Breed evolution: Like many wild horses, the Kiger Mustang is descended from the Iberian Horses brought to the New World by Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago. Bands of wild horses evolved in isolated pockets across the western states - many beautiful and tough, but none more distinctive than the Kiger.
The Kiger's dun coloration is uniquely eye-catching. Usually of dun and grulla coloration, the horses carry dominant genes that provide the primitive dun factor markings, including dorsal strip, zebra-striped legs, arm bars, bicolored mane and tail, and facial mask.
Owners say that while the beautiful coat may initially catch one's attention, the Kiger's calm temperament and athletic toughness make it particularly suited for the trail. Natural selection, which strengthened the herds and ensured their survival in the wild, now benefits the captive Kigers and their offspring.
After the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, the Bureau of Land Management was entrusted with protection, management, and control of the wild herds.
In 1977, BLM wild horse specialist E. Ron Harding discovered that horses in the remote Beatty's Butte area of Oregon displayed the primitive color and conformation of Spanish mustangs. Eventually, genetic tests at the University of Kentucky confirmed Spanish markers in their blood.
Many of today's Kigers can be traced back to foundation stallion Mesteño, which means "wild" or "unclaimed" horse in Spanish. Mesteño and his band of mares were captured in the original Beatty's Butte roundup. In 1996, at about age 27, the stallion was released in the Kiger Herd Management Area in southeastern Oregon, one of two such areas set aside by Harding to protect the Kigers in the wild. (The other is known as the Riddle Herd Management Area.) Mesteño's life, from colt to aged stallion, is depicted in a Breyer Horse Series called "Mesteño."
In 1988, the Kiger Mesteño Association was formed to protect and preserve the wild mustangs, as well as captive Kigers. The association's registrar, Shauna Dingus, reports that today, there are 550 registered foundation stock, either from the wild, carrying a BLM brand, or the inspected offspring of foundation stock; and 60 Half-Kiger Mustangs, with one registered foundation stock parent.
In January of 2007, the Kiger Horse Association & Registry was founded, dedicated to preserving the Kiger, promoting the versatile breed, and assisting both Kiger owners and breeders. The nonprofit organization, located in Grants Pass, Oregon, currently has registered 300 horses, according to registrar Betty Linnell.
Depending on wild herd numbers, opportunity for adoption through the BLM usually occurs every three years. The Kiger Mustang gives hope that at least one herd of American horses seems well-managed in the wild and treasured in their adopted homes.
Owners tell us: Gerald Thompson has one of the largest breeding herds of Kiger Mustangs in captivity at his facility, SpringWater Station, in western Oregon. He can't say enough about the breed's assets.
"The Kiger Mustang is a solid, fast-learning horse, both physically and mentally," Thompson says. "They have a good head on their shoulders - they can take me off the beaten path and back home again with no shying, no lameness, and no problems. They don't panic. They learn extraordinarily fast and love people."
On the trail: Thompson remembers his first Kiger with great affection. In the 1960s, he and some friends went on a pack trip high in Oregon's Cascade Mountains. His best friend (and his farrier), Jim Pierce, rode a 4-year-old Kiger Mustang mare. "A tall, long-legged dun - she was a beauty," says Thompson.
Thompson's current mount, a crossbreed, was full of energy and always ready to go. "It took him four or five miles to calm down enough to make for a relaxing ride," he recalls. "The first thing I noticed about Jim's Mustang was that she was steady."
On the next day's ride, Thompson was even more impressed - and decided to take action. "By the end of the day, I owned that Kiger mare."
Jillian McIntosh breeds Kiger Mustangs at her ranch, Karisma Kigers, in Madras, Oregon. "The Kiger makes a superb trail mount, because of his innate self-preservation [instinct]," she says. "They're surefooted, level headed, and will give you 110 percent every time."
One fall, McIntosh took her Kiger mare, Catalina, into new territory. Catalina had just finished her 30 days under saddle, but hadn't yet been on trail. McIntosh headed out with some friends; Catalina, a fast walker, quickly took the lead.
"I wasn't sure how Catalina was going to handle a surprise situation, being the lead mare," recalls McIntosh. "First, a jackrabbit suddenly jumped out of the brush between her legs. She never flinched or spooked.
"Then we came across a herd of mule deer," McIntosh continues. "They exploded out of the woods and bounded up the draw to the ridge above. Catalina glanced to watch them go, but she kept walking - no snort, no bug-eyed stare, no tense muscles."
The riders then encountered a motorcycle on their way back to the trailer. "Catalina stared at it, then wanted to walk on, so I stopped her," notes McIntosh. "She looked at the approaching bike, lowered her head into relaxed stage, and walked on with barely a glance as the growling, whining bike whizzed by. She really wasn't concerned about anything."