s 27 years old this year, and still surefooted and sound,” she says.

Titus Unlearning motivated Ives to learn all that she could about mustangs and their relatives. “Next, I bought a Spanish Mustang mare, then more!” she says, smiling.

Today, the pastures at Ives’ Karma Farms are filled with Colonial Spanish Horses, formerly known as Spanish Mustangs or Original Indian Horses.

She owns the highly decorated Colonial Spanish Horse stallion, Rowdy Yates, a NATRC and show champion, and a Breyer model horse. She selectively breeds champion to champion to advance the CSH breed and offers trail rides to people who want to learn more. She’s also vice president of the Horse of the America’s registry.

And it all started with a sickly little mustang who desperately needed a home.

Awaiting Adoption

Today, the number of wild mustangs and burros living in government holding pens exceeds the number that run free on their home range. According to recent statistics issued by the Bureau of Land Management Program Office in Reno, Nevada, there are an estimated 27,000 horses and burros living wild in Herd Management Areas in the western states. Living in BLM captivity, awaiting adoption is an estimated 30,000.

Specifically, there are 10,655 wild horses and burros in Short Term Holding, awaiting adoption, and 19,476 wild horses and burros in Long Term Holding, living on private, government subsidized rangeland. In 2006, there were 10,327 gathered: 9,187 horses and 1,673 burros; there were 5,172 adoptions.

In the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, 47 million acres of public land were assigned to support wild horses in 303 HMAs. Since then, more than 223,000 wild horses and nearly 37,000 wild burros have been removed from the HMAs, and 102 HMAs have been, in BLM terms, “zeroed out” – emptied of wild horses and burros.

Gary McFadden, top wild horse specialist at the Burns, Oregon, BLM office reveals that this year the agency hopes to reduce the numbers of wild horses and burros to 24,000. He says that number is considered sustainable on the remaining HMAs. He’s hopeful that in the future, with 6,000 to 10,000 animals gathered annually, followed by the same number of adoptions every year, the target populations will be stable and healthy.

Shelter in a Storm

Wild-horse sanctuaries have been established and kept afloat, often by sheer will power, by people devoted to the mustang. Most of these nonprofit organizations offer terrific educational opportunities, including internships and/or volunteer possibilities, some offer adoption, and a few feature trail rides either aboard or near wild mustang herds. We wish we could spotlight each and every one, but space doesn’t allow.

Instead, here’s the rundown on three well-run sanctuaries:

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. In 1988, Dayton Hyde founded this 11,000-acre sanctuary and the Institute of Range and the American Mustang near Hot Springs, South Dakota. It’s an amazing place to visit, and young horses are available for purchase. Now in his 80s, the rancher, ardent conservationist, prolific author, and wildlife warrior, continues to inspire old admirers and new audiences alike.

“Wild horses taught me a love of freedom,” Hyde says. “They speak to me of running free, of going where I want, when I want. That’s why I love mustangs with such a passion and why they are so special. They are part of the wind. They are part of our heritage.”

Return to Freedom. Since founding Return to Freedom in 1998 with 25 horses, Neda DeMayo has been an articulate and passionate spokeswoman for mustangs. “Horses are herd animals and thrive within their family groups,” she notes. “So whenever possible, we don’t rescue just one horse, we try to rescue its entire family or herd group.”

Several horses at RTF serve as animal ambassadors, including Spirit, the Kiger Mustang who inspired the 2002 Dreamworks movie, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Sutter, a mustang from the Warm Springs herd in Nevada, who suffered terrible abuse but survived to teach humans about the generous and forgiving nature of horses. RTF has numerous educational programs and sponsorship opportunities.

The Wild Horse Sanctuary. In 1977, Dianne Nelson co-founded the Wild Horse Sanctuary to rescue 80 wild mustangs slated to be removed from public land and destroyed. Located in northern California near Shingletown, 5,000 mountain and meadow acres are home to nearly 300 horses brought in from several western states.

The sanctuary’s mission, Nelson says, is to “protect and preserve these horses as a living national treasure in an ecologically balanced environment, and to make them accessible to the public.”

To that end, she’s developed educational projects and horse sponsorships, and offers two- and three-day camping trips to view mustangs in the wild. Babies are sometimes available for adoption; Nelson notes that caring for them is well within the talents of average horsepeople.

Selection Savvy

Owners offer these tips to welcoming a mustang into your life:

• Generally, the younger the horse, the easier he’ll adjust to domestic life. The BLM organizes horses in holding pens by age and gender. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and many older horses have been adopted quite successfully.

• Observe the horse’s personality in the pen. A bold, alpha horse may be more challenging to train than one accustomed to being lower in the herd’s hierarchy.

• Seek out people who’ve adopted mustangs, and learn from their expertise.

• Develop a network of mentors – veterinarians, farriers, and particularly trainers – with successful mustang experience.

• Some BLM offices, such as Ramona Bishop’s in Burns, Oregon, are beginning to offer mustang training seminars; see whether there’s one in your area.

• Horsemanship methods, such as those taught by clinicians Clinton Anderson, John Lyons, and Pat Parelli, work well with mustangs; invest in their books and videos (or check them out from your library), and check their websites for clinic schedules.

• Be patient. Most wild mustangs have suffered the trauma of a helicopter roundup, separation from their herd, and exchanging life in the wild for life in a holding pen.

• Know that horses are generous and forgiving by nature. Time, love, and hands-on caregiving can heal many wounds.

• Congratulations! You now have Mother Nature’s ultimate trail horse – the mustang!

Horse of the Americas

More than 400 years ago, Spanish explorers brought select Iberian Horse stock to the Americas, including the blood of the Andalusian, African Barb, Spanish Sorraia, and the Spanish Jennet.

Breeding farms were established in the Caribbean and Mexico to raise the tough, strong, beautiful horses that would carry their riders to conquests in the New World. Over generations, stock was traded and stolen, or escaped to become the wild herds of North America.

Some of the wild mustangs roamed near ranchers or cavalry soldiers. These horsemen would introduce a large stallion, such as a Thoroughbred or Tennessee Walking Horse, into the herd in an attempt to increase the horses’ size. Later, their offspring would be rounded up and trained for use on ranches or in the military. In these wild herds, the original Iberian blood was diluted.

However, this dilution didn’t occur in some geographically isolated wild herds or in the wild mustangs domesticated by Native Americans. Each tribe zealously guarded their horses and kept detailed pedigrees, oral and written. They selectively bred for characteristics that best suited their particular needs.

For instance, the Havasu Indians that lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon bred small, almost miniaturized horses now called the Grand Canyon Strain. They bred them down in size and with strong mule-feet for working the canyons.

The Cayuse Indians of the Northwest developed a distinct strain, with high withers, a long cannon bone, and sloped pasterns that gave it a broken walking gait that’s smooth and comfortable over the long distances the Cayuse traveled for trade.

John Fusco champions the nearly extinct Choctaw Indian Pony and has established a preservation program for them. “Living history,” he calls them. In addition, he touts their considerable trail talents, developed over centuries of discriminating breeding by Native Americans and breed preservationists, such as the late Robert Brislawn.

The horses that retained significant Iberian blood have been known by a variety of names, including the Original Indian Horse and Spanish Mustang, and are now called the Colonial Spanish Horse. These horses are pedigreed, often DNA-typed, and exhibit Iberian characteristics.

Brislawn founded The Horse of the Americas registry. Today, it thrives as an umbrella registry open to all Colonial Spanish Horses, including the Original Indian Horse, Spanish Mustang, and Spanish Barbs. Wild mustangs distinguished by Colonial Spanish type may also be inspected for registry, including the American Sulphur Horse, the Pryor Mountain Mustangs, the Cerbat, and the Kiger.

Mustang Resource Guide

American Endurance Ride Conference
(866) 271-AERC

American Horse Defense Fund, Inc.
(202) 609-8198

American Indian Horse Registry
(512) 398-6642

American Sulphur Horse Association

American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign
(877) 853-4696

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary
(605) 745-5955;

Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse & Burro Information

Bureau of Land Management Ramona Bishop, Adoption Outreach
(541) 573-4439

Campfire USA Fire Adventurers Mustang Project
(541) 383-0772

Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition
(541) 447-8165

Choctaw Indian Pony Conservation Program

Clinton Anderson Downunder Horsemanship
(888) 287-7432

The Cloud Foundation
(719) 663-3842

Florida Cracker Horse
(850) 575-6522

Front Range Equine Rescue

Horse of the Americas
(903) 935-9980

Dayton Hyde

Karma Farms
(903) 935-9980

John Lyons
(970) 285-9797

North American Trail Ride Conference
(303) 688-1677

Parelli Natural Horsemanship, Inc.
(800) 642-3335

Pyror Mountain Wild Mustang Center
(307) 548-9453

Return To Freedom
(805) 737-9246

Southwest Spanish Mustang Association
(580) 326-8069

Spanish Barb Breeders Association
(352) 622-5878

Spanish Mustang Registry
(520) 384-2886

Three Fawn Meadows Farm and Dancing Horse Spanish Mustangs
(608) 583-3045

Wild Horse Sanctuary
(530) 335-2241

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!