A LIVING LEGEND
ISOLATED IN THE REMOTE OREGON OUTBACK FOR CENTURIES, KIGER MUSTANGS RETAIN THE GENETICS–AND THE UNIQUELY PRIMITIVE MARKINGS—THAT TRACE DIRECTLY BACK TO SPANISH, IBERIAN, AND EVEN MORE ANCIENT EQUINE BLOODLINES.
Considered “living genetic treasures,” Kiger mustangs were rediscovered in the 1970s by Ron Harding, a specialist with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In a remote area of southeastern Oregon, near the rugged Kiger Gorge region of the Steens Mountains, Harding came upon a herd of twenty-seven homogeneously marked wild horses that strongly resembled the historical mounts of the Spanish Conquistadores.
Since cowboys and ranchers had been crossbreeding into the original Spanish bloodlines for centuries, it was believed the West’s wild mustang herds had become so genetically diluted by the early 1900s, that none still existed on the open range possessing the original, pure Spanish bloodline(s).
To Harding’s surprise, this band of wild mustangs were all similar in color: a shade of dun. Each animal also exhibited primitive Spanish markings, including a dark dorsal stripe and zebra-like banding on their legs, distinguishing characteristics known as the “dun factor.”
Genetic testing at the University of Kentucky would prove that indeed, this band of “Kiger Mustangs” as they would come to be called, could trace their heritage to the horses early Spanish explorers brought to the New World in the 1600s (which also possessed the primitive gene for the dun factor.) The Kiger’s Spanish forbearers were themselves the descendants of the Iberian horse, praised throughout European history, and revered and coveted by early Greek and Roman rulers and warriors.
The decision was quickly made to separate the Kigers (pronounced like tiger but with a “K”) from the other mustangs and to create two herds out of the twenty-seven animals, to insure their survival should an unforeseen natural disaster like a wild fire destroy one herd. Seven horses were kept in the Riddle Mountain Horse Management (HMA) a fenced area of 28,000 acres.
The remaining twenty were relocated to the Kiger HMA, a fenced area of 37,000 acres. Today, approximately 50-85 horses live on the Kiger HMA and 30-60 on the Riddle HMA.
hen the populations rise above the established number of animals able to thrive, the herds are rounded up by helicopters (the fleet-footed, durable Kigers can outrun wranglers on horseback.) The feral horses are corralled, vaccinated and dewormed. Those deemed best suited to live in the wild are returned to the HMA areas. The extra horses are taken to the Wild Horse Corrals in Burns, Oregon, for public adoption through the BLM.
Thanks to the efforts of Ron Harding and his associates, William Phillips and Josh Warburton, the Kiger Mustangs of today retain many of the qualities of their illustrious lineage, including the physical conformation of their ancestors. Though many imagine them to resemble Quarter Horses, Kigers are actually similar to the oriental hotbloods—and to the now extinct Tarpans, a wild horse formerly found in western Asia and eastern Europe. Today, Kiger Mustangs are an established breed and are recognized by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as one of a larger category of “Colonial Spanish Horses”.
Kiger Mustangs are almost always one of four shades of dun: dun, red dun, grulla (mouse gray) and claybank (buttermilk). Occasionally, a rare black foal will be born. The less white these horses exhibit, the stronger the dun factor, and vice versa.
The Kiger’s ears are sharply pointed and outlined in black, with fawn-colored hair on the inside. Additionally, they often have unique facial “cobwebbing,” or a darker “mask” on the lower face. Manes and tails are bi-colored: usually a deep chocolate with lighter “highlights” on the outer guard hairs.
Kigers are compact and well muscled, with refined round bones, small feet and minimal feathering on legs and fetlocks. Eyes are prominent and wide set. They generally stand 13.2 hands to 16 hands. Preferred height is 14-15.2 hands.
Kiger Mustangs are beloved for their courage, intelligence, agility, beauty, presence and tractability, as well as for the romance of their Spanish heritage. Like many wild horses, they retain a physical resilience and hardiness forged on the open range, but once gentled, can be extremely reliable. Cowey Kigers have proven to be adept at cutting, and Kigers are also ideal for endurance and trail riding, as well as being used for other disciplines.
A Kiger stallion was the star of the animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Kigers have also been immortalized in a series of Breyer model horses. Secluded for centuries in the rugged Oregon outback, Kiger Mustangs have found their rightful place, both in our hearts, and as an integral element of the West’s living history.