Between the dusty red landscapes and crystal azure sky, one of the most common sights on an ATV tour of the Nevada desert are wild horses. Also known as mustangs, these horses aren’t technically wild, but are instead the free-roaming descendants of horses introduced to North America by European explorers and settlers. With over half of the continent’s mustang population living in Nevada, Las Vegas ATV tour operators and locals are used to seeing these wild horses, but for most visitors, sharing a moment with these elegant animals is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Here’s an idea of the horses you might be sharing a desert afternoon with:
An Irish immigrant who became a well-known rancher in California and later Nevada, Tom Dixon kept an huge number of horse breeds, and their descendants make up what’s now known as the Dixon strain. Consisting of Shire, Percheron, and Morgan horses (to name a few), Dixon’s once 10,000 strong herd now makes up a large part of Nevada’s mustang population.
Named after Steel Dust, a legendary, Kentucky-born horse who was sought after for his perfect combination of temperament and muscle; he could wrangle cattle, pull a plow, and win a race on Sunday. After siring many descendants, the steeldust breed is a general name for any mustang in his line, and are known for their prominent muscles, impressive speed, and high intelligence.
Valuing beauty in their horses, the Jackson family of Nevada were known for breeding notably colorful horses. The Jackson family were especially fond of the frame overo pattern, where horses have a solid base color (like bay, black, or chestnut) with a horizontal pattern of white patches, and often a white head. Because these striking creatures carry a dominant gene, the Jackson family breed has kept this pattern going in the wild mustangs of today, and you’ll be able to spot their signature splotches from a good distance off.
By far the easiest mustang to ID on sight, these horses have curly hair on their mane and tail, and are sometimes seen with curls on their necks and flanks. Likely descended from a European breed of curly horses, the Damale family is credited for catching and training the curly mustangs after noticing how resistant they were to harsh winter temperatures.
A close relative to horses, wild burros roam the Nevada desert along their larger cousins. In addition to being much smaller than mustangs, burros can be recognized by their long ears, wide eyes, and shorter faces.
Because of their strong work ability, these donkeys were used by miners in the area, and often left abandoned once the work was done. These abandoned working burros created the wild population we see today, with numbers estimated to be around 1000 across Nevada.
Aside from the amazing scenery and wild ATV experience, the mustangs and burros of the Nevada desert are a huge draw. As some of the most majestic animals in the world they’re both beautiful to look at, and hugely symbolic of the history of the West.