(#3) Dissecting Mustang Conformation- let's hear the pros and cons!

Let me know if this goes against some rules of this forum that I don’t know about, but since there’s been such a great response on the previous two posts, and people seem very interested in this topic, I thought I might make this a series.

Please analyze this mustang’s conformation:

This is a 7 year old mare from Beatys Butte, OR, and stands 14.1.

Unfortunately no video on this listing, and less than ideal conformational photos, but it’s what there is to work with.

I find the most informative responses include:

  • Any conformational faults that would be a soundness or athletic concern ACROSS disciples,
  • Aspects of this mare’s conformation that would be beneficial in some discipines but not others,
  • Anything you deduce about the mind and temperament of this horse from the photos.

I’ll be interested to see what everyone thinks!

Another grade stock-horse type pony with a short neck? What’s interesting is that they do indeed all seem to be of the same “breed” and look similar. As with all the mustangs, I think they’d probably make great back-country trail horses for smaller riders, and might have some Western cattiness, though probably not to the level needed to be an actual competitive reiner. In other words, very much like my own formerly feral mare in the 1970s. I don’t see anything in this mare’s conformation that would make her stand out as a jumper, reiner, dressage horse, etc.

Surely the BLM must be able to sneak up on these horses when they are standing still. Surely these horses must stand still at some point! So there is clearly a decision made to post photos of the horses rowdying around, which probably does show them in the best light. If these are the horses that are in mustang concentration camps for years on end, they probably spend most of their time standing loafing around the hay pile, looking like any other sleepy, depressed, or unemployed grade stock-type pony in a dusty corral.

Since all these horses have the same general build and abilities, if I had to choose one I would look at legs, neck tie-in, size of girth/barell, things you can’t really evaluate with the photos on offer.


^^^ This. I’ve gone and looked at mustangs several times when they bring them around for adoption, and of the dozens, cannot find one I am even remotely interested in. High set hocks that trail behind them, straight shoulders, big heads. Nothing that I would find useful, but I buy performance horses.

If a person is looking for a recreational horse, there are many many many out there who are already broke and already suitable for trail riding and low level competitions. Most people buy mustangs for the novelty of the horse being a mustang, not because the horse is a good sporthorse prospect. Of course there are those that do OK in competition, but it’s not like you see them all over the place. If you have the skills to turn one into a solid citizen, great.

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What I find most interesting about mustangs is the in the wild breeding – the survival of the most fit – stallions earning their mare harem, etc. This all makes for tough horses. Plus a level of intelligence must come into play – lead mares, etc. Darwinian theory vs captive breeding, breeding by design as in domestic horses.

But I guess it all comes down to WHAT a person is intending to do with a mustang, and how well the mustang’s general conformation fits a particular discipline.

But just as some horses (well bred for dressage) make terrible prospects – a ‘well bred in the wild’ mustang might make a wonderful dressage prospect when it comes to intelligence, willingness to learn, etc…but they probably won’t delight in that divine visual we expect to see in a top dressage horse.

And maybe a mustang can jump the moon where a horse bred in capivity for the same purpose will fail. Who knows. That special mustang is out there somewhere. And there are those people who have already found and adopted their special one.


I’ve attended the “Mustang Makeover” in Topsfield, MA twice now, and the horses’ type really varies by which herd they came from. Most herds yield horses as others have described – short-necked little stock type ponies with big heads, trailing hocks, etc. - but even then there will be variation between the herds in terms of just how “bad” they are. But this is not always true; two years ago there were some very nice looking horses from one herd, almost all greys and with a Baroque type – a little heavier, curvier, longer necks, nicer gaits, etc. No, they were not “sport-bred” but they were definitely a higher quality horse, and the auction prices reflected that. (The announcer also mentioned that they were a little hotter, but quite trainable.)

Someone I know, not very well, has had 2 MM horses and they could not be more different in type. Last year’s was quite refined and when ridden correctly had a good ground covering stride. What I recall of her conformation faults is that she had a steep croup and a short neck, possibly smaller hooves – but a very pretty face and straight legs. She was a little unsure of herself and the woman withdrew her from the hardest part of the competition. (remember, very green horse, 100 days of training, in a very challenging environment.) The woman kept this one.

This year’s is built like a brick ****house – big boned, drafty, low to the ground (but taller than the first one), thick-necked, big round HQ. She won’t win any conformation prizes (she “stands under” in front and may be a little back at the knee), but she’s very solid. And also quite dominant, and a tougher horse than the first one (based on this woman’s FB posts – she’s been honest about the mare’s aggressive fear reactions, etc. – but they are just 30 days in)

It is interesting. I think it might be a mixture of wanting to show the horse moving in some form, and that it probably looks more exciting than the calm one just standing there. I’ll add that this horse is a sale authority, so is available for immediate purchase, having been passed over for adoption three times (since she’s less than 10), so they might put in as much effort into those horse’s profiles. She’s also in Nevada right now, so not the same people setting up her profile as if she were still in Burns.

Yup. It seems like GENERALLY speaking, what you are likely (not guaranteed) to find in a mustang is strong legs, self-preservation based intelligence, short backs and necks.

If you look quite a bit harder you might also find one with the above AND a conformation predisposed to excel in certain disciplines.

Have a look at this little dressage mustang, amazing what you can (but aren’t guaranteed) to find:


^^^^^^^^ NICE! :slight_smile:


Don’t think this is a true example of “in the wild breeding”. First it’s a small, feral population in general and one could argue the remnants of culling as the better ones were removed by humans over many decades with less desireable/saleable types left to reproduce. The predator population is greatly reduced and humans have intervened providing feed in harsh winters on some ranges so not just the absolute fittest survive. Little or no interaction with other bands so shallow DNA pool.

Back in the day, even 40 years ago, you still saw ranch type horses showing traits of several breeds in the mix. IMO these didn’t die off as a result of predation or lifestyle as much as being removed as better sale prospects ( for use or per pound meat price)). Their current condition is very much the result of human intervention removing better animals from the gene pool.

No argument that smallish, sort of drafty type is capable of surviving and reproducing but it doesn’t make them a go to choice as a working horse,even just a riding horse. There is much to overcome to make that transition and thats heavily dependent on the individual. So, some can, most won’t suit a suburban lifestyle with less then expert handling. Even back when you could get some pretty decent animals, overcoming the fight or flee skills needed to survive life in the feral state and developing a work ethic in an older horse is a challenge.

Goodluck to those who take it on but it’s not for everybody .


I’d encourage you to research Oregon management. It’s quite different to what you’re describing.

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Breeding for survival in the wild is different from breeding for riding. Horses aren’t “naturally” built to carry weight, and smart breeding programs over the centuries have encourage high-set necks, the ability to collect, and other traits that make the horse better able to learn skills that help it survive carrying the weight of the rider.

Zebras and donkeys are even better equipped to survive in their environments than horses are, and even less suitable to ride.

The mustang dressage stallion linked above is pretty and has a stallion’s neck. He is clearly well-drilled in contemporary dressage, but he still has a short stride and is not going to be able to show much extension. He isn’t tracking up at either the walk or the trot, from the various glimpses I had at his video (didn’t watch end to end). In that he is performing like a stock horse.


Ah, I see Oregon is the home of the Kiger mustang, and they are essentially purpose-breeding more of these by exporting stock to other herd areas.

The Kiger mustangs are rather special, as I said much earlier in a post on this topic, probably on another thread.

Interesting that the Oregon BLM is now intervening in herd management to alter the type. Credible, but doesn’t this make the horses closer to range-bred domestic stock, and not true wild survival of the fittest?

I like what I’ve seen of Kigers (none IRL) because I like Iberian horses. They are a very different population that in other areas.


The Kiger is indeed a very unusual mix of domestic influences to create a “breed” of ‘wild’ horse. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that.

Outside of the several Kiger HMAs, most of the HMAs are managed for what the BLM considers good conformation, and color. Color so that they’re more attractive to the less knowledgable adopters (and I would include myself in that category), and conformation so that over time they will be adopted. This makes sense in that the more horses they can adopt out, the fewer they have to pay for in holding pens, and the better the reputation the adopted mustangs have, at least as far as the capable adopters go.

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My understanding is that the Kiger was not created by selective breeding, but was an isolated pocket of mustangs that were still breeding true to what resembles an Iberian phenotype. Selective management of the herd is relatively recent.

It’s true that mustang bands typically turn out a higher percentage of horses with the cream factor (palomino, buckskin) or the dun factor, or pintos. This could be due to inbreeding concentrating these genes, or that the colours confer a survival advantage in the desert environment. Prezwalski’s horse, for instance, is always dun.


They also resemble mustangs somewhat. I think this is just the shape that equines want to revert to, in the wild. Except the Kigers!

If the BLM really wanted to improve the conformation of mustangs, they could do what old-time ranchers used to do: turn a quality stud out with the wild horses, and capture the foals.

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I believe that (particularly in Oregon), that is about what they do. While they don’t release domestic stallions into wild herds, they will transplant some mares and stallions from different herds if needed for genetic variability. They also often release what they consider to be the best horses back after a gather so that the herds continue to produce adoptable offspring.

Of course, there’s also a lot of different opinions of what types of horses should be released. If you remove a lot of young horses at once, the herds will overcompensate for that the following years, and you’ll end up with a population boom. If you remove all the older ones, who teaches the young ones how to behave? It’s important to have a balanced age range in feral horse societies, I guess.

There’s also a lot of controversy over how many horses are actually needed in an area for genetic health. Some herds are healthier than others; I’ve found some really interesting articles that detail how mustangs, unmanaged, actually have a higher degree of genetic health than some domestic breeds do. I really want to find it so it doesn’t sound like I’m blathering what I hope the case is, but it’s pretty complex.

I sure don’t envy the BLM. Whatever they do, someone yells ‘foul’. It’s an obviously unsustainable situation, but no one seems to be able to agree on a clear resolution.

This is a really interesting resource I’ve found that discusses the various histories and management philosphies of different HMAs. Here’s the link for what they have to say about those in Oregon:

Ah, yep, here’s what they have to say about Kigers:
"Kiger Mustangs are known for their strong dun factors, for which they are selectively managed. Other Kiger-Riddle colors include bay, buckskin, and gray - even an occasional palomino. (Read the DUN color page to learn how that works)

Kiger horses are typically 13 to 15 hands and weigh 750 to 1000 pounds. They have light to medium bone and small feet. Ear tips are often hooked and females have very fine muzzles.

Historically, these two herds were created by BLM, led by Ron Harding, to develop a wild breed of Old Iberian type. The area was chosen due to its isolation, being rimmed by high mountains, which made it nearly impossible for neighboring horses to intermingle. Existing horses were captured and moved from the Kiger Valley to Palomino Buttes. A group of very Iberian-looking, spectacularly marked duns from Beaty’s Butte were moved to the Kiger Valley to form the foundation for the herd. Two separate home ranges - Kiger and Riddle - were established in order to maintain genetic health.

Dr. Gus Cothran performed genetic analysis of these two closely related herds in 2000 - 2001, checking on genetic health as well as possible ancestry. He found that these two herds have one Spanish marker, and a high degree of genetic variability, indicating health, and “likely, although not necessarily” mixed origin and recent introductions of unrelated animals. He states that it is not possible at this stage of our understanding of horse genetics to say with certainty which breeds were specifically involved in the ancestry of the Kiger. The breeds most closely resembling the Kiger are various breeds of known Spanish origin as well as the Appaloosa.

The Kiger herd tested to be quite similar genetically to other nearby Oregon herds, as well as Northwestern California herds. They fit within the light racing and saddle breeds cluster of breeds.

There are four genetic markers that occur only in horses of Spanish ancestry, and the Kiger herd has one, called “D-dek.” The Kiger has a strongly Spanish “phenotype” (physical appearance) which is quite attractive, and many are gaited. "

Don’t get me wrong, he is lovely. However, I am suspect after watching the video in entirety. The horse rides in a double bridle (permitted at third level and above) and yet shows only some basic first level movements. There is no haunches in, renvers, simple change or turn on the haunches (as shown at second level) as well as no medium and extended gaits, half pass or flying change (required at third level). Heck, there isn’t even a leg yield.

I like him a lot. But to say that he excels in dressage is a bit much. To me (IMO) he showed very basic dressage training that I would expect any horse to have. However, because he is mustang and has a long forelock he has become the poster child for mustang dressage.


I know almost nothing about dressage, so I couldn’t say. It sounds like the guy’s had quite a career, though. http://www.chronofhorse.com/article/…dressage-devon

Dressage person here. Those Devon show results are in-hand (i.e. halter class), not under saddle. He’s a cute guy, but doesn’t have much by way of ridden credentials.

That’s actually a good summary of conformation in general. Pretty is as pretty does; you need a helluva brain/temperament to compensate for poor conformation, but the best conformation in the world doesn’t guarantee riding success either.


I had no idea the Kiger were a purpose bred population. I thought they were an isolated pocket that had maintained some phenotypic consistency over 400 years. Live and learn! As far as having Spanish gene markers that’s probably true of most horses in western North America. For instance the frame overo pinto color pattern mutated in North America in horses descended from Spanish stock so every frame overo must trace back.

In Britain the only pinto pattern is what we call tobiano. Black tobiano is piebald, other colors skewbald. So Btits and Pony Club don’t distinguish between overo and tobiano.

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