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The History of Wild Horses

What is a wild horse and where did they come from?
Long ago all horses were wild animals. They ran free in large herds, or bands across the vast grasslands all over the world. Early horse know as the dawn horse originated in North America.

They were a prairie animal along with the American Camel, Saber Tooth Tiger, and Wooly Mammoth. The American Horse is the only animal from that time period that is still alive today. The early horse migrated over land bridges to other parts of the world such as Spain and Portugal and developed into the animal we know as Equine/Equus today. (This type of horse is known as the Iberian Horse.)


     When the climate in North America changed, the early horses called dawn horses numbers were reduced and many migrated to the coastlines where it was warmer. Domestication of the early horse took place in the region of the Black Sea over 4,000 years ago. The domestication of the horse was the engine that changed the history of the transportation, warfare, and exploration of the world.

     The Conquistadors brought fast, strong and sturdy work horses from Spain and Portugal that carried the explorers through the jungles and across the deserts in search of gold in the New World of the Americas. In the 1600’s, Spanish settlers raised their tough little horses on cattle and sheep ranches in New Mexico. Some ranch horses escaped to live in the wild. These horses of Spanish and Portuguese bloodlines mixed with original American Horse living in wild and with Native Americans. The free-running horses came to be called “mustangs,” probably from the Spanish word meaning mesteno, which means stray or free-running animal. (Choctaw Indian Ponies)

    Some of the escaped Spanish horses grazed freely on the open plains. Later as other settlers came across the prairies other types of horses and ponies such as saddle horses like Morgans; and draft horse breeds including Percheron, Belgians, and Clydesdales escaped or were turned loose to join the wild herds.

    Even though most of the wild horse herds were no longer all pure Spanish horses, even the mixed breed animals were called mustangs. In the mid 1800’s there were millions of wild mustangs free roaming in the United States. Because of the harsh habitat of the wild horse ranges, they developed into strong small horses capable of living on their own.

     In 1971 a federal law was passed that banned capturing, harming or killing free-roaming horses or burros on public land. The care and management of the wild horse herds on federal land was turned over to the Bureau of Land Management. Today about 50,000 wild horses live on private ranches, wildlife refuges, Native American reservations, federal land and in sanctuaries. Nearly all of the ranges are rugged and dry environments where the wild horses must work hard to survive. The future of wild horses on federal ranges is now in transition as the court system battles the status of the ban on wild horse slaughter.
* Information on wild horse history from Wild Horses by Julia Vogel. 


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