top of page


What are Mustangs and Burros?

A "Mustang" is a horse that is either wild born or born to a wild-born mare who was pregnant with that foal at the time of her capture. Their legal status is "Wild Free Roaming Horses" - although technically they are the descendants of domestic horses who went feral many years ago, (at least since 1971 and as long ago as the 1500's) for a variety of reasons.

Many have at least some ancestry that goes back to the original Spanish horse breeding farms in Mexico in the 16th through 19th Centuries. Some are remnants of horses bred by Native American groups (which came primarily from the Spanish but also from French trappers and explorers), some originated with the Cavalry Remount business of the 1800's to mid-1900's, and nearly all are at least partially descended from working ranch stock: "cow ponies", carriage horses, race horses, and even some heavy draft horses.

Wild horses today are mostly found in the Great Basin and desert regions of 10 western states: Nevada (which has over half the total), California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.

How did they get there? Before the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse & Burro Protection Act, ranchers in the open range areas of the Great Basin allowed their stock to roam freely, because the land was difficult to fence (too rocky and no available trees to use as fencing materials) and homesteads were few and far between. When ranchers needed new horses, they went out and captured what they needed. Burros were brought into the area by prospectors for carrying tools, and by sheepherders for protecting their flock from predators.

The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act solved several problems, including destruction of the range by overgrazing, "turf wars" between competing stockmen for the best grass, disputes between ranchers about grazing, etc.. But for the first time, it pitted wild horses against livestock interests, competing for limited resources. Taylor, combined with the coming of motorized vehicles and farm machinery, changed the free-roaming herds from being a valued resource to a pest.

Such wild horses were at risk of being captured and killed  - often quite cruelly - for the growing dog food market after World War II, and the population plummeted. (The Marilyn Monroe movie, "The Misfits" conveyed fairly accurately the cruelty of catching wild horses for the dog food market). Concerned about the cruelty, and the possibility of total eradication of wild herds, Velma "Wild Horse Annie" Johnston along with many, many others pushed for legislation to protect the remaining horses.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Protection Act. At that time, wild herds were identified, and those that could be protected* were assigned to the Bureau of Land Management for protection and management.

(*Unfortunately, wild horses in metropolitan areas, such as around the cities of Reno and Carson City, Nevada, were left out of this legal protection, due to being too close to large private tracts that were being developed)

After the passage of "the Act" ranchers had a year to brand and file to pay grazing fees for the horses they wanted (or could afford) to keep, and the rest became property of the US government as wild horses. A few were recovered in this way, but most were left on the range to become the ancestors of today's wild horses. Today's Mustangs come in a full range of sizes and conformational types, reflecting their varied ancestry.

Burros are wild donkeys, descended from donkeys used by prospectors, or brought here by Basque sheepherders to help protect their flocks.

Why are Mustangs and Burros removed from the Range?

Why are they available for Adoption?

Wild horses and burros live in some of the most marginally productive lands in the country. Water is the main limiting resource. These lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is charged, by law, to manage the lands within a multiple use format, with resources being shared by wildlife, mining & energy development, recreational activities (hiking, camping, ATV and RV use, bird watching, hunting, fishing, etc), livestock grazing, and the wild horse and burro herds.

Being large animals, the only predator capable of having any impact on herd populations is the cougar, or mountain lion, and it is rare or non-existent in most Herd Management Areas, due to human efforts to eliminate them from livestock or human activity areas. As a result, horse herds experience rapid population growth, averaging about 20% per year in most areas.  Periodic roundups are the primary means of controlling populations. Fertility control methods are used successfully in a few areas, but so far, gathers remain the main method of population control.


Unlike other agencies managing wild horses and burros in this country and around the world, The Bureau of Land Management does not slaughter or sell to slaughter, so they care for captured in horses in large federal facilities. Recently, with the encouragement of the National academy of Sciences, there has been more concerted efforts to control growth through ways not requiring roundups, namely, birth control. So far these efforts have not been applied on a widespread enough scale to make a big difference, and local ranchers exerted political and legal pressures to thwart BLM efforts to release treated animals back on to the range, preferring that the animals simply be removed. 


In the meantime, excess horses are captured, and the young healthy ones are put up for adoption, when possible. It is Napa Mustang Days' mission to bring the horses to the people, to educate people about them, and to interest people in adopting, because it is in the horses' best interest to find a good home.

Captured animals are offered for adoption to qualified people through the BLM’s Adopt a Wild Horse or Burro program. After caring for an animal for one year, adopters are eligible to receive title, or ownership, from the Federal government. The one year waiting period is for the animal's protection, to keep them out of the hands of people wanting to make a quick profit by re-selling the horse to a meat-packer, as well as to allow unsuccessful adopters to return the animal to BLM while it is still under federal protection. Once the animal has passed the one-year titling period, it becomes private property.


How are Mustangs different from Domestic horses?

Wild horses are, first and foremost, simply HORSES. In most ways they are just like any other horse.

There are some important differences, however, which an adopter must understand. Some of these are positives, others more challenging:

1. Blank Slate: Wild horses haven't been spoiled, abused or taught bad behaviors by anyone else. You are getting " Pure Horse." Many people appreciate the challenge of working with a "Blank Slate."

2. More "Social Smarts": Wild horses understand leadership - what a good leader is, and how to follow a good leader. A horse who has spent time in a social band is smarter, has a stronger sense of himself, and is more sophisticated socially than one who has grown up isolated in its own stall. Such a horse already knows good manners, respect, the ability to function in a social order, how to get along with others.


3. The horse can read you, but can you read it?

A wild horse has a deep ability to read and understand movement, energy, intent, and body language. It can read YOU loud and clear. We do not always read the horse well, however, and that's when the trouble starts. As Jerry Tindell says, "They were born into a Black Belt Family!"

4. Stronger Instincts for Self-Preservation: Wild horses have a much stronger sense of self-preservation than domestic horses, which must be understood in a training program.

Going at the horse's pace and making sure everything is solid and thorough before moving to a more advanced step is very important.

Building trust is critical. Mustangs are capable of great loyalty, once they have learned to trust you.  But until then, that sense of self-preservation will be challenging. That takes time. It isn't a matter of a single "bonding exercise" and you're done.


5. Less is More. Slower is faster: If your goal is to keep your horse long-term, you will have greater success if you go slowly, allowing the horse to fully assimilate each new stage of training. Spend time with your horse. Let him or her get to know you, as you get to know your horse.

6. Training: Like all horses, mustangs are honest, and will give you immediate and honest feedback. That is why working with horses is so useful for personal growth, and even for rehabilitating prisoners or people with histories of abuse or other negative past life experiences.

Wild horses, like mules, MUST be trained the way all horses SHOULD be trained.

They will not respond well either to being treated harshly or aggressively, nor to being handled in too lax or indecisive manner. They will not do well if rushed, if you skip steps. They do best if trained slowly and thoroughly, without skipping steps or pushing for rapid progress. They do not respond well to anger, nor to "wimpiness". Like children and dogs, they thrive best when provided compassionate but clear, consistent, and fair boundaries. They need to know what the rules are, and will take over if you can't establish clear boundaries, limits, and standards.

Gentling and training your wild horse will make you a better trainer and handler of all equines, and a better person, too.

Like any horse, the better the training, the better the horse.

Even if you never intend to ride, it is essential that you train your new wild horse to be able to be caught, haltered and led, to load into a horse trailer, and to stand still to accept veterinary and hoof care.

Training a wild horse is not necessarily a do-it-yourself project! There are many excellent trainers in this geographic area who can help you develop the best horse you've ever dreamed of. 

7. Health:

Many wild horses tend to be "easy keepers" who get fat on the rich diet most people offer their domestic horses. They also tend to have strong feet and legs. There are exceptions, of course - each horse is unique. Their constitutions are usually hardy and healthy, often surviving sickness and injury that would be fatal to most horses, and recovering more quickly from injuries.


Like all horses, Mustangs continue to grow until they are 6 or 7 years old, and will often experience a growth spurt after adoption, when their nutritional levels rise.

How are Burros different from domestic Donkeys?

Wild burros are afraid of you, because they don't know what to make of you. Once gentled, they are simply donkeys with a brand on their neck. Otherwise they are much the same as domestic donkeys. All donkeys - wild and domestic - are highly intelligent, thinking animals. They respond to kind treatment and will gradually lose their fear of you, without your having to learn any special gentling techniques. Be calm, be kind, be fair, be consistent. Be that, and your new wild donkey will come around in time.

The donkey's reputation for stubbornness is based on misunderstanding his behavior: Donkeys simply want to be safe, and to understand things. Until they understand what is being asked of them, they will consider it potentially unsafe. Work to earn their trust, and give them time to process your requests. Donkeys can often learn by watching: SHOW them what you want. Example: if you want the donkey to step onto a platform, stand on it yourself to show him that it is safe.

Most "Standard" sized donkeys are descended from wild burros.

BLM Burros can be trained to ride, drive, pack, and to guard livestock. They also make loveable pets.

Adopted and traine BLM Burros (wild donkeys) at Napa Mustang Days
bottom of page