The mustang, by its very lifestyle, has to be an athletic, strong, and independent animal. They had to use their instincts and wits to survive on the open grazing ranges, and they can use this natural intelligence to become highly competitive horses. Mustangs are typically smaller horses due to the relatively poor pasture conditions in most areas they naturally roam. With the more recent infusion of some Thoroughbred and Draft Horse blood into the mustang lines, especially in the early 1900's, there are some fairly heavy and long legged types of mustangs, but these tend to be found only in specific wild herds, not as a general characteristic of the population.
The small and lithe body of the mustang makes it an excellent horse for competitive events that require speed and agility. Since they are a shorter horse they are also able to corner much faster than a longer legged horse, making them ideal for timed events that combine speed and agility. Many mustangs are used in gymkhana events were horses and riders have to weave in and out of poles at full speed, turn sharp turns around barrels and even move through pre-set obstacle type courses at high rates of speed. Barrel racers in competitive rodeo often favor the smaller and more compact size of the mustang over the longer bodied light horse breeds that are slower on the turns and have less "burst" for the straight run across the finish line.
The intelligence of the mustang also makes it a great breed for competitions that involve independent thinking. Like the Quarter Horse, the mustang, which was one of the foundation breeds in the Quarter Horse line, is an excellent stock horse in roping, penning and cutting competitions. These events combine the horse's quick reflexes; fast turns and ability to out think the cattle. Since these events require the horse and rider to work both together and the horse to respond independently to the movement of the animal, mustangs make and ideal match. Mustangs are also excellent in trail riding and reining type shows were flexibility as well as intelligence is a factor. Many mustangs are used as both working and competition horses and tends to do very well under more intense training programs than many other breeds. They do need to have lots of time in turnout pastures and areas and are not recommended as a horse that should be stabled more than necessary.
Mustangs are not just used in western style riding events. Some of the leggier mustangs are used in show jumping and eventing, and are particularly popular with shorter riders or young adult riders. The spunk and fire in the mustang's personality make them very competitive, but they are also very well behaved horses once properly training and can adjust to almost any type of competitive event. Mustangs are also being shown in dressage competitions and events, again typically with the younger adult riders or the smaller adults. Mustangs can also be shown in driving competitions although training a mustang for driving or carriage work does require some special skills and a lot of patience.