How tough is “mustang tough”?

Often on social media, I’ll see people who are worried about the well-being of mustangs. They have a hard time understanding how they can survive in the wild, and I’ll respond with something like, “Like all wildlife they are extremely adapted to their environment. They are mustang tough, and know exactly what to do to survive.” For the most part, people are appreciative of that brief reassurance, but recently I wondered: do people understand what mustang tough means? If they understood, would they be so quick to feel sympathy for the “hardships” mustangs face?

Personally, I prefer to give mustangs the benefit of the doubt. Sure, life in the wild seems tough to us, but if mustangs weren’t adapted to live in the wild, then their current population would be at zero. Admittedly, that’s an extreme statement, so let me back up a bit. Modern day mustangs have been here since the Conquistadors brought them over, and have thrived ever since. Some people might claim that it is because they are invasive, but if that were the case then mountain lions wouldn’t have as much historic impact in managing the horses’ numbers. So, regardless of your viewpoint, for the purposes of this blog post, mustangs are a returned native species. I could spend all day explaining that point, but I think I’ll save it for another blog post. Instead, in no particular order, I thought I’d go over some of the things that make mustangs extremely adapted to their environment.

To start, I thought I’d describe the environment they live in. Using the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range as an example, some horses live in the desert Dryhead year round, and other use the mountain top for seasonal grazing. In the winter, the mountain top horses spend time in lower elevations between the Dryhead and mountain top. Depending on the winter, they are able to stay in secluded parts of the range, but sometimes even Mountain Top horses are spotted in the Dryhead in winter.

Here's a picture from the Dryhead to give people an idea of the different colors in the rock.

Here’s a picture from the Dryhead to give people an idea of the different colors in the rock.

Not my best landscape shot, but this shows how many places the horses have to hide in the mid-elevations of the Pryors.

Not my best landscape shot, but this shows how many places the horses have to hide in the mid-elevations of the Pryors.

Here's a veiw of the Mountain Top with Greta and Norma Jean in the forground.

Here’s a view of the Mountain Top with Greta and Norma Jean in the foreground.

Adaptation 1: Feet
Possibly the most known adaptation of mustangs is that they have superior hooves compared to domestic horses. Considerably flatter, and stronger than domestic hooves, mustang feet don’t require shoes. Many domestic owners are choosing to shape their horses’ hooves after the mustangs’ for a more natural approach.

This happens to be one of the hunkier stallions in the Pyros, but I try to remember to take a picture of hooves at least once during a trip. Most are smaller in girth, but are no less sturdy.

This happens to be one of the hunkier stallions in the Pryors but I try to remember to take a picture of hooves at least once during a trip. Most are smaller in girth, but are no less sturdy.

Adaptation 2: Teeth
Something I’ve heard is that the main reason mustangs don’t live as long as domestics is because they don’t get their teeth floated (equine dentistry to make sure a horses’ teeth are wearing evenly). The best way to show this is if I had a picture of an older horse, but since you can’t ask a horse to say cheese, you’ll have to trust my word when I say mustangs’ teeth don’t wear down as unevenly as one might think. Perhaps it’s possible they wear down faster than domestic horses, but even domestic horses loose their teeth as they get older. Mustangs can live into their late 20s, which is not too far off from how old domestic horses can get. Granted, that’s on the lower end of the domestic age range, but I think if mustangs’ teeth had as much impact on their life spans as people say, I think we’d see more deterioration of the health of an older mustang.

Granted, this isn't the best photo, and Bolder was only 12, but it still short of gives an example about how their teeth look.

Granted, this isn’t the best photo, and Bolder was only 12, but it still short of gives an example about how their teeth look.

Adaptation 3: Winter Woolies
When bad weather hits, domestic horses can be put in a stall, or given a blanket, but mustangs have no such luxury. Instead they grow thick winter coats. Although I have never been to a wild horse range in winter, some of the younger horses retain theirs even in late spring. It keeps them very well insulated, even in the worst weather.

Youngsters like Okiotak tend to hang on to their winter coats a bit longer than adults.

Youngsters like Okiotak tend to hang on to their winter coats a bit longer than adults.

Adaptation 4: Color
The Pryors are known for more primitive colors, but given the right environment, even the lightest colors blend in. It’s true that some colors are “rare”, but the way the Billings BLM managed the horses wasn’t always to preserve all colors. As the range was being established the most desirable horses were removed regardless of how much impact they might have on genetics. As you can see from the above photos, the landscape has many colors in it, so it gives all horses plenty of opportunities for camouflage. Like I already mentioned, if a trait were not suited for the wild, then natural selection wouldn’t let it happen.

Kitalpha is one of the most primitive mares in the Dryhead.

Kitalpha is one of the most primitive mares in the Dryhead.

Even some of the lighter horses in Bolder's band have ways to blend in.

Even some of the lighter horses in Bolder’s band have ways to blend in.

Adaptation 5: Mineral Licks
Domestic horses get supplemental salt licks, but mustangs get their minerals from the soil. They’re not picky, and are no strangers to road construction, but also have more natural mineral licks that they go to.

Custer's band munches on the dirt in the road.

Custer’s band munches on the dirt in the road.

Adaptation 6: Adaptable
I know this heading sounds redundant, but each HMA has been impacted by humans, and I’m not sure how to phrase it in a way that is both descriptive and succinct. In other words, mustangs that do the best learn to live with humans. They’re smart enough to know when a human is a threat, and take advantage of things that will make their lives’ easier.

Smart lead mares like Sacajawea are able to use roads to their advantage when safe.

Smart lead mares like Sacajawea are able to use roads to their advantage when safe.

Adaptation 7: Tails
Flies can be a real pain in the summer, so tails are nature’s fly swatter. When it gets really bad, the band will line up head to tail and swat flies of off one another. As an added bonus, the youngest members in the band will often go in the middle for extra protection.

Bands will often line up head to tail to swat flies from one another.

Bands will often line up head to tail to swat flies from one another.

Adaptation 8: Social Structure
The bands that do the best, are ones with a clear hierarchy of members. The wisest, and most dominant mare will make decisions for the band, and the stallion will protect from the rear. That way, each horse knows exactly what it’s place is if there is trouble.

Lakota had a strong band for most of his life.

Lakota had a strong band for most of his life.

Adaptation 9: A Mother’s Love
Domestic breeders often wean foals on a schedule, but mustang mares often only wean their foals if they are having another one the next year. That way, the foal has an opportunity to grow stronger before becoming less dependant on their mother. Even if they aren’t still nursing, living in their natal band for a little bit longer will help them learn valuable skills before setting out on their own.

It is more common for a mother and daughter to stay in the same band together, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Read: Echo.

It is more common for a mother and daughter to stay in the same band together, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Read: Echo.

These are only a few of the adaptations mustangs have, but I hope it at least gives people an idea of what “mustang tough” means. Life in the wild can look tough for people used to domestic horses, but the best place for mustangs is where they were born. It’s true they can adapt to domestic life, but living in wild horse ranges is what nature bred them to do. Which is why it is important to work towards management that keeps horses wild.

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4 Comments »

  1. Thank you for explaining this. Hoping and praying for the day when they all can remain and be managed on the range.

    • No problem! It can be discouraging when it seems like advocates aren’t being listened to, but there are some HMAs, the Pryors included, that are making progress. I think the first step is educating others about mustangs, but it is also important to respond to the BLM when they ask for comments. I think mustangs stand the best chance when advocates are objective, and show the BLM they are open to compromise.

  2. Wow! Great article, and great information! I’m passing it along to others. Thanks so much!


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