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“The Grass Remembered Them”

June 14, 2012

There is a comfort in reminiscing; revisiting memories once lived replete with colorful stories of family fable or legend. History gives us a place from which to grow, the roots of our future planted firmly in memories shared. Such is the story of the mustangs of the western plains, deserts, and mountain ranges.  Their roots extend deep into our own, their colors and patterns complementing the fabric of the new world into which their ancestors were delivered over 5 centuries ago.

Photo courtesy Tammy Roberts, Cafe Orange Photography, 2011


Their ancestors were warhorses, workhorses, and barter for brave and sometimes foolish men with names like Columbus, Cortez, and Desoto. With his tall ships Columbus set sail towards an unknown horizon, their holds filled with small yet sturdy horses. Five hundred years ago it was still believed our world was flat and Columbus would sail to the edge of the world and over, into oblivion horses and all.  From the shores of lands uncharted these horses, Andalusians, Arabians, and Barbs, the forbears of our American breeds began their own travels to destinations in a new country with no name.

Horses had arrived in the Americas via the hand-hewn wooden ships of traders, intrepid adventurers, and scoundrels. When battle-weary Spaniards fled before the anger and power of the native people there, they left behind many horses that assimilated into the wayward herds of Columbus.  Native storytellers say, “the grass remembered them,” these magnificent creatures of the prairies. Entire cultures would change with the introduction of the horse, an animal separated in a continental split of prehistoric determination. In time, the horse returned to the western sea of grasses, delivered by captains and Kings of the venerable vessels sailing the waters of the globe.

Seas of grass fed them

The mustang of today is called a wild horse, but it is still debated that only Przwalski’s horse can claim this true title. Centuries of free roaming and adapting to the environment have claimed the domestic traits of the mustang, but in every other way besides genetic markers the mustang is wild. Their name is from the Spanish “meste`no” meaning stray or unwanted. These early mustangs were captured here and there by settlers and Native tribes, and their populations grew as other horses escaped from their pioneering caretakers or were turned loose. Cold-blooded draft breeds joined hot-blooded thoroughbreds; mixing with the herds of tough Spanish warhorses, the roaming herds became as genetically varied and random as the people who admire them.

Photo courtesy ABC News

Today, the mustang has become a true symbol of America, a living, breathing reminder of from whence we came and who we are.  Their history with us is often a paradox, honored and admired for their resilient spirit, yet we remain a nation divided over their future as free roaming symbols of our collective memories. The defiance of a palomino mustang stallion named “Desert Dust” inspired a movement to protect these horses through legislation.  His image, captured by photographer Vern Wood in the 1940’s as the horse struggled to protect his herd, still teaches us that the mustang has value far beyond the marketplace. Their worth is for each of us to determine, their spirit is for each of us to remember, and their future is for each of us to protect. The mustang is our history, and our memories will preserve that for generations to come.

“Desert Dust,” the photo that inspired a nation to care
Vern Wood circa 1940

Photo courtesy BLM, United States Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard, circa 1988
Palomino mustang and U.S. Marine

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4 Comments
  1. beautifully written…

  2. tlrobertshsnt permalink

    Love…

  3. Sharlet permalink

    Wow…nothing else to say.

  4. Love this story about our history. Hope you’ll have more to come.

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