What is the Difference Between a Mustang and a Horse: Key Facts and Details

If you’re new to the world of equine, you may be wondering: what is the difference between a mustang and a horse? While it may seem like a simple question, the answer is actually quite complex. In this blog post, we’ll break down the key facts and details that set these two types of horses apart. Whether you’re a seasoned equestrian or a curious newcomer, you won’t want to miss this informative guide.

Mustang vs Horse: The Basics

Wild horses graze in the sunlit meadow

Defining Mustangs and Horses

Mustangs and horses both belong to the family Equidae and share the scientific name Equus ferus caballus. However, they have distinct differences in their origin, physical characteristics, and living environments.

A mustang is a free-roaming, feral horse native to the Western United States. They are descended from horses brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers and settlers. While mustangs are often referred to as wild horses, they are technically feral horses due to their domesticated ancestry.

On the other hand, horses are domesticated animals, bred by humans for numerous purposes such as riding, racing, and working on farms. They have been selectively bred for desired traits and are much more diverse in their characteristics than mustangs.

History and Origin

The history of the mustang can be traced back to the arrival of Spanish horses in the Americas during the 16th century. These colonial Spanish horses escaped or were released into the wild and began to breed with other escaped horses, eventually forming the modern mustang population.

As for the domestic horse, its origin dates back to approximately 6,000 years ago when humans began to domesticate wild horses in various regions across the world. Thanks to their adaptability and usefulness, horses have played a significant role in the development of human civilizations.

When comparing mustangs to horses, the physical differences between them include:

  • Height: Domestic horses are generally taller than mustangs, as they are bred for various riding and sporting purposes.
  • Color: While mustangs often have shades of brown or black in their coat colors, domestic horses come in a wide variety of colors and patterns.
  • Manes and Tails: Mustangs tend to have shorter manes and tails, while domestic horses have longer, more luxurious hair that is often groomed by their human caretakers.

Mustangs have adapted to the harsh environments of the American West, making them robust, resilient, and resourceful animals. Domestic horses, in contrast, have been bred and raised in controlled environments optimized for their specific needs, and they require more care and maintenance from humans.

Physical Characteristics

Horse Stud and her beautiful foal on a field

Size and Shape

Mustangs are a breed of feral horses that exhibit varied size and shape due to their diverse genetic background. They typically stand between 14 and 15 hands tall from the shoulder to the ground, and their bodies are well-proportioned, neither too lanky nor overly stout. Mustangs display a range of body types: some might have a muscular build, while others appear more slender or full-bodied.

The head of a mustang is notable for its proud appearance and narrows down to a fine muzzle. The long, highly crested neck blends smoothly with the sloping shoulders. Mustangs’ legs are strong and are known for having robust, healthy hooves. The mane and tail of a mustang are usually shorter than those of domesticated horses.

Colors and Patterns

Mustangs come in various coat colors and patterns. Although they are commonly found in shades of brown or black, they can also have solid colors like white, bay, chestnut, and more. In addition, they can showcase diverse patterns such as pinto, roan, or appaloosa marking, all of which only add to the breed’s distinct beauty.

Notable Mustang Breeds

There are several different breeding populations of mustangs, each with its unique characteristics and heritage. Some of the most well-known ones include:

  • Pryor Mountain Mustang: Originally from the Pryor Mountains, situated along the Montana-Wyoming border, these mustangs are known for their Spanish heritage, hardiness, and distinctive dun coloring.
  • Kiger Mustang: Kiger mustangs are native to southeastern Oregon and exhibit strong Spanish and Andalusian horse lineage. They are prized for their strong conformation and athletic abilities, making them suitable for endurance riding and other sports.
  • Cerbat Mustang: Cerbat mustangs are a rare breed of mustangs found in northwestern Arizona. Known for their gait and endurance, they possess Spanish ancestry and are primarily found in solid colors like bay, chestnut, and black.
  • Spanish Mustang: Direct descendants of the Spanish horses brought to the Americas by early explorers, the Spanish Mustang is a versatile breed known for its speed, endurance, and agility. They have a narrow chest, short back, and rounded hindquarters, making them suitable for various equestrian activities.

Each of these notable mustang breeds, among others, contributes to the rich tapestry of the overall mustang population. Their diverse heritage has shaped both their appearance and their adaptability in various natural environments.

Behavior and Temperament

Wild vs Domesticated Temperament

Mustangs, as a breed of horses, showcase distinct behavioral traits influenced by their wild or domesticated background. Wild mustangs are usually more reactive and cautious, with a strong instinct for self-preservation that has developed during their lives without human interaction. These horses can be somewhat skittish and require patience and careful handling to gain their trust.

On the other hand, domesticated mustangs, having been raised or trained in closer contact with humans, tend to exhibit a more docile temperament. While they still possess a certain level of wariness, domesticated mustangs are often more adaptable and amenable to training, making them suitable for various equestrian activities.


One of the mustang’s most notable characteristics is its adaptability. As descendants of Spanish horses brought to the Americas, mustangs had to survive harsh environments and make rapid adjustments to new settings. These horses are known for their hardiness and ability to thrive in different conditions, making them an excellent choice for owners seeking a versatile equine partner.

Some traits that contribute to the mustang’s adaptability include their strong and healthy hooves and their relatively lower maintenance compared to other horse breeds. This adaptability also translates to their trainability and willingness to learn new skills, whether they are used for riding, working, or participating in various equestrian sports.


Building a bond with a mustang is crucial for its successful integration into domesticated life. As with any horse, trust and respect form the foundation of a strong and lasting relationship between mustang and owner. While wild mustangs may be slower to develop this bond due to their instinctive wariness, patience and consistent, gentle handling can help establish a connection.

As their trust in their human handler grows, mustangs can form deep and lasting bonds with their owners, often displaying loyalty and attentiveness. These horses can be highly perceptive of their handler’s emotions and needs, which further contributes to the strength of the bond between them.

Overall, understanding the behavior and temperament of mustangs is essential to establishing a successful relationship with these amazing equines. Whether considering a wild or domesticated mustang, one can appreciate the breed’s unique traits, adaptability, and potential for forming meaningful bonds with their human caretakers.

Living Conditions and Diet

Wild mustang horse moving in desert


Mustangs are feral horses primarily found in the Western United States, where they roam freely in herds. Their natural habitat consists of vast landscapes such as open grasslands, forests, and deserts, as well as mountainous areas. They are highly adaptable to different environments and are known to thrive in a variety of climates. Their ability to traverse large distances in search of food and water allows them to inhabit diverse ecosystems (source).


These wild horses spend most of their time foraging for food, which mainly comprises grasses and occasionally some shrubbery. As grazing animals, mustangs graze throughout the day and cover a wide area in search of adequate pasture to support their needs. They generally stay close to a water source, as being near sufficient water is essential for their survival (source).


Mustangs typically consume a natural diet that consists of the following components:

  • Grasses: The primary food source for mustangs is grass, which provides them with the essential nutrients and energy they require to survive. They are known to consume different types of grasses depending on their habitat and the season (source).
  • Shrubs: While grasses are the primary component of a mustang’s diet, they also feed on various shrub species native to their habitat. The consumption of shrubs offers additional nutrition and aids in fiber intake (source).
  • Forbs: Forbs, such as flowers and leaves, comprise a smaller portion of the mustangs’ diet. These plant species contribute additional nutrients and variety to their overall diet (source).

In comparison to domesticated horses like the Quarter Horse, mustangs have a relatively simpler diet, mainly consisting of wild, natural vegetation. This diet contributes to their hardiness and adaptability. Domesticated horses often require a more complex diet that includes proteins, vitamins, fats, carbohydrates, and water, which can be consumed as specific feeds or supplements provided by their caregivers (source).

Uses and Abilities

Wild Horse in Summer near a water source

When it comes to the uses and abilities of mustangs and horses, there are various factors to consider, including their characteristics, history, and suitability for different activities.

Horse Riding and Racing

Horse riding and racing are some of the most popular equestrian activities. Horses, being domesticated animals, have been bred for various purposes, including racing, trail riding, and equine competitions. They come in a variety of colors and sizes, and their capability and performance can vary based on factors such as training, temperament, and breed. On the other hand, mustang horses are feral descendants of Spanish horses, usually found with shorter manes, tails, and shades of brown or black.

Mustangs, if well trained and cared for, can also prove to be suitable for equine competitions and even some types of racing. However, their feral origin and wild temperament can require more time and effort to train and handle compared to domesticated horses.


Domesticated horses are often more suitable for beginners due to their naturally calm and manageable temperament. Mustangs, being wild horses, can be more reactive and spooky, especially if they have had limited handling and training, as mentioned by The Spruce Pets.


While most mustang horses may not be suitable for high-speed racing, they are known for their endurance, strength, and surefootedness. Mustangs, with proper training, can excel in endurance races and other tasks requiring stamina and resilience.

Strength and Endurance

One notable trait of mustang horses is their strength and endurance. They are known to be hardy and have strong, healthy hooves. In terms of life expectancy, mustangs can live up to 40 years, whereas domesticated horses like Quarter Horses are usually expected to live up to 25 years, as stated by Xtra Pets.

Their tough and resilient nature makes mustangs suitable for activities such as trail riding, where their surefootedness, agility, and stamina help them navigate rough terrains with ease. While horses may also perform well in trail riding, their skill, stamina, and agility can vary depending on the breed and individual characteristics.

In conclusion, the differences between mustangs and horses lie in their origin, temperament, and suitability for various activities. Knowing these differences can help determine the best choice for specific needs or preferences.

Conservation and Management

Horses running through the farm yard

Bureau of Land Management

The difference between a horse and a mustang lies in their lifestyle and origins. A horse is a domesticated animal, while a mustang is a free-ranging horse that roams freely in the Western United States, descended from Spanish horses1. Since wild horses, including mustangs, face various challenges in their natural habitat, conservation and management are essential for their survival.

The Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 ensured the protection of wild horses and burros, placing them under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Today, more than 80,000 horses reside on Herd Management Areas (HMA) in 10 western states2. BLM is responsible for managing their populations and ensuring their welfare, as excessive numbers of free-roaming horses can lead to overgrazing and competition for limited resources.

Adoption and Training

In an effort to manage the overpopulation of wild horses, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has implemented a program that permits eligible individuals to adopt them. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 entrusted the BLM with the responsibility of caring for these wild mustangs and burros, and adoption provides a safe and comfortable home for these animals. By adopting a mustang, not only are you assisting in population control, but you are also contributing to the preservation of this rare and remarkable equine breed.

Physical Features

Mustangs have distinct physical features that differentiate them from domesticated horses. Their coat colors can vary significantly, ranging from solid shades like chestnut, bay, and black to multi-colored patterns like pinto and appaloosa1. Mustangs have smaller, more compact frames and typically weigh 700 to 900 pounds, which is lighter than many domesticated horse breeds1.

Training and Adoption Facilities

The BLM offers specific programs and facilities to facilitate the adoption of mustangs. They have partnered with the Mustang Heritage Foundation to ensure potential adopters and trainers have access to the support and resources needed for a successful transition. These facilities provide critical care and training for wild horses and burros, resulting in better outcomes for both the animals and their adoptive families.

In conclusion, mustangs are unique wild horses that differ from domesticated horses in various aspects, such as their origins and physical features. The conservation and management of these animals are crucial for their survival, and the BLM plays a significant role in this process. Adoption programs also serve as an essential tool in the overall effort to preserve and maintain mustang populations.

Difference Between a Mustang and a Horse

A primary distinction between a mustang and a horse is that a mustang refers to a specific type of horse that roams freely in the Western United States. These free-ranging horses are descendants of Spanish horses and are sometimes called wild horses. In contrast, the term “horse” generally refers to a domesticated animal, bred for various purposes such as riding, working, or racing.

Mustangs are often smaller and stockier than many domestic horse breeds, usually measuring between 14 and 15 hands high and weighing up to 800 lbs. They come in a wide range of colors, from palomino to chestnut and black. Their sturdy build, combined with a history of surviving harsh terrains, rugged landscapes, and weather conditions, has contributed to the mustang’s reputation as a resilient and hardy horse.

There are several types of mustangs found in distinct regions, each with their unique characteristics. One example is the Pryor Mountain Mustang, which stands between 13-14 hands tall and boasts a strong, muscular build. These horses are known for their remarkable stamina, sure-footedness, and intelligence. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for managing the horse population in the Pryor Mountain Range.

On the other hand, domesticated horses come in various breeds, sizes, and temperaments. They are bred and raised for specific purposes, such as racing, working, or leisure activities. Domesticated horses typically require more care, maintenance, and training than mustangs due to their dependency on human intervention.


In conclusion, the main difference between a mustang and a horse lies in their living conditions, ancestry, and physical traits. Mustangs are wild, free-ranging horses with a long history of adapting to harsh environments, while domesticated horses are bred and cared for by humans to fulfill specific purposes. Each type of horse boasts its unique characteristics and charm, but it’s essential to be aware of their differences when considering horse breeding, care, or ownership.