book review · mustangs

Book Review: Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West
by Deanne Stillman
(available on Amazon)

First things first: this was not the book I thought it was. I picked it up out of curiosity – it had quite a few accolades on the cover, was by a talented writer, and in all honesty I began it with a sinking heart. For some years now, I have had in mind the project of researching and writing a book about the place the mustang holds in the American imagination.

This was not that book. This was not even close to that book. In fact? This was not really a book about mustangs at all, save for perhaps the last 1/4 of it.

That’s not to say it was a bad book, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it was quite a good book: well-written, thoughtful, far-ranging, and a good read. Here was my biggest problem: this book made no attempt to define or distinguish the “mustang,” which is to say the distinctly wild (or feral) horse that lives without human interaction or mediation in the American west.

Stillman’s title and subtitle imply that she will write a history of those horses. That’s not what she did. Instead, this book is more accurately a history of the horse in general in the American west. Which is fine! She does a nice light nonfiction job of that, telling stories about the horses belonging to early conquistadors, about cavalry horses, about cow ponies and cattle drives, about the horses in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, about movie horses. She clearly (despite her personal history) doesn’t know a whole lot about horses, but she does know a whole lot about people, and does a really nice job in telling her stories.

So while I spent the first 3/4 of the book annoyed at her lack of distinction (mustang != any horse out west != free-roaming stock horses != any horse that she has decided fits a certain physical type), when I forced myself to step back and think “this is really about horses as companions in creating the history of the west” I liked the book much much better.

And then when she spends the last 1/4 actually talking about mustangs, actually parsing out the history of the wild/feral horses in the west in the mid to latter part of the 20th century? She does a really good job. Instead of an enjoyable but not gripping read it became a gripping and depressing and involved read. I couldn’t put down the last 80 pages. It took me 2 weeks to read the first 240.

And in the end? I’m glad she didn’t write the book I wanted to write, because that means it’s still out there for me to tackle.


How to Identify and Read a Bureau of Land Management Freeze Brand

When I introduce people to Tristan, they always seem surprised that he’s a mustang. Fortunately, he has permanent proof of his ancestry in the form of a freeze brand on his neck. All mustangs that have been rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as part of an approved gather are given a freeze brand on the left side of their neck, just below the mane and about 6-12 inches below the ears.

What is freeze branding? Many people are familiar – from the movies, if nothing else – with hot branding: heating a piece of iron and then applying it to an animal’s skin. The brand burns through hair and then into skin, creating an outline of scar tissue in whatever shape is necessary: a ranch’s ID, for example, or a number. In horses, the most common are breed association brands. There’s a good list of them on the NetPosse website. It’s not a painless process, but it is relatively quick and very common.

In freeze branding, the iron is super-frozen using liquid nitrogen, dry ice, or some other chemical coolant. When held to an animal, instead of burning through to the skin, it kills the pigment-producing part of the animal’s hair, and leaves the hair white in the shape of the brand. They are slower to work – you have to hold the brand on longer to get the desired result, and they don’t appear immediately, but rather as the hair grows in. It’s less painful (some resources say totally painless) but trickier: because you have to hold the iron for longer, there’s a chance of smudging.

In America, only range-gathered BLM mustangs have a consistent system of freeze branding. (In Australia and New Zealand, Thoroughbreds & Standardbreds are marked with freeze brands.) This is not to say that if you see a horse with a freeze brand, it’s automatically a BLM mustang. Some owners choose to freeze brand their horses (usually in different locations and with a different system). Some mustangs are never freeze branded (if they were born in captivity, for example).

BLM mustangs are freeze branded on the left side of their neck, about an inch or two below the crest, and about 6″ below the ears. There’s no precise measurement (Tristan’s is further down than 6″ for sure, and I’ve seen some much closer than 6″), but if you see a horse with a freeze brand near the crest on the left side of their neck, you’re probably looking at a BLM horse.

Every BLM freeze brand is unique. They’re meant as a permanent identifier of an individual mustang. Knowing how to read them can tell you a lot about the animal you’re looking at. There are three basic parts to any freeze brand. Here’s a good breakdown:

“Registration Organization” in this case is always the same: US Government. That peculiar sort of LC at the beginning of this diagram is the government-specific ID. So that’s another clue that you’re looking at a BLM mustang. (There are ID marks for other breeds and states, by the way, but I’ve never seen one in person.) But what do the angles and lines mean – how are those translated into numbers?
The BLM uses something called the “International Identification System” which they all the “International Alpha Angle System.” It was developed by Veterinary Cryobiologist (really!) R. Keith Farrell of Washington State University (along with a few others, such as an FBI agent and a few people from breed associations) and first published in the Journal of Forensic Science in January 1981. (Here’s the abstract.) 
Basically, Professor Farrell was trying to promote an international system of identification for horses that could be registered and tracked in order to prevent crime. His argument was that commonly used identifiers such as color, whorls, chestnuts, and other markings were unscientific and imprecise. He proposed his alternate angle system as a way to get everyone on the same page. As you can guess, it hasn’t really caught on widely in horse circles – have you ever seen a non-BLM horse with one? Kryo Kinetics USA LLC tries to carry on that work today, and will register your horse for you if you choose to have it freezebranded.
Anyway, enough history. What do the angles stand for? It’s a very simple system.
So let’s look again at the freeze brand above, this time deciphered using the angle system:
Ta-da! We’re looking at a BLM mustang that was born in 1981 (the first year they began using the angle system, incidentally) with a registration number of 031987. There’s one more step to learning more about this particular animal, though. The BLM assigns registration numbers according to the state the mustang was gathered from.
New Mexico
Eastern States

So, armed with that information we know we’re looking at a BLM mustang that was born in 1981 and rounded up in Oregon. In theory, the BLM should also maintain a database of the horses they gather, and should be able to tell you when a particular horse was rounded up based on its registration number. In practice, good luck getting them to answer your phone calls. (I’ve generally found them unresponsive in the extreme.)
What does this look like on actual horses? Let’s use my own wild pony as an example!
Yeah, not as easy, is it? I’ll grant you that this photo doesn’t help, but I’ll also tell you that it’s not that much easier to tell in person. In fact, since he was shipped to me, I haven’t clipped down to the skin on his neck to get a good clear look at his brand. This photo was taken a few days after he arrived. You could argue that this is the best it will get. His roaning makes the numbers blur into the hair around them. Beyond maybe a flea-bitten gray horse, roans are the toughest on which to distinguish freezemarks.
The first few are easy. There’s that government LC, right up front. Then the year, 95.
Then the next two are straightforward: 5 and 5. In better light, you can tell the next one, too: it’s an 8.
After that? Honestly, the next two are kind of a blur to me, too. The last one is easy again: another 5.
I’ll take a shortcut and tell you that his full, registered, identification number is 95558535. He was foaled in 1995, and rounded up in Nevada, per that 55 number which is smack in the middle of Nevada’s range. (Some vast majority of all mustangs still wild in the west today are in Nevada, so Tris is a pretty typical example.)
That’s all the freeze brand will tell you. You can, in theory, go back to the BLM and ask them for more information. If they’re feeling generous they can look up more for you, like potentially the gather (or roundup) information, maybe the original title holder. Again – I’ve never been able to get much out of them. (I have more information on Tris that I’ll share at a future date, but I have that because of the paperwork that came with him, not because of 
But this is a start. Let’s look at one more freeze brand that’s an easier read. (Taken from a random Google Image search; I don’t know this horse personally.)
Much easier, huh?
So this one: 97 year of birth, followed by 566684. Another Nevada horse.
So now you know. Google Image search for “BLM freeze brand” to your heart’s content and learn about the mustangs that come up, or impress horse people at cocktail parties, or maybe put that knowledge to good use someday when someone needs to know more about a horse they’re looking at.
Any questions? Anything else I can shed light on?


Lazy by Design

Stacey at Behind the Bit linked to this article from Equus Magazine, which is a roundup of interesting tests done on horses to see what they prefer.

This line in particular stuck out to me:

One horse chose to exercise on the treadmill on two out of three of his trials. While that one horse may have had some predilection for exercise, the overwhelming preference was for “absolutely no exercise.”

 Of course, working on a treadmill is very different from running free. But this result does correlate with how horses behave in nature. Feral horses spend less than 1 percent of their time moving more quickly than a walk, and they pick up their pace in only one situation: when they are being chased.

Tristan says “I FREAKING TOLD YOU SO, CRAZY LADY. I will go willingly forward when there is a mountain lion in the ring with us, and NOT ONE SECOND BEFORE THEN.”

dressage · mustangs

JB Andrews, 1986-2011

I can’t remember who first told me about JB Andrew. Probably someone who saw me valiantly trying to teach my little mutt of a mustang to go on the bit and wanted to give me inspiration. But I went home and read all about him, and over the years I followed him from afar. I told people all about him when they seemed surprised that my mustang can be a dressage horse.

Last week, I did an idle internet search for the first time in a long time and found out that JB Andrews died 18 months ago. I’ll admit it: I broke down and cried at my desk. At work. At lunch, but still. Ack.
Who was JB Andrews, you may ask? Arguably the most successful BLM mustang of all time. When people talk about BLM mustangs succeeding in traditional sporthorse disciplines, they talk about Andy first – and then they talk about all the other mustangs.

He was captured as a weanling out of a herd in Nevada in 1985, and he was started in a prison program in Colorado – “JB” stands for “Jailbird.” His first owner, Ginger Scott, noted that he had some dressage talent and soon a friend of hers named Kelly O’Leary (later Boyd) got the ride.

By 1994, at age 9, he made his debut at Prix St. Georges. He and Kelly trained with Jan Ebeling, and he had matured to an astonishingly large 16.3 hands with size 5 feet. (To give you some context, Tristan is on the high end of average size at 15.1 hands. They are wild animals, who don’t often grow to typical domestic sizes.) He wasn’t rocking the whole world, but he was competitive and successful, and appeared on national leaderboards.

In 1997, he became the first mustang to appear at Dressage at Devon (and for a long time the only, until Padre was entered as an in-hand stallion).

By 1999, at 14 years old, Andy was showing at Intermediaire II and schooling the Grand Prix movements and tests. He would never make his show ring debut at that level, however, due to deteriorating hocks. He was retired to pasture in 2000.

It’s not clear to me what exactly he died of, but an article mentions that a malignant carcinoma was found behind his eye in 2009, so it seems safe to assume that’s what ended his life.

Rest in peace, big beautiful boy. You continue to inspire me and so many others.

JB Andrew at Kelly Boyd’s website
Eurodressage Profile: JB Andrew
JB Andrew: Mustang Magic (book at


All the Wild Horses

This article from Pro Publica is one of the most depressing things I’ve read in a long time. It exposes precisely what wild horse advocates have been saying for years: the current round up system is overloaded and broken, and thousands of wild horses are simply being taken from the wild with no clear end goal in sight.

It’s bad enough that there are now more mustangs in holding pens than in the wild, but this article offers incotrovertible proof that the BLM is turning a deliberate blind eye to at least one man who is buying horses wholesale and selling them to slaughter.

Here’s the thing: I have no fundamental problem with horse slaughter as a concept. They are livestock animals that are difficult and expensive to keep, and ending their lives in a quick manner is far kinder than letting them waste away in pain for years. However, the way slaughter is often done – shipping on overcrowded trailers, using the captive bolt system which has been proven inhumane for horses – is not okay.

What’s even worse, however, is the logic of the current wildlife management system the BLM is pursuing. Think about it: does the federal government round up deer and put them in holding pens? Is a sensible wildlife management policy one that simply rounds up wild animals and holds them en masse? The argument is that they’d die in the wild; well, yes, they would. That’s what happens to wild animals, sometimes horribly. It’s life. It makes me sad, but it’s a reality that the BLM would be better to go along with rather than thwart.


Death in the Wild

Life with Tristan continues apace. Dressage school last night in the back field, working on keeping a good forward rhythm no matter what, and controlling the shoulders in the canter.

Today I’m thinking about another horse-related project that has been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time. In my day job, I’m an historian and museum worker, and just completed a Master’s degree in history and museum studies. I study military history, and made the switch to nineteenth-century American when I did my graduate work. My thesis was about the early days of the First Dragoons, and in doing that I became fascinated by the patterns and intricacies of life in the American West.

My next project – to begin in earnest in the fall, after giving myself a summer of from school work for the first time in years – will be about perceptions of the mustang through history. I’ll be documenting that blog at my other history/professional blog, Amblering.

In that vein, I read a blog post today that fascinated and touched me and reminded me that there is so much more going on inside my little mustang’s head than I will ever really know about. He was four when he came off the range; he’d lived a rich and varied and intense life. Someday I’ll post a picture of the scar above his right hock, perfect teeth marks on either side of the big tendon there.

Barbara Wheeler is an equine photographer who specializes in mustangs; I’ve loved her Facebook updates for months now, and she wrote this detailed account of the death (euthanizing, more properly) of a herd stallion, and the social dynamics among the herds that accompanied his fall.

I’m not sure I agree with the actions she and others took to humanely euthanize this stallion – life in the wild is cruel, and painful, and I have never been one to cry over the plight of mustangs living a perfectly natural, if violent and short, lives. What’s done is done, however, and I appreciate the keen observation she brought to the situation.