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Owning a Mustang is truly a Link to History!

History & Horses That Have Shaped The American Mustang:

See Also "America's Heritage - Wild Horses"


Native American Ponies
Library of Congress, photo by William J. Carpenter

Native American Horsemen & Horses by Edward Curtis.
Library of Congress photo

US Cavalry Remounts, WWI-era

Library of Congress Photos

1. Breeds brought to America during the SPANISH Conquest:

pictures from the Spanish Conquest period, from imh/bw/sbarb.html

"Old Spanish" horses from Spain at the time of the Conquest

First, I must caution the reader that almost all, if not completely all, of America's Mustangs with Spanish ancestry got theirs from established Spanish breeding farms in Mexico, not directly from the Conquistadores, as many romantics like to believe. The original pure Spanish horses from the Conquistadores did once roam the Great Plains, but those areas have all been settled and the original Spanish mustangs have disappeared through domestication, interbreeding with and being absorbed into the local domestic horse population, or through deliberate human acts to eliminate them.

The Spanish Conquerors brought over the best horses they could find, but as demand grew, they were unable to be too selective. Spanish imports included every conceivable color and many breed types. (I say "breed types" instead of "breeds" because only the Arabian and Andalusian breeds had any consistent record-keeping at that time. The practice of formalizing breeds by recording pedigrees and maintaining breed standards and registries did not become common until later, mainly during the Victorian Era.)

Eventually the demand for horses outgrew their ability to import from Spain. So they set up breeding colonies on islands in the Caribbean and Atlantic coastal areas, and from there, horses were distributed throughout North, Central and South America, eventually contributing to the development of many new breeds on both continents: The Peruvian Paso, Puerto Rican Paso Fino, Criollo, Missouri Foxtrotter, Rocky Mountain Horse, Kentucky Mountain Horse, even the American Quarter Horse. These as well as modern Andalusian & Lusitano horses - also descended from "Old Spanish" type horses - share many characteristics both physically and genetically with modern day mustangs.

The Barb and the Spanish Jennet were two of the most common horse types brought over by the Spanish. The Jennet came in two color patterns: pinto and appaloosa.

From Wikipedia: "Most of the Medieval horses bred during the 16th century in Spain and elsewhere were not "breeds" in the modern sense of the word. The Jennet from Spain became more uniform in type due to a single geographical region producing them as well as generations of selective breeding during the Middle Ages to produce a smooth riding horse that was suitable for the riding style à la jineta. It would never have occurred to a Spaniard of the 16th century to distinguish "breeds" on the basis of registration papers as we do today" -

"Wild Horses" painting by George Catlin
[American Painter, 1796-1872]

"Lady Conaway's Spanish Jennet" by John Wooton, 18th century painter

Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680

It was the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which thousands of horses were deliberately released from the mission ranches (by the Pueblo people), that gave birth to vast wild horse herds of the Great Plains. Horses also spread from the Great Plains out into the East, where they are nearly all gone now. Horses from this "First Wave" of wild horses - the "real" Spanish Mustangs - had mostly been eliminated or simply absorbed into the domestic population by the middle 1800's.

Spanish Horses From Mexican Breeding Farms

Horses were brought into California from Mexico along "El Camino Real" to the Spanish missions and upward into Northern California. When the Great Basin began to be populated by Americans of European descent, in the early to mid-1800's, they often imported large numbers of Spanish horses from Mexico to breed with their domestic horses. Records indicate that Spanish Barb-type horses continued to be imported into California, Oregon, & Nevada in the mid and late 1880's, to be used as range breeding stock.

"We will never know just exactly what horses were brought to the New World, but early records are of a wide variety of colors and markings. Some of the color names used to describe Cortez's horses are almost assuredly describing spotted horses as well as routine white marks. This is evidence that white marks and at least some body spotting patterns appear early in the Colonial Spanish era. These patterns, and white marks in general, therefore strike me as very consistent with an Iberian origin."
D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD

Since there was no photography in the 1500's and 1600's, we have to rely on artwork and written records to determine what horses looked like that the Spanish brought to America.

Photo of Twin Peaks HMA horse in the wild, by Linda Hay
Although most people think of Dun coloring as an indication of Spanish ancestry, which it can be, although it also occurs in some other breeds. The handsome Frame Overo pinto pattern, however, occurs exclusively in horses with Old Spanish ancestry.


Interestingly, there are only a handful of blood markers that unequivocally indicate ancient Iberian origins, and yet, these same markers are lacking in today's modern Iberian horses. Markers are just that - markers - of no known functional importance. The modern Iberian horses have lost these over the years as an accidental consequence of selective breeding for other traits.

Yet, again by chance, these markers survive in many American Mustangs. The Kiger, Sulphur Springs, Pryor Mountain, Lost Creek & Carter Reservoir herds are celebrated for this fact, but many other herds - such as California's Twin Peaks herd, also carry these Old Spanish markers.

Wild horse herds in the U.S. were historically tested using the old blood marker system. The first draft of a comprehensive map of the equine genome was published in 2007, and DNA testing, using hair samples, has replaced the old blood marker system. The latest DNA testing can map a wild horse's breed resemblance, and many more wild horses are turning up with strong Old Spanish connections than the older blood marker system revealed.

"Old" and Modern Spanish Horses:

Today's Spanish breeds are descendants of the same "Old Spanish" stock that our mustangs are. However, they have changed over the years, just as modern mustangs have, through both natural and human selection and the introduction of new genes from outside stock.

2. Horses Developed by Native American horsemen:

These ancient Ute horses look much like many mustangs of today:

Ute horsemen riding horses acquired from the Spanish; Photo from Library of Congress

Benny the Mustang (Triple B Complex) herding cows

Nez Perce Scout, photographed by Edward Curtis 1910

Horses on the range on a Crow Reservation, circa 1910 

Native Horsemen at the Spokane River, c. 1910. Photograph by Edward Curtis

Edward Curtis, "Cayuse Woman with Horse" wearing holiday finest, 1910
The Native American "Indian Pony" breeds were developed by highly skilled Native American people. Those in the North used horses of both Spanish and the larger, cooler-tempered French horse ancestry (including the Percheron and Canadien) to develop their animals, including the best-known Native breed, the Appaloosa. Native Horsemen in the more Southern regions had more access to pure Spanish horses, so their horses were smaller, quicker, and very athletic.


Plains Indian people considered the Medicine Hat pinto to have special powers. Indian horses were of every color and color pattern, but many groups did have a special preference for pintos.

This fact probably figured in European-origin horsemen's prejudice AGAINST the pinto patterns (racism) - a prejudice that is now thankfully subsiding.

The American Paint Horse Association has grown by leaps and bounds, and even the American Quarter Horse Association now accepts pinto patterns. Pinto-colored horses can even do dressage these days!

Pinto patterned mustangs are much in demand, although they comprise only a small percentage of the overall mustang population.

photo by Tori Seavey

THE Appaloosa

The most famous Native breed is the Appaloosa, developed by the Nez Perce people of eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

 Whether today's Appaloosa-colored Mustangs are any closer to the original (which was mostly destroyed by the dominant culture after the Nez Perce were forced into reservations) than the modern Appaloosa breed (which is basically a spotted Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse cross) is unlikely. But there are some beautiful ones! The herds best known for producing appaloosa coloring are Warm Springs in Oregon, Twin Peaks in California, and Granite Range in Nevada. Appaloosas do show up in other herds, too, from time to time.

From The Appaloosa Horse Club's breed history: Famous explorer Meriwether Lewis was very favorably impressed with the breeding accomplishments of the Nez Perce, as noted in his diary entry from February 15, 1806: "Their horses appear to be of an excellent race; they are lofty, eligantly [sic] formed, active and durable…some of these horses are pied with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with black, brown, bey [sic] or some other dark color. "

It is unknown how many of the Nez Perce’s horses were spotted, but a possible estimate is ten percent. Settlers coming into the area began to refer to these spotted horses as “A Palouse Horse”, as a reference to the Palouse River, which runs through Northern Idaho. Over time, the name evolved into “Palousey,” “Appalousey,” and finally “Appaloosa.”

In the mid-1800s, settlers flooded onto the Nez Perce reservation, and conflicts soon ensued. The Nez Perce War of 1877 resulted in their herds being dispersed, killed, or destroyed by deliberately cross-breeding them to draft horses or other "undesirable" types.

To READ MORE ABOUT THE APPALOOSA HISTORY from the Appaloosa Horse Club, and the Appaloosa Museum breed history, click the underlined links.

Although the Appaloosa is the most well-known Native American-derived breed, there were others. Click here to read about the Cayuse Indian Pony



This wildly colored Appaloosa-type Mustang is from Wyoming
Lori McWhorter and her Warm Springs HMA
Appaloosa Mustang, Justy

Other Origins of Appaloosa Mustangs:

The Granite Range in Northwestern Nevada has many Appaloosa-colored Mustangs. These are believed to have descended from a stalled circus train in the 1800's

Warm Springs, Oregon HMA mustangs for adoption (photo: Andi Harmon)

Northern California Appaloosa Mustang at an adoption

The Northern Route: Canada and French Horses

In the 1700's and 1800's, Horses also entered North America (and were absorbed into Native American breeding programs particularly in the Northwest) from the Northeast with the French-Canadian Mountain Men. These were of Northern European origin and were larger, heavier horses related to today's Canadien and Percheron breeds.

Click here to read's INDIAN HORSE HISTORY to read about the contribution of the Mountain Men and Native Americans to the North American Horse.

An often forgotten Draft type ancestor of today's wild horses, especially in the Northern states, is the Canadien, brought to this country from Canada, where it was developed from imported French horses.

The Canadian Horse descended from the French stock Louis XIV sent to Canada in the late 17th century. The shipments included a mix of draft and light horses, the latter of which included both pacing  and trotting horses... The exact origins of all the horses are unknown, although the shipments probably included Bretons, Normans, Arabians, Andalusians and Barbs.

"New France furnished the horses taken to the western settlements at Detroit and in the Illinois area. Many of these horses were allowed to run loose in large herds and were only brought in when needed for work.

Great numbers are known to have escaped to run with the mustangs of the American plains - an ancestor never mentioned in writings of the American Mustang."

- From The History of the Canadien Horse



Historical Re-Enactment of "Mountain Men" at 2006 Tournament of Roses "EquestFest"

It is unlikely that the pioneers had a great influence on mustang herds, but there may have been instances in which a rider succumbed to injury or the elements, and the horse ran off and joined the wild herds.

The "Mountain Men" were fur trappers - often French emigrants, who preferred the larger, "cooler-blooded" French-Norman horses such as the Percheron and Canadien. Northwest Coast native groups obtained these horses from Canadian traders, which they used to develop their Appaloosa horses and Cayuse Indian Ponies.

Library of Congress photo

4. Military Cavalry Re-Mount Programs: (American CAVALRY and for the European Market)

Click to see this wonderful old photo of a Cavalry Remount post in Southern California in its entirety, taken about 1917. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Click to read about The US Military - Cavalry Re-Mount Program

The quick, athletic, hardy Spanish-type mustangs were appreciated by military units in both the US and Europe. Their ready availability on the open range was also attractive. However, their small size was a problem. Local ranchers in Northern California, Nevada, and Oregon often maintained "remount" breeding operations, breeding the small, swift, and cheap Spanish range horses to larger domestic Thoroughbred, Morgan, Draft, and other stallions. They contracted with the US military or buyers for various European armies, and were able to make tidy profits selling these "remounts." (from STEENS MOUNTAIN by E.R. Jackman & John Scharff)

Thoroughbred, Morgan, Draft, or Quarter Horse-type stallions were introduced into the wild herds to improve size, while maintaining (hopefully) the desirable characteristics. Of course, not all were rounded up, and those remaining are the ancestors of many of today's wild herds.

The Boer War used many imported American Mustangs,
who were rounded up and sold profitably by Great Basin ranchers.
Photo from Library of Congress

I have read that over 1 million American Mustangs were sent to European and African wars between the last years of the 19th Century and the end of the First World War, and none returned. This is a "contribution" that mustangs have made to the formation of the modern world, which ought to be acknowledged.

5. Ranch and Work Horses:

from a postcard sold at the Gene Autry Museum in Pasadena, photograph from The Library of Congress

Ranch Horses: Ranchers living on the open range allowed their breeding to stock to roam freely. The ground was too rocky to drive fenceposts into it, and there were few trees available to be cut for fence posts. Since there was plenty of space, it made sense to just let the stock roam. They managed the selection of stallions and mares, and rounded up the offspring as needed for ranch work. Over time, many of these herds became truly feral.

Ranch in Elko, Nevada, photographed in 1915 by Rothstein

Many herd areas still produce horses who bear strong resemblance to their Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Hackney, Quarter Horse, or whatever other breed that was once bred by ranchers in the area.

Another photo from the Library of Congress, showing a typical cowboy
(approximately 1/4 of which were Black - did you know that?)
and a typical cow pony.


It was a two-way street: The traditional "Cow pony" with his "cowy" instincts is from Mustang stock with strong Spanish lineage. The original Spanish imports were very "cowy" from generations of selective breeding in Spain, and they passed their instincts on to the horses who eventually populated the plains and Great Basin, and were the seed stock for ranching operations.

Ranchers mixed their larger Thoroughbred or horses that would now be called Quarter Horses (which were developed from Mustangs: the AQHA registration books were not closed to new stock until the 1950's. Many great Quarter Horses include animals simply noted as "Range Mare" in their pedigrees. These range horses were usually Mustangs) into the wild herds to reap the good instincts, quickness, and hardiness of the wild stock, while gaining improved size from the introduced stock. Some of these horses, in their turn, became wild. See for more cow pony history.

Joseph Swasey horse herd at Reid Nielsen Pond in the Sinbad area of Utah in the early 1900's

DRAFT HORSES joined wild horses for a variety of reasons:

  • Sometimes they were abandoned due to economic failure or because they were replaced with a tractor

  • Other times they were deliberately introduced to "dilute" or "improve" the wild herds, by adding size and cooling the natural temperament of the "hot" Spanish horses.

  • During & after the subjugation of the American Indian, draft horses were deliberately released with the carefully developed Native herds, in order to further humiliate the Indians and destroy their ability to use their horses to evade their conquerors.)





Closely related to Clydesdales, the Shire is the draft breed most often mentioned in old accounts of ranching and farming in the West.


Many mustangs today show resemblances to Clydesdales. However, the Sabino gene that is responsible for Clydesdale coloring is the same that is in the Shire, which is mentioned more often in old records.

Suffolk Punch

(photo from Wikipedia)
The humble and hard-working Suffolk Punch is rare these days, due to its lack of "showiness." But in the old days they were a reliable, hard-working breed, used to pull heavy artillery for the military, as well as for farm work.



The Percheron was also popular in the old days. With its Arabian blood, it was a little lighter-stepped and more lively in temperament than some of the other heavy breeds, which made it a good choice for Fire Horse work, as well as general purpose driving/riding farm work.




Saddle horses were the basic transportation unit up until the coming of the automobile. Smooth-riding gaited American saddle horses like the Tennessee Walker and Missouri Fox Trotter were the Corvettes and BMW's of the day. Just like the working ranch stock, "extras" roamed freely on the range, and many stayed there, becoming ancestors to today's wild horses.

Morgans and gaited saddle horses like the Tennessee Walker or Missouri Fox trotter were popular in the old days, for their comfortable ride over long distances.

It is no surprise that many American mustangs test genetically to bear a close resemblance to today's gaited North American saddle horses. And, it is not unusual to find a gaited mustang.

Tennessee Walkers ridden by The New Buffalo Soldiers, a Historical Re-Enactment & Preservation Group

American Saddlebred (one of the gaited North American saddle breeds, closely related to Tennessee Walkers) horses owned by Scripps Miramar

Missouri FoxTrotter

The Cleveland Bay: The Cleveland Bay horse is rare today, but in its time it was known for its solid build, sure-footedness, and for being an all around strong horse.

There are many theories as to the origin of this breed, ranging from the Roman invasion of England to the Andalusian Stallions crossing with native mares of the North Yorkshire region.

The first Cleveland Bay stallions were  imported to Maryland, Virginia and  Massachusetts in the early 1800's. Later  William Cody, America's Buffalo Bill, chose the Cleveland Bay for his Wild  West show. Western States utilized the stallions in their breeding of range horses, to help and improve the size and substance of Western range horses.
- From
Fairview Farm, Horses on Higher Ground
and The Cleveland Bay Society of North America


Many of today's wild herd areas have a history of "Hambletonian" carriage horses being raised in the area. "Hambletonian" is an old-time term for any gaited carriage horse; The name comes from a famous stud named Hambletonian, who was the father of today's Standardbred breed; The famed stallion Hambletonian was foaled May 5, 1849 on Jonas Seely's farm in Sugar Loaf, NY. Raised by William Rysdyk in Chester, NY to become the progenitor of the modern trotting horse. Died, 1876.
photo from Chester County History

The term "Hambletonian" was commonly used in earlier times to denote a pacing or trotting horse, for either saddle or harness use, such as the Standardbred.

 The "Hambletonian" was the "Cadillac" of carriage horses, prized by ranchers for the speed, endurance, and agility. Many wild horse herds descend in part from these.

Years before baseball, harness racing was America’s original national pastime. Harness racing officially began in 1806 when farmers would challenge each other to a "brush" on the road – a race for a short distance at top speed. After the race, these same horses would also then pull a plow or take the family to church on Sunday morning.
 - from Carnegie Center's Currier & Ives Exhibit

Harness racing became wildly popular in the 1800's, continuing into the 1900's, and many people in wild horse country raised and bred trotters and pacers. Many American mustang herds test genetically to bear a close resemblance to today's gaited pacers and trotters

For more about Standardbreds: bw/standard.html

6. Ponies:

Then as now, ponies served as children's mounts. They were also used in mining operations. Due to their small size, they could fit into smaller tunnels to bring back the ore.

A son of pioneer settler Joseph Swasey riding his pony in the Sinbad, Utah area - early 1900's.

Central Asian pony-sized horse

Shetland pony used in mines

Misty Evans and her talented Jackson Mountains "Pony" - Cache was DNA-tested and found to have a strong "pony influence."

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