Horses in North America

One of the great mysteries of the horse is its disappearance about 8,000 years ago from the North American continent, this despite the fact that Eohippus evolved here over a period of millions of years. Fossil evidence tells us that early horses definitely resided in North America and then vanished for reasons we can only speculate about.

The Great Disappearing Act

Apparently, the horse somehow migrated south to South America and west across the land bridge, probably across what is now the Bering Strait into Asia. Further climate and geographical changes during the ice age possibly pushed them farther into the Middle East and Africa. Some speculate that those that remained behind in North America may have succumbed to a fatal disease.

Many Thanks, Spanish Conquistadors!

The horse was being ridden and domesticated and becoming a crucial member of civilization in other parts of the world long before it reappeared in North America. Spanish explorers and the missions that followed are generally credited with this reappearance. They brought large numbers of livestock, including horses, to the New World for their settlements. Ponce de Leon is thought to be responsible for bringing Andalusian-bred stock into what is now Florida.

By the seventeenth century, Native American tribes along the Mexican border began to use horses, as did American settlers in the West. In addition, the Native Americans used horses to barter with other tribes, which allowed the horse to move across the rest of the western United States.

Wild Horses of the West

It's easy to imagine how some of these horses either escaped captivity or were turned loose, thus marking the beginning of the wild (or, more accurately, feral) horse bands in the American West. Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the U.S. government institution responsible for the care and management of the wild equine herds still in existence in the United States.

In the 1950s, Velma B. Johnston became concerned about the manner in which wild horses were being harvested for commercial reasons. Her campaign was loud and her audience receptive, leading to the passing in 1959 of Public Law 86–234, which controlled the way wild horses and burros were hunted. But it wasn't until 1971 that Public Law 92–195, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, was passed. It provided for the manage-ment, protection, and control of the wild horse and the burro populations. Numerous amendments have passed since. Management of the wild horses, commonly referred to as mustangs, has included regular removal and dispersal, partly through private adoption.

Mustangs have been wild all their lives. Their first interaction with humans is often when they are rounded up, branded, castrated, and vaccinated — making their impressions of humans rather unfavorable. Only people who are experienced at handling difficult horses or who have access to experienced help should attempt to adopt them.

For information about adopting a mustang, contact the Bureau of Land Management, National Wild Horse and Burro Program at its website,

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