I recently had to write an essay for a class that I’m taking as I work on the prerequisites for nursing school. Naturally, I wanted to write about horses. Lately, I’ve had Mustang Fever, so I wrote an essay titled The Value of a Mustang. In the essay, I talk about my family’s love for Quarter Horses. Yes, they do love their Quarter Horses, as do I, but they appreciate all good horses, and even more so they appreciate good horsemen. I’ve taken a few creative liberties to make the story flow, but for the most part, the stories I share are true. I am trying to get my hands on a photo of my Grandpa’s Mustang, Roany. When I do I will add it to the story. I hope you enjoy my story. Thank you for reading.
The Value of a Mustang
America’s wild horses, known as “Mustangs”, have been running free on this continent for centuries. It is thought that horses first migrated to North America across land bridges. More horses were brought here on ships by Conquistadors in the 1600s. As times passed, more and more horses were imported from Europe as the country was settled by Europeans. As the settlers moved west, so did their horses. Pioneers lost horses from their wagon trains, ranchers lost horses from their rangelands, and the cavalry turned those that didn’t make the cut as military horses loose on the plains. The Native Americans had horse breeding programs of their own. Many tribes used horses for travel and hunting. Many horses from their herds got loose into the wild as well. The horses that broke free from their various captivities came together to form the wild herds that we now know as Mustangs. Today they are managed by the federal government. To adopt one, you have to fill out an application and pay $125. To some, Mustangs represent the spirit of the American West. They are an icon of American history that must always be preserved. To others, they are range rats, unpedigreed mutts with no talent or purpose to the modern horseman. I was raised in the latter way of thinking and held those opinions as my own until I met a few incredible Mustang horses that changed my mind.
I was born into a cowboy family. My ancestors rode horseback to the beautiful and rugged area of Northern California where they settled. I come from a long line of ranch hands and horse trainers. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all lived on cattle ranches and used horses to work their cattle. As a child, I never knew life without horses. I’ve seen pictures of myself as a toddler sitting in the saddle in front of my mom. I rode in my first horse show at two years of age. As I grew up, I turned out to be just as horse crazy as the rest of my family. The horses I rode were the Quarter Horse cow ponies that my family loved. My grandfather was a breeder of Quarter Horses. He had at one time owned a stallion named Sage Seven that won grand champion at the Cow Palace horse show. Horse pedigrees were important in our family and it wasn’t uncommon for us to debate topics such as whether “Poco Bueno” or “Skipper W” lines were superior. We discussed Quarter Horse bloodlines like some people might discuss brands of automobiles. We also made a lot of judgments about other breeds of horses. None of us had ever owned anything but quarter horses, but that didn’t stop us from deciding that no other breed of horse was worth owning.
My grandfather leased Forest Service land every summer to graze his cattle on. The land was in the rugged Eddie Mountains, and it was steep. Cows are tough, hardy creatures. Those girls could travel, and it was amazing to see some of the places that they could get themselves into. Grandpa started having a hard time keeping up with them because his horses couldn’t get to some of the places that the cows could go. This led to Grandpa doing something that none of us thought he would ever do. Grandpa went to a Mustang adoption event sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and adopted a yearling, Mustang colt. The colt was hairy and ugly. He was raw-boned and stocky and not as pleasing to the eye as our refined Quarter Horses. He was bay roan in color and Grandpa named him Roany. We all thought that Grandpa had lost his mind. Roany was as wild as could be. If you went anywhere near him he would snort and paw at the ground. But Grandpa and Roany understood each other. They formed a bond that turned into a powerful trust of one another. Roany grew into a big, strong, rugged horse. He came to be known as The Mountain Goat. Grandpa rode him all over the Eddie Mountains chasing down his wandering cows. His friends joked that if he asked Roany to walk straight off a cliff that he would. And most thought that Roany could get Grandpa to the bottom safely. I’d never seen such a brave and sure-footed horse. My family begrudgingly accepted that Roany was good at his job, but they claimed that he was an exception and that most Mustangs weren’t that good. But I was intrigued by him.
After high school, I left California and headed to Wyoming for college. I spent two years there getting my degree in Veterinary Technology. I intended to use my degree to get a job working with horses. I came back to California and found a job as the head wrangler on a dude ranch that was only an hour away from home. As the head wrangler, I was responsible for taking care of anywhere from 40 to 60 horses. All summer long we used those horses to take hundreds of people on trail rides. No two horses in the dude string were the same. The ranch budget for purchasing horses was low so the horses came from all over. We had old ranch horses that couldn’t keep up with the rigors of ranch work anymore, Thoroughbreds that had once raced, Arabians that had trekked the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail, and Mustangs from… who knows where. I had to know every horse well so that I could safely match them with a rider. When it came to riders, there were two types of riders that were in the most danger. The first type were the little kids. Ranch rules stated that children had to be six years old to ride on their own, but a six-year-old is just a passenger on a thousand pound horse. I had heard horror stories of horses running away with little kids, and I even had it happen to me once. The second type of rider in danger is the rider that knows just enough to be dangerous. This person has ridden enough to where they want to ride a horse with spirit and go galloping off into the sunset, but they don’t yet possess the actual skills to make the said trek into the sunset safely. These riders are hard on horses because they unknowingly send them a lot of mixed signals. The horses quickly become burned out. I learned a lot about horses and people while I worked as a wrangler and I learned a little more about Mustangs too. Two superstar dude horses in my string were Mustangs. They were my go-to horses for the difficult riders. Jay was an old roan gelding. Rumor was that he had been a pack horse when he was younger. He was as solid as a rock. I could put tiny six-year-olds or timid little old ladies on him and he would safely get them down the trail. I trusted that horse so much that I put my own six-year-old little sister who has Down’s Syndrome on him. Nothing fazed him. My other superstar was a chestnut, Mustang mare named Ginger. To a horse person, that description is filled with red flags. It’s not uncommon for horse people to make inferences about a horse’s temperament based on its physical attributes. Mares are known for being moody and mean. Chestnut mares are said to be the meanest of all. Mustangs are thought to be untamable, wild beasts. And I’ve had many an old cowboy tell me to never ever trust a mare with a name like Sugar, Candy or Ginger. When I first met Ginger I didn’t think much of her. That girl sure changed my mind quickly. She was the most patient horse I’ve ever met. She was the horse that I relied on to safely get my riders who thought they knew more than they did back to the stables in one piece. They pulled on her bit, kicked her sides, and asked her to run a little more than they should have. She took in all in stride like a champ.
I’ve met a lot of horses in my 37 years. I’ve spent years working at equine veterinary clinics and I have met many champions who were worth more money than what a lot of us paid for our houses. These horses have been many different breeds from many different riding disciplines. What I have not seen a lot of at a veterinary clinic are Mustangs. It isn’t because there aren’t many Mustangs, it’s because they don’t get sick. It has been survival of the fittest for them as they’ve made a living on the sparse Nevada desserts. Nature has bred them better than we ever could have. A lot of people would disagree with me and said that by not managing them we have allowed them to become inbred. But DNA testing done by adopters of Mustangs shows large genetic diversity. In recent years the government has started promoting them through an organization called the Mustang Heritage Foundation. Horse trainers are given an untouched Mustang and 100 days to train it. At the end of 100 days, all the trainers come together and compete against each other at a horse show. After the show, the horses are auctioned off to the public. This program has shown how athletic and talented Mustangs can be. Mustangs are used for working cows, rodeo, endurance riding, dressage, trail riding, and so much more. For $125 you can own a piece of American history that is healthier and more versatile than horses bred in captivity. What an incredible value.