About Wild Horses and Burros
The Wild Horse: At a Glance
The wild horse (Equus ferus) is a species of the genus Equus, which includes as subspecies the modern domesticated horse (Equus ferus caballus) as well as the undomesticated tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), now extinct, and the endangered Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii). Przewalski’s horse was saved from the brink of extinction and reintroduced successfully to the wild. The tarpan became extinct in the 19th century, though it was a possible ancestor of the domestic horse, and roamed the steppes of Eurasia at the time of domestication.
However, other subspecies of Equus ferus may have existed and could have been the stock from which domesticated horses are descended. Since the extinction of the tarpan, attempts have been made to reconstruct its phenotype, resulting in horse breeds such as the Konik and Heck horse, but the genetic makeup and foundation bloodstock of those breeds is substantially derived from domesticated horses, so these breeds possess domesticated traits.
The mustang is a free-roaming horse of the American west that first descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish. The original mustangs were Colonial Spanish horses, but many other breeds and types of horses contributed to the modern mustang, resulting in varying phenotypes. In the 21st century, mustang herds vary in the degree to which they can be traced to original Iberian horses. Some contain a greater genetic mixture of ranch stock and more recent breed releases, while others are relatively unchanged from the original Iberian stock, most strongly represented in the most isolated populations.
In 1971, the United States Congress recognized that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.” The free-roaming mustang population is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. National Park Service.
Controversy surrounds the sharing of land and resources by free-ranging mustangs with the livestock of the ranching industry, and also with the methods with which the federal government manages the wild population numbers. A policy of rounding up excess population and offering these horses for adoption to private owners has been inadequate to address questions of population control, and many horses now live in temporary holding areas, kept in captivity, but not adopted to permanent homes.
Advocates for mustangs also express concerns that the animals may be sold for horse meat. Additional debate centers on the question of whether mustangs — and horses in general — are a native species or an introduced invasive species.