MUSTANGS: THE COLONIAL SPANISH LANDRACE
This is a classic Colonial Spanish head shape. Note the slightly convex, rather high and narrow nasal bone with the characteristic upward “bump” just above the large, fine and sensitive nostrils. Good bone structure is evident, along with alert, pricked ears and a sparkling eye. The mane and tail are typically thick and abundant. Colonial Spanish horses, like their Iberian ancestors, have short wide backs, fine hard legs, moderately high withers, and cresty necks. With level overall body balance, they have high aptitude for collection and are often possessed of a spectacular elastic trot with high knee and hock “action.” Many are also naturally easy-gaited. James Greatorex’s 1866 drawing, “a party of Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande, returning from a horse-stealing raid in Texas,” was produced as an illustration to one of the first “pulp Western” novels; please note that Texan raids into Mexico were equally common.
In the 1820s, adventurer and artist George Catlin visited the American West and studied Mustangs firsthand. He observed, “The wild horse [ of Texas] is a small, but very powerful animal; with an exceedingly prominent eye, sharp nose, high nostril, small feet and delicate leg.” Few mustangs ever exceeded 14 hands in height, and they resembled the Barb in conformation. The refinement and “sparkle” of the Mustangs impressed all the artists who saw them in the 1830s and 1840s before extensive mixing with English and French strains, so much so that both Catlin’s and Karl Bodmer’s renditions sometimes make the animals look more like Arabians than Mustangs, and travellers sometimes even reported
that the Mustangs were a type of Arabian. This misapprehension persists to this day, but readers who have followed this series will be aware that both the Arabian and the Barb ancestors of the 15th century Iberian Andaluceños derive from the Middle Eastern AfroTurkic subspecies; that the two different strains resemble each other is thus not surprising.
Catlin’s description of the Mustang is classic: “There is no animal on the prairies so wild and so sagacious as the horse; and none other so difficult to come up with. So remarkably keen is their eye, that they will generally run ‘at the sight,’ when they are a mile distant; being, no doubt, able to distinguish the character of the enemy that is approaching … and when in motion, will seldom stop short of three or four miles. I made many attempts to approach them by stealth, when they were grazing and playing their gambols, without having been more than once able to succeed.… In this herd we saw all the colours, nearly, that can be seen in a kennel of English hounds. Some were milk white, some jet black— others were sorrel [ alazán], and bay, and cream colour [ palomino]— many were of an iron grey [ tordillo]; and others were pied, containing a variety of colours on the same animal. Their manes were very profuse, and hanging in the wildest confusion over their necks and faces – and their long tails swept the ground.”
Other frequent colors in Mustang herds include buckskin ( gateado), blue roan ( moro) and “smoky” ( lobuno or grulla). Loud patterning including rabicano, overo, snowflake, sabino and splash white are common, but not tobiano, which derives from Holland. In southern California, Mustangs tended to be of a light-maned palomino-like hue which came to be called “California sorrel” ( alazán ruano).
George Catlin’s “herd of Mustangs at their gambols” (1835).