Beginning: Menu  Pre-History  Domestication  Return to America  Return to the Wild   Mid-1800's to 1970   The Creation of the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program   Wild Horses & Burros in the 21st Century

Alternative Histories   Our Mustang Heritage

Mid-1800's through mid-1900's:


In the 1800's, people began to settle in the Great Basin area, and they brought with them their horses. Remember that the Great Basin area is semi-desert with few trees and very rocky ground. Until the invention and widespread availability of barbed wire, fencing was next to impossible. So most ranchers and homesteaders simply let their stock roam, going out and catching them as needed.


During the Civil War through the World War I era, Both the US Cavalry and many private enterprises kept the US and European militaries supplied with horses. The breeding, training (usually pretty quick and basic), and selling of cavalry horses is called the Cavalry Remount Program. Ranchers released Morgan, Arabian, Thoroughbred, and occasional other stallions into the wild herds, and then rounded up offspring to use as Cavalry Remounts. (The remaining un-captured ones are the ancestors of today's wild horse herds in many areas) Such foreign wars as the Boer Wars were the source of considerable profit for many Great Basin ranchers. The base herds of Spanish horses could be obtained cheaply from breeding farms in Mexico, and, when mixed with larger domestic stallions, the resulting offspring had the quickness and athleticism of the Spanish mustang, combined with the larger size of the domestic stallions.

Horses awaiting shipment at a Cavalry Remount station in California

"In 1899 the Boer War in South Africa and later the Spanish-American War created a large demand for military mounts. Many wild horses were rounded up and shipped overseas.

During World War I, ranchers such as Harry Wilson went into business with the federal government raising horses for the Army. Wilson provided Standardbred mares acquired from the Miller and Lux ranches and the government furnished Thoroughbred studs.

Over 1,700 head of Wilson horses ran from High Rock Canyon north to the Oregon border, including all of the present day Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge." (from "MUSTANG COUNTRY)

An estimated 1 million captured and "broken" mustangs went to Europe and Africa during the later years of the Nineteenth Century and first half of the 20th Century, to fight various causes - usually European, occasionally American. None returned.
Paul Scholtz photo of WWI-era Cavalry rider and horse in France

"Many of the wild horse herds originated as the result of large numbers of horses being imported into Northwest Nevada for the purpose of starting herds of high quality stock.

One of the earliest horse operations in northwest Nevada was in the Smoke Creek Desert. 500 Spanish-Barb horses were purchased for 50 cents a head in San Diego, trailed north to the Smoke Creek Desert and released in the early 1860s.

Ranchers and settlers also turned draft and saddle horses loose on the open range to pasture, gathering them as the need arose. Other horses escaped, were abandoned or were set loose when hard times made feed unaffordable. These horses commonly became referred to as wild horses or mustangs. Once the wild herds were established, it was common practice for ranchers to release high-grade stock to improve the quality of the herds." (from "MUSTANG COUNTRY)

Although there are no longer any wild herds of Mustangs in California West of the Sierras, there once were huge herds throughout the Central Valley and coastal ranges. Nearly every community today has a "Wild Horse Valley" or "Wild Horse Lane" - testimony to the presence of wild horses at some time back in history.

Here's a link to an article that mentions a little-known chapter in American History, combining the contributions of both Mustangs and Chinese laborers to construct the dams for the Oakland Water District: At Chabot Dam, hundreds of Chinese workers using mules and mustangs made 500,000 cubic yards of concrete and packed earth.

- (Thanks to Willis Lamm for finding this)


Ranchers living in unfenced rangelands typically allowed their ranch stock to run freely when not being used for ranch work. Most ranchers made use of the wild herds as an important resource, providing new working stock as needed. Others captured and trained them for sale to Eastern states, the military, or other ranchers. Since the original Spanish horses were the result of hundreds of years of selective breeding for ranch work in Spain, most of these horses were by nature "cowy" and adapted well to ranch work. Ranchers often took pride in importing stallions of top European bloodlines to release into their local wild herds, to "improve" them, usually adding size and an overall appearance more to their liking.

Catching and "breaking" wild horses for ranch work was a daily fact of life - not the big deal we think it is today. We tend to lose sight of this in today's world. Gentling and training a wild horse is not only possible, it used to be commonplace.

"Branding Wild Horses" on a ranch in Wyoming

Above: A Native American family and their horses



Frankie Winnemucca of Nixon, NV breaking a "bronc" in 1948
- Washoe County Library

NOTE: This section is repeated in the Nevada section of the "Gallery of HMAs" but is relevant here as well:


Spaniards brought horses with them to the Southwest the 16th and 17th centuries. But horses preferred the grassy plains to the rugged semi-desert of the Great Basin, so it wasn't until settlement began in the 1800's that wild horse herds began to develop in this area to any great extent. Most were brought there by ranchers, who allowed them to roam the range at will, since there was plenty of room, and the treeless, rocky landscape was hard to fence. Ranchers would periodically go round the horses up and capture the ones they wanted to train for ranch work, or for sale to others. Many ranchers imported large herds of Spanish horses from Mexican breeding farms set up by the Spanish Colonials. People also imported from Europe or brought out from the East, individuals of breeds they liked, including Morgans, Thoroughbreds, the various gaited saddle breeds, and heavy farm horses, as well as ponies for their children, and sometimes to work the mine tunnels. For sport, racing, especially carriage/cart racing, was huge in the area at that time. So many areas kept "Hambletonians" - the progenitors of today's Standardbred horses.

"Hambletonian" by Currier and Ives

Hambletonian cart horse

Cavalry Remount breeding operations thrived during the 1800's into the mid-1900's, and those who were never rounded up contribute to the larger size found in some Nevada herds, such as Black Rock East & West. The Cavalry Remount ranchers took advantage of the local wild herds (usually the small, athletic Spanish types, who descended from Mexican breeding farms. They were cheap and very hardy) and introduced their own choice of larger stallions.

Prior to the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 before it, it was common practice for local ranchers to manage the wild horses in their areas, periodically releasing studs with “good blood” to “upgrade” the herds. Such wild-born stock was the basis of most ranching horses, what we now call "cow ponies." In this way wild herds contributed to the development of several modern breeds, most notably the Quarter Horse, but also others, including the Rocky Mountain Horse (which was developed in Kentucky from a wild stallion brought in from the Great Basin).

A few particular Old-Time Nevada ranchers made very notable contributions to the character and quality of wild herds in various places in Nevada:

"The Dixon Strain"

Tom Dixon was a rancher who came from Ireland to California and then to Nevada in 1869. He raised Shires, Percherons, Morgans, Hambletonians, and various Irish stock. "Hambletonians" is not a term we hear much today, but they were popular in the 1800's and were the foundation bloodline for the Standardbred breed of today.

Many adopted Nevada Mustangs today, whose adopters have had them DNA tested, have "Irish Breeds" as prominent in their genetics reports. Irish breeds include the Connemara, Irish Draught, Irish Hobby (an extinct breed that provided foundation stock for the modern Thoroughbred, Irish Draught, and Gypsy breeds), and Kerry Bog Pony.

Dixon ran his horses from Long Valley to Fish Creek, Spring, Diamond, and Monitor Valleys, and his herds numbered over 10,000.

Tom Dixon is also credited with brining Curly mustangs into West-Central Nevada.

"Clifford “Steeldusts”

Yet another source of today's wild herds were the Clifford “Steeldusts.” “Steeldust” was a common name referring to a preferred type of cow pony. These horses were descendants of Steel Dust, a Kentucky bred stud born in 1843.

Steel Dust was of Thoroughbred lineage, but an excellent sprinter. He was a blood bay who stood 15 hands high and weighed 1200 lbs. He was moved to Texas and became a popular sire for ranch stock. Many ranchers would breed wild mares of Spanish decent to Steel Dust, and the result was a much desired cow horse.

Horses of Steel Dust lineage became commonly known as “Steeldusts,” and these horses later became known as Quarter Horses.

The Damele Family and the Curly horses:

Wild horses with curly coats were seen around Eureka, Nevada, from its earliest days in the 1860's. Some believe they originated with importation from somewhere by Tom Dixon. A family of Italian immigrants, the Dameles, settled in the Eureka area around the turn of the Century. Beginning in the 1930's, the Damele brothers began breeding curly mustangs brought in from the wild. They are considered the founders of the Curly breed.

The Jackson Family of the Calico Mountains Region:

Wild horses were managed as part of the Jackson family's operations in Northwest Nevada above Gerlach, NV, up until the passing of the 1971 Act. The Jacksons loved color, and were especially fond of the pinto patterns. They introduced colorful mares into the local wild herds. The Calico Mountains, and its neighbor, the Granite Range, are two of the most colorful wild herds today. (Although today they have more buckskins, palominos and duns than pintos)


Regionally, wild herds today bear the unmistakable marks of both their original Spanish ancestors and the domestic breeds added to them. Some herds carry the genes of carriage horses, trotting and pacing horses, gaited saddle breeds such as Tennessee Walker, heavy draft horses, the American Standardbred, etc. - Others type similar to Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses, still others show Morgan or Shire ancestry.  And some are descended from ponies.



The coming of the automobile and motorized tractor, as well as the Depression era of this century resulted in many unwanted horses, particularly drafts and carriage horses, but also saddle horses, being abandoned from farms and ranches. Many, Many horses that were no longer needed went to slaughter during this historical period. But if a rancher had access to open space, he often opted to simply release the stock onto the range, to fend for themselves.


From the beginnings of the commercial pet food market in the 1930's until the 1970’s, wild horses were frequently captured and slaughtered for pet food. The capture and slaughter processes were particularly cruel (The Marilyn Monroe flick "The Misfits" has some fairly accurate depictions of the process of "mustanging.") and numbers were decreasing toward a second extinction. These commercial "mustangers" differed from traditional "mustangers" in that they had no interest in preserving the herds, or selecting for quality. These new mustangers valued only the money that was to be made selling the horses for dog meat. There was no interest in their welfare or their preservation.

Old-time "Mustangers"  


Up until the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, the entire Great Basin was open range. Anyone, whether they owned land or not, could graze livestock - usually cattle, sheep, and/or horses - on the open range.

The good thing about this for people is that it allowed anyone, rich or poor, the make a living as a "rancher." The good thing for wild horse herds is that they were valued and managed, with careful selection for type and overall quality.

The bad thing for the ecosystem is that there was no way of preventing severe over-grazing by sheep, cattle AND horses - and resulting desertification. The short grass prairie gave way to semi-desert, and the semi-desert to total desert. The range was being destroyed.  And the range is huge - over 80 Million acres of American Public Land in 11 western states.

Responsible ranchers who wanted to preserve the range had been calling for Congress to enact some kind of regulatory system for some time. The Dust Bowl on the Great Plains was a wake-up call everywhere. So in 1934, President Roosevelt signed into law the Taylor Grazing Act, to "stop injury to the public grazing lands [excluding Alaska] by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration; to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development; [and] to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range"

This Act set up a system of permits and permit fees, with enforcement penalties. Permits were only issued for part of the year, in order to allow the land to recover during winter and early spring.  In order to get a permit, a rancher had to own a base property, where stock could be kept during time off the range.

The Taylor Grazing Act had a number of immediate and sometimes unanticipated side effects:

The cowboys who had run cattle, sheep, and/or horses on the open range, but who owned no land, were immediately put out of business. They had to gather up their stock and remove it if they could. Otherwise, the animals - usually horses - remained in place, to become "unclaimed ferals." The horses who were not removed during the winter became seen as a pest, as unclaimed feral animals who were eating grass that people wanted for their stock. For the first time, the wild horse's right to be there came into question, as it paid no grazing fees.

The Road To Hell is often paved with good intentions. The Taylor Grazing Act solved some of the worst abuses of public land. But it favored wealthier land owners, putting many landless cowboys out of business. And, for the first time, it placed the wild horse in an adversarial position, pitted against ranchers for meager desert resources.

After 1934 there was a huge effort to rid the range of these "pests" and tens of thousands of horses were shot, rounded up, or otherwise gotten rid of during the next decade. During WWII people had more pressing things to do, so wild herd numbers increased again. But in the post-war years, the pet food industry's use of wild horse meat rapidly expanded, and by the mid-1960's, people were thinking that the wild horse would go extinct.

At first no one cared, or if they did, they did nothing. But gradually people's attitudes began to change, and the wild horse began to be admired for its tough ability to survive in the face of concerted efforts to eliminate it. A more romantic, sympathetic image of the Mustang developed in the public psyche, and they began to be seen as a symbol of America's spirit, and the last reminders of our pioneer past, representing the days of the open range and the era of cowboys and Indians, an animal who deserved protection.                                              

Here's an article from TIME magazine in 1939:

Wild Horse Round-Up

Monday, Feb. 20, 1939

Tens of thousands of "mustangs" and "fuzztails" — the wild descendants of horses that, have strayed from ranches — used to roam the vast sagebrush ranges of the U. S. Northwest. In wilder days, wild horse roundups were carried on periodically for the Portland, Ore. firm of Schlesser Bros., then the world's biggest packers of horsemeat.

In five years (1925-30) the Schlessers slaughtered some 300,000 head of outlaws, salted their meat in 51 -gallon barrels, shipped most of it to Holland and Scandinavia. Hooves, ears, tails were sold for glue and oil; ground bones and scraps for chickenfeed ; hides for baseballs and shoes ; blood for fertilizer; casings for German sausage. Then the day of the wild horse began to wane, and the Schlessers turned to packing beef.

As winter last week finally settled over the "horse heaven" country of central Washington, the weather-wise Yakima Indians had already finished their first wild horse round-up of the year, thus reducing by 200 the estimated 2,500 outlaws still remaining in Oregon and Washington.

Whooping like their warrior ancestors, the Indians rode their own cayuses in hot pursuit of the outlaws, chased them out of deep canyons into trap corrals, where long fences led them into bottlenecks.

Cattlemen and the U. S. Government have two principal reasons for desiring a clean-up of the remaining wild horses: it will save the range for livestock, remove the menace of the dread dourine (genital) diseases often found in wild horses.



Beginning: Menu  Pre-History  Domestication  Return to America  Return to the Wild   Mid-1800's to 1970   The Creation of the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program   Wild Horses & Burros in the 21st Century

Alternative Histories   Our Mustang Heritage