Mustangs and Domestic Horses

Examining What We Think We Know About Differences


  • Karen Dalke
  • Megan Olson Hunt



Mustangs in the American West are descendants of animals that escaped domesticity. Since 1971, these horses have been protected by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, but dissonance exists between romantic notions and the actual experience of the mustang. Given thousands of mustangs face uncertain futures in short- and long-term holding facilities, this research aims to dispel misconceptions about the ability of these animals to adapt to domestic settings. If over time mustangs act similarly to fully-domesticated horses, there is motivation to focus on adopting these horses into suitable homes. Using the United States Geographical Survey (USGS) ethogram for Free-Roaming Feral Horses, this study examines behaviors of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mustangs and domestic horses. Over 26,000 behavioral images were analyzed and sorted into 15 categories. Continuous focal sampling at one-minute intervals captured behaviors for six equids over a one-month period in the summer of 2013. Results suggest that over time, mustangs behave similarly to fully-domesticated horses. Specifically, chi-square goodness-of-fit tests indicated that mustangs living in domesticated settings for a short amount of time (less than five years) differ significantly from equines who have spent more time in domestication (at least 15 years) with regard to resting and grooming. However, mustangs in domestication at least 15 years did not differ significantly from horses who were born and raised in a domesticated environment. In conclusion, behavior patterns become similar amongst mustangs and fully-domesticated horses over time, indicating that adoption is a feasible option for America’s thousands of wild mustangs.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biographies

Karen Dalke

Karen Dalke is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, USA. She received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2005. Her dissertation was entitled: The Real and the Imagined: An Ethnographic Analysis of the Wild Horse in the American Landscape. Dalke continues to focus on the wild horse in the American west as the physical, political, and economic landscape changes, and is additionally interested in creating a trans-species research methodology. Dalke has published and presented papers on these issues in Australia, Finland, Greece, India, Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States.

Megan Olson Hunt

Megan Olson Hunt became an Assistant Professor of Statistics at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (USA) in 2014 after completing her PhD in Biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh. She additionally holds two bachelor’s degrees spanning the fields of mathematics, psychology, education, and statistics, and has taught secondary mathematics in New Zealand. Olson Hunt’s theoretical work focuses mostly on missing data, but she also serves as a co-author and statistical consultant on projects covering a wide range of application areas, including geology, physical therapy, neuroscience, nutrition, engineering, and ecology/biology, amongst others. Outside academia, Olson Hunt is passionate about sustainability, animal rescue efforts, and photography.




How to Cite

Dalke, K., & Olson Hunt, M. (2017). Mustangs and Domestic Horses: Examining What We Think We Know About Differences. Humanimalia, 8(2), 46–62.