By: Thomas Earl Speir

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: January 20, 2017

The word mustang is thought to come from Spanish mesta, which denotes a company or group of graziers or stockmen; the adjective mesteƱo means "belonging to the graziers." Mustang originally referred to the bloodstock imported from the Iberian Peninsula. Horses brought by the Spanish included the Ginete, Arabian, Villano, Berber, and Barb bloodlines. Today the term refers to wild horses on federal lands, but very few wild herds today possess original Spanish blood. The first American Indian horses were bred from stock acquired from the herds of the Spanish missions beginning in the early 1600s. The missions were the source of cattle as well as foundation herds of Spanish mustangs.

The Spanish mustang stands from thirteen to fifteen hands tall and weighs 750 to 1,000 pounds. There are three different types: one lighter-bodied and slightly leggy like its Barb ancestors, one heavier and more blocky like the Spanish Ginete, and one that resembles a small Andalusian. The eyes are large and bright, and some mustangs have heavy bone protruding over the eyes. The head profile may be straight, dish-faced, or convex. The chest is medium to somewhat narrow, with the ribs well-sprung; the back is short and stout. The hooves are small, often narrow with a pointed toe, and of a harder texture than hooves of most domestic horses.

The first Spanish horses on record were brought to Texas in 1542 by the Moscoso expedition. The chronicles of the La Salle expedition also mention them. In 1686 Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, acquired five horses from Caddo Indians in East Texas. The Caddos had a large supply of them in 1689 when Henri de Tonti was searching for La Salle. Mustangs brought some of the first Americans. In 1785 Philip Nolan visited Texas seeking permission to capture and remove horses. Thomas Jefferson wrote Nolan in 1798 asking for information about the habits of the wild horses of Texas.

Visitors who saw the vast herds of mustangs were enthusiastic. The Little Rock Arkansas Gazette of July 10, 1839, for instance, states,

The mustang or wild horse is certainly the greatest curiosity to those unaccustomed to the sight, that we meet with upon the prairies of Texas. They are seen in vast numbers, and are often times of exceeding beauty. The spectator is compelled to stand in amazement, and contemplate this noble animal, as he bounds over the earth, with the conscious pride of freedom. We still meet with many in the lower counties, and during the summer hundreds were seen in the neighborhood of Houston, darting over the plains, and seeming to dare the sportsman for a contest in the chase.

The numbers of mustangs were impressive. Just before the Mexican War Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, while with Gen. Zachary Taylor's army on the Nueces River, stated, "I have no idea that they could all have been corralled in the state of Rhode Island, or Delaware, at one time." Artist Frederic Remington remarked, "Of all the monuments which the Spaniard has left to glorify his reign in America, there will be none more worthy than his horse."

Many individual horses with unique talents and characteristics could be found among these original Spanish mustang herds. Several became legends in Texas folklore-the Ghost of the Staked Plains, Black Devil, the Pacing White Stallion. Some of the best were eventually captured and either line-bred for specific characteristics or cross-bred with other equine breeds to produce hybrids with specific characteristics. The original Spanish mustangs became foundation stock for many American breeds, including quarter horses. The many remarkable qualities of the Spanish mustang, particularly its endurance, made it the horse of choice for most frontiersmen and cowboys. Every cattle range in Texas used mustangs. Numerous mustangs remained in Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. J. Frank Dobie claimed the number of cattle and horses was nearly a million. A band of 100 palominos ran between Quihi Prairie and Hondo Creek in South Texas.

Some ranchers intentionally released domesticated horses into nearby herds to "breed up," or increase the size, of the horses. This was the beginning of the wild horse that is found on federal lands today. As the Spanish blood was diluted, many of the Spanish mustang's best characteristics were lost. In the 1950s a few individuals who still retained specimens of the original Spanish mustang began to work together to resurrect the breed. Registries developed to keep track of the true Spanish blood and to keep it pure. Fewer than 3,000 purebred Spanish mustangs are left today. At the close of the twentieth century some of the strongest efforts to restore the Spanish mustang were centered in Texas, including the American Indian Horse Registry, headquartered in Lockhart, and the efforts of private ranches such as Karma Farms near Marshall, Blazing Saddles Ranch in Winona, and Las Remudas in Odessa.

Anthony Amaral, Mustangs: Life and Legends of Nevada's Wild Horses (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1977). J. Frank Dobie, The Mustangs (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952). William W. Newcomb, The Indians of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961). Don Worcester, The Spanish Mustang (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1986).


  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Horse and Mule Industry
  • Legend, Mystique, and Legacy

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas Earl Speir, “Mustangs,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 17, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 20, 2017