Bear with me a moment as I delve into some necessary background. I promise you, this becomes more interesting.
A "breed" of animal, in simple terms, is a group of animals that consistently pass on definite characteristics.
Mustangs are not a "breed" of horses. They tend to be shorter and have good feet, but beyond this, they're not recognizable from any other grade horse. They can be very stocky or quite lanky, any color and any conformation. Over the decades, mustang blood has been mingled with that of Thoroughbreds, draft horses, gaited horses, Quarterhorses-- basically, any horse abandoned by, or escaped from, the settlers of America. A mustang is therefore defined as a feral horse. (Think feral housecats.)
For many generations, the poor mustangs were treated as pests. Used hard by cowboys, poisoned, trapped and shot, sometimes slaughtered to supply pet food canneries and Indian boarding schools, they were destroyed to free up grazing land for cattle.
Then, in the 60s, a movement coalesced to save the mustangs. People began to idealize them as a symbol of America. Mustangs represented freedom, rugged independence and toughness. In 1971, an act was passed setting aside reservations and funding programs to study and protect mustangs.
From this point on, some mustang fans became a little... silly. They were not content to own tough-as-nails, intelligent horses with a place in history. They wanted more. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because breed snobs were pushing papers over performance. Maybe it began as a way to legitimize all mustangs to a skeptical public. Perhaps it was because of a basic human tendency to want your favorite thing to be recognized as the coolest.
Anyway, some mustang fans decided they needed to prove that their horses were directly descended from Spanish horses brought over to the Americas by the settlers and explorers from Europe. They faced several problems:
- No single breed of horse was brought over by the Spanish.
- The historical descriptions of the horses they brought over are almost completely nonexistent.
- Some of the early European "breeds" of horses were ill-defined, and disappeared, folded into later breeds.
- DNA testing, especially of horses (because we haven't gathered enough data on them) is sketchy when it comes to identifying geographic or breed origin.
Ouch. Poor BLM mustangs. So much for tough-as-nails symbols of freedom. I guess they can't join the club. Which is funny, because while SMR says they're not the same, weren't all mustangs at one point wild/feral/BLM? If many mustangs have Spanish blood, like some people claim, aren't there probably some sitting in a BLM corral somewhere? There sure isn't a lot of explanation on the SMR website.
There isn't a lot of explanation about what sets apart a "Spanish" mustang either. Although there are a great many words on on the SMR Breed Characteristics page, mostly defining the basics of good conformation found in any breed, the definition of a Spanish Mustang seems to be very wide open. The Spanish Mustang Registry describes their "breed" as horses that are: gaited or not gaited, of any color, any type which "ranges from a heavier type to lighter type," is over 13.2 hands but (hopefully) not over 15 (it's "frowned upon"), and has good conformation, including a shorter back. Um. Not very specific, eh? I think that describes at least 3/4 of the grade horses with decent conformation out there. But ah, there's more! The most important part is that you have papers. A Spanish Mustang has to come from registered parents! You may be able to sneak in by providing documents with proof of ancestry and a physical examination, but not having papers seems to be heavily frowned upon.
I think we just stepped into the Twilight Zone. Mustang breed snobs?
And wait a minute... if a mustang is defined as a feral horse, and is supposed to be known for its toughness, hard-won from spending years surviving in the wild... are these registered, purposefully bred horses really mustangs? Will they be mustangs several generations from now?
I envision two possible scenarios for this "special" type of "mustang."
1) The breeders do what good breed snobs do, and carefully select for great conformation, temperament and athletic ability. They pick the best mustangs (hopefully some from the thousands sitting in BLM corrals) and don't just go for coat color or mystique. Then they train, compete and market those mustangs in all disciplines. The organization goes on to rival AQHA for popularity among American horsepeople. Finally, we get an all-American horse built for actual use, instead of looking pretty in the show ring.
2) The breeders breed willy-nilly to whatever they want, including "registered Spanish/Kiger/Sorraia" mustangs, regardless of conformation or ability. The breeders don't breed for show or competition, they just breed, breed, breed. The "special" mustangs bunch becomes just another rather lame group, like the Blue Eyed Horse Association-- long on pretty words, made-up history and mystique, short on actual value. While thousands of mustangs rot in BLM corrals, these breeders produce more mustangs of no better worth. The "special" mustangs can no longer even claim to be good at surviving in the wild, having come from generations of captive-bred horses.
If you've read my Scumbag Mustang Breeder blog, you know there's already a ton of terrible mustang breeders out there that produce crap like this:
Ugh. No hip, super short upright shoulder, long back, no bone. Gross. Now check out this "Spanish Mustang" stallion, currently breeding mares for Bryant Rickman:
Ugghhh. Let's see, I guess one nice thing I can say about him is... his pasterns are nice? Which does not forgive the long back, non-existent hip, awful shoulder and utter lack of loin.
But perhaps we shouldn't totally despair. Far from the wild west, there's one Wisconsin breeder who may be on the right track. Meet Dan de Lion, the "Spanish Mustang" stallion, owned by Dave and Jessie Clason of the Windy Ridge farm in Soldiers Grove, WI.
Ooooohh! Hey there handsome! What a body. And have I ever mentioned I have a major softspot for buckskins? Now before we get to drooling too much, know that Dan de Lion isn't perfect. Obviously, he's build a bit downhill. I'd also like to see just a tad more bone in his legs. But he's got a great hip, a good shoulder, a nice shortish back, and fantastic leg angles. In this particular pic, you may be fooled into thinking he's sickle-hocked. Not so. He's just not standing square-- if you look closely, you'll see his right hind leg held back, hidden behind his tail, moving his left rear into the forward-and-under position you see it in. You can check out more pictures of Dan de Lion on his Facebook album. Just remember to put plastic down on your keyboard if you're going to drool all over. He's been at the Midwest Horse Fair the past 2-3 years, and I hope he makes it again. If we must breed mustangs, let it be with studs like him.
Now then, for those of you who think you can spot the difference between a mustang, a Spanish Mustang, and any other horse, let's have a little quiz, shall we? In the picture below, I've mingled three mustangs (one regular and two "Spanish mustangs,") with five other horses. Can you pick out the mustangs? Post your results in the comments below, and I'll post the answers next time.
|Click on the picture to see it bigger.|
To conclude our day of the mustang, here are a few links, and a few questions.
The "DNA test" done on one person's mustang came back showing tentative results of a mix of genes from gaited horses and... ponies. Underneath, however, is written, "The pony association probably is not real. Looks like Spanish blood." Is this wishful thinking, inadequate DNA testing, or something else? I've not been able to even find any DNA testing services that offer horse DNA testing for anything other than genetic diseases, coat color and matching horses to their immediate family. Have you ever had your horse DNA tested?
Mustangs become more popular thanks to the movie Hidalgo, which was "based on a true story." But did you know that the main character, Frank Hopkins, completely made up his horse adventure stories? Read more here.