Clio Reads:

Mustangs of the Old West

By Gretchen Patterson

J. Frank Dobie’s history of the “mustang”—from the Spanish mesteña, an animal belonging to (but strayed from) the Mesta, a medieval association of Spanish farmers—tells of its impact on the Spanish, English, and Native cultures of the West. –Dayton O. Hyde

Mustang by Charles Banks WilsonIn his book, The Mustangs, published originally in 1934, western folklorist J. Frank Dobie discusses the history of the Spanish horse from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries with special emphasis on the American West. "Like the wild West Wind," Dobie states, "the mustangs, the best ones at least, were tameless, and swift, and proud." He provides background on the first horses imported to the New World, the northward progression of Spanish settlements and livestock, followed by the Native American adaptation to the horse and its many uses. Dobie also theorizes on the evolution of the wild horse herds that roamed the Plains and Southwest, and like the American Bison, disappeared with the encroachment of civilization. Stories of the open range, oral histories, and colorful anecdotes from cowboys and Mustangers offer a unique look at the horse culture’s influence, while providing a historical and entertaining insight on the Spanish horse.

To understand the importance of horses and horsemen before the Age of Machines, Horse stealing by Charles Banks Wilson Dobie delves into the origins of Spanish horses whose ancestors were the hot-blooded Barbs of North Africa brought to Spain in 711 AD along with their Muslim masters.In 1492 AD, the Muslims were forced to leave Spain but their horses remained. That same year, Christopher Columbus reached land in the West Indies, which he claimed for Spain. The ensuing voyages by Columbus and Spanish conquistadors consistently imported mares and stallions for both riding and breeding purposes. As exploration and conquest moved into North and South America, so did the horse population flourish as transportation, and when necessary, as a food source. Following the train of conquest, horses crossed the Rio Grande River with the expedition of Don Juan Oñate in 1598. By 1671, Native American tribes had acquired horses and developed their own unique horsemanship. Warriors counted wealth in the number of horses owned, and horse stealing was considered a sport that pitted tribe against tribe at the expense of human life and horseflesh.

Continuing with both fascinating horse tales and true stories, Dobie takes the book forward in time through the settlement of the western states during the eighteenth and nineteen centuries, and the decline of the Native American and Frontier Period horse cultures. He fittingly concludes The Mustangs with a poem that laments the days of the Old West and the vanished horses, only to be seen in ghostly form, running free across the open plains.

"So sometimes yet, in the realities of silence and solitude,
For a few people unhampered a while by things,
The mustangs walk out with dawn, stand high, then
Sweep away, wild with sheer life, and free, free, free
Free of all confines of time and flesh."

The Pacing White Stallion by Tom Lea J. Frank Dobie is a masterful storyteller whose thoughtful, well-documented stories cover a piece of American history that may have otherwise been forgotten and include the tales of the legendary Pacing White Stallion, Blue Streak, and Starface. Through his pen, the feral horses, the Indian warriors, and the rowdy horse wranglers live forever, their lore and legends recorded for posterity. Adding a visual element to Dobie’s stories are Charles Banks Wilson’s lively illustrations that highlight the horses and Mustangers. The Mustangs won the Carr P. Collins "Best Texas Book of the Year" in 1953 and remains a Dobie favorite for readers who love the Old West and horses.

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