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Everything about Mustangs (wild horses) and Burros (wild donkeys)

What are Mustangs and Burros?

A "Mustang" is a horse that is either wild born or born to a wild-born mare who was pregnant with that foal at the time of her capture. Their legal status is "Wild Free Roaming Horses" - although technically they are the descendants of domestic horses who went feral many years ago, (at least since 1971 and as long ago as the 1500's) for a variety of reasons (See "History" page).

Likewise, a "Burro" is a feral donkey. Most burros today are descendants of Spanish donkeys used by miners and prospectors, or by sheepherders (most of them Basque in origin) who used them to guard their flocks.

Most Mustangs in the American West have at least some ancestry that goes back to the original Spanish horse breeding farms in Mexico in the 16th through 19th Centuries. Some are remnants of horses bred by Native American groups (which they got primarily from the Spanish) during the great age of Native American Horsemanship. Some Mustangs originated with the Cavalry Remount businesses of the 1800's to mid-1900's, and all are at least partially descended from working ranch stock from the 1800's and 1900's: "cow ponies", carriage horses, saddle stock, racing sports, kids' ponies, and even some heavy draft horses.

Wild horses today are mostly found in the Great Basin and desert regions of 10 western states: Nevada (which has over half the total), California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.

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How did Mustangs and Burros get there and why did they need federal protection?


Before the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse & Burro Protection Act, ranchers in the open range areas of the Great Basin allowed their stock to roam freely, because the land was difficult to fence (too rocky and no available trees to use as fencing materials) and homesteads were few and far between. When ranchers needed new horses, they went out and captured what they needed. Burros were brought into the area by prospectors for carrying tools, and by sheepherders, for protecting their sheep from predators.


The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act was enacted by Congress to solve several problems, mainly the destruction of the range by overgrazing of livestock, and disputes between competing stockmen and sheepherders about grazing territories, etc.  But an unplanned consequence was that it pitted wild horses against livestock interests. Taylor, combined with the coming of motorized vehicles and farm machinery, changed the free-roaming herds from being a valued resource to a pest.

After World War II, Americans started keeping domestic pets in greater numbers, and wanting to take better care of them than just throwing them some table scraps. Commercially produced dog food became a booming business. The growing dog food market provided a ready outlet for horse meat. Wild horses were at risk of being captured and killed  - often quite cruelly - for the growing dog food market after World War II, and the population plummeted. (The Marilyn Monroe movie, "The Misfits" conveyed fairly accurately the horror of wild horse capture for the dog food market). Concerned about the cruelty, and the possibility of total eradication of wild herds, Velma "Wild Horse Annie" Johnston along with many, many others, pushed for legislation to protect the remaining horses.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Protection Act. At that time, locations with wild herds were identified, and those that could be protected* were assigned to the Bureau of Land Management for protection and management. (*Unfortunately, wild horses in metropolitan areas, such as around the cities of Reno and Carson City, Nevada, were left out of this legal protection, due to being too close to large private tracts that were being developed)

After the passage of "the Act" ranchers had a year or two to brand and file to pay grazing fees for the horses they wanted (or could afford) to keep, and the rest became property of the US government as wild horses. These horses and burros left on the range became the ancestors of today's wild horses. We can still see the influence of those early ranchers and regional enterprises in the various herds. Today's Mustangs come in a full range of sizes and physical types, reflecting their varied ancestry.

Wild horses and burros live in some of the most marginally productive lands in the country. Water is the main limiting resource. These lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is charged, by law, to manage the lands within a multiple use format, with resources being shared by wildlife, mining & energy development, recreational activities (hiking, camping, ATV and RV use, bird watching, hunting, fishing, etc), livestock grazing, and the wild horse and burro herds.

Being large animals, the only predator capable of having an impact on herd populations is the cougar, or mountain lion, and it is rare or non-existent in most Herd Management Areas, due to human efforts to eliminate them from livestock or human activity areas. As a result, horse herds experience rapid population growth, averaging about 20% per year in most areas.  Periodic roundups are the primary means BLM uses to control populations.

Effective birth control pharmaceuticals are available, and have been for several years. But these efforts have never been applied on a widespread enough scale to make a big difference, and local ranchers often exert political and legal pressures to thwart BLM efforts to release treated animals back on to the range, preferring that the animals simply be removed. Attempts to explore various other fertility control methods have repeatedly drawn organized resistance from various "advocate" groups. In the meantime, numbers continue to grow.


Captured animals are offered for adoption to qualified people through the BLM’s Adopt a Wild Horse or Burro program. After caring for an animal for one year, adopters are eligible to receive title, or ownership, from the Federal government. The one year waiting period is for the animal's protection, to keep them out of the hands of people wanting to make a quick profit by re-selling the horse to a meat-packer, as well as to allow unsuccessful adopters to return the animal to BLM while it is still under federal protection. Once the animal has passed the one-year titling period, it becomes private property.

Unlike other agencies in this country and around the world, The Bureau of Land Management does not slaughter or sell horses to slaughter, so they care for captured in horses in large federal facilities, for the animals' life in some cases. 



How are Mustangs different from
Domestic horses?


Wild horses are, first and foremost, simply HORSES. In most ways they are just like any other horse. There are some important differences, however:

Blank Slate: Wild horses haven't been spoiled, abused or taught bad behaviors by anyone else. They are "Pure Horse." Many people appreciate the challenge of working with a "Blank Slate."

Stronger Instincts for Self-Preservation: This can be a real challenge to handlers, especially veterinarians and farriers, who sometimes have to handle horses who may not actually be ready for it. It also guarantees tough times if your method of horse training is based on domination. A horse's self-preservation instincts do look for a worthy leader they can trust. But they will defy a bully. Better to train by earning trust, rewarding right choices, and :making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard" as Ray Hunt said.


Greater Situational Awareness:  My favorite Mustang story to illustrate this, is that once I went to a training clinic, where the clinician's format was to give each participant and their horse an individual session in the round pen, while the rest of us watched. The first 4 horses happened to be Mustangs. They ran around, did their paces, whatever, and then the first domestic came in. All of a sudden the horse was falling and tripping with almost every step. What was wrong? It turns out the surface of the round pen was pitted with ground squirrel holes. The mustangs all saw the holes and avoided them seamlessly. Mustangs know where their feet are!


A wild horse has a deep ability to read and understand movement, energy, intent, and body language. The horse can read YOU loud and clear. We do not always read the horse well, however, and that's when the trouble starts. As Jerry Tindell says, "They were born into a Black Belt Family!"

Socialization: A horse who has spent time in a social band is smarter, has a stronger sense of himself, and is more sophisticated socially than one who has grown up isolated a in its own stall. Such a horse already knows good manners, respect, the ability to function in a social order, how to get along with others. Wild horses understand leadership - what a good leader is, and how to follow a good leader.


Wild horses have a much stronger sense of self-preservation than domestic horses, which must be understood in a training program. Going at the horse's pace and making sure everything is solid and thorough before moving to a more advanced step is very important.


Building trust is critical. Mustangs are capable of great loyalty, once they have learned to trust you.  But until then, that sense of self-preservation will be challenging. That takes time and, to some extent, skill. It isn't a matter of a single "bonding exercise" and you're done. If your goal is to keep your horse long-term, you will have greater success if you go slowly, allowing the horse to fully assimilate each new stage of training. Spend time with your horse. Let him or her get to know you, as you get to know your horse.

Like all horses, mustangs are honest, and will give you immediate and honest feedback. That is why working with horses is so useful for personal growth, and even for rehabilitating prisoners or people with histories of abuse, PTSD, or other negative experiences.

Wild horses, like mules, MUST be trained the way all horses SHOULD be trained. They will not respond well either to being treated harshly or handled aggressively, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, they will not respond to being handled in a lax or indecisive manner. They will not do well if rushed, if you skip steps.


They do best if trained slowly and thoroughly, without skipping steps or pushing for rapid progress. They do not respond well to anger, nor to "wimpiness". Like children and dogs, they thrive best when provided compassionate but clear, consistent, and fair boundaries. They need to know what the rules are, and will take over if you can't stick to them.

Gentling and training your wild horse will make you a better trainer and handler of all equines, and a better person, too.

Like any horse, the better the training, the better the horse.

Health: Many wild horses tend to be "easy keepers" who get fat on the rich diet most people offer their domestic horses. They also tend to have strong feet and legs. There are exceptions, of course - each horse is unique. Their constitutions are usually hardy and healthy, often surviving sickness and injury that would be fatal to most horses, and recovering more quickly from injuries. They continue growing until they are 6 or 7 years old, and will often experience a growth spurt after capture, when their nutritional levels rise.



Burros are wild donkeys, descendants of donkeys used to haul prospectors's tools or to guard sheep.


How are burros different from domestic donkeys? They aren't really. Wild burros are afraid of you, because they don't know what to make of you. Your goal in gentling is simply to make friends with them. Once gentled, they are simply donkeys with a brand on their neck - otherwise they are the same as domestic donkeys. Most domestic donkeys have much the same mindset and self-preservation instincts as wild ones - the only difference is their familiarity with people.


All donkeys - wild and domestic - are highly intelligent, thinking animals. They respond to kind treatment and will gradually lose their fear of you, without your having to learn special gentling techniques. They do process a bit slowly. Jerry Tindell says "It takes a donkey and hour and a half to watch a one hour TV show." But don't be fooled by speed. Donkeys are amazingly intelligent. "If donkeys had opposable thumbs, they would rule the world." 


The most effective training is slow, deliberate, and respectful of a donkey's need to process and figure it out.


Their reputation for stubbornness is based on misunderstanding: Donkeys simply want to be safe, and to understand things. Until they understand what is being asked of them, they will consider it potentially unsafe. Unlike horses, you cannot force a donkey to do anything that they feel is unsafe. Work to earn their trust, and give them time to process your requests.


Unlike horses, donkeys can learn by watching: SHOW them what you want (example: if you want the donkey to step onto a platform, stand on it yourself to show him that it is safe). A very effective method of gentling a wild one is simply to have it live with - or within easy watching distance of - one who is already friendly.

Most "Standard" sized donkeys are descended from wild burros.

BLM Burros can be trained to ride, drive, pack, and guard livestock. (caveat: Donkeys protect what they love. If they haven't bonded with it, they won't protect it. When Mrs. Bobcat comes around our chickens, for instance, the donkeys could care less.) They also make lovable pets.

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Swasey horses Reid Nielsen Pond Sinbad_s
Mustangers pursuing a fleeing mustang
Velma Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie"
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Mustang T-Shirt



Beautiful painting of two mustangs, by renowned artist, Bonnie Shields, printed on a 100% cotton
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A wild horse starting to relax and trust his adopter
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Learn more about working with wild horses and burros:

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