BURNS, Ore. - The wild horses trotted into sight on a far ridge, silhouetted against the late-summer snow still clinging to the high flanks of Steens Mountain.
With a low-flying helicopter roaring at their heels, the herd disappeared over the far side of the ridge, then reappeared - closer this time - running easily over the rough ground, tails and manes flying, until they found themselves funneled into a steel corral with nowhere to go.
It's fall roundup time for the Kiger mustangs, whose isolation in this rugged rangeland studded with juniper and lava rock has kept them true to their ancient bloodlines - the Spanish horses brought to the New World by the conquistadors.
The buzz over these horses has been building for more than 20 years, but reached a peak when Steven Spielberg's movie studio, DreamWorks, bought a Kiger stud from an Oregon breeder to serve as the model for an animated motion picture. A story of the Old West from the mustang point of view, "Spirit" is due out in 2001.
Next month, when 90 Kigers are auctioned off by the government at the Harney County Fairgrounds, the bidding is expected to be as spirited as the horses.
"Wild horses are one of the only things we have left of what was cowboy, the Old West," said Nancy Pearson, Washington state secretary of the American Mustang & Burro Association.
"If you are slow in gentling one of these horses, you've got an animal you can trust with your life," said Barbara Rehfield, a founding member of the Kiger Mustang Association.
The story of the Kigers begins in 1974, when a U.S. Bureau of Land Management wild-horse manager named Ron Harding started asking eastern Oregon mustangers whether they knew of any wild horses showing the dun factor: colors and characteristics that marked them as descendants of the primitive Spanish breeds.
Four colors make up the dun factor. Dun is golden with black points. Red dun is reddish. Grulla (pronounced the Spanish way, GROO-ya) is a true mouse-gray, unlike the mix of black and white that makes up regular grays. Claybank is similar to buckskin.
"Our head horse-runner was Bob Bailey, and Bob's dad, Tom, was a mustanger; they chased wild horses for a living," Harding recalled, casting a critical eye over the horses taken in this year's gather. "He said if there were any left, they would be on Beatty Butte. That country was so rough and rocky they couldn't run 'em. There weren't any fences, and they didn't bother with 'em."
The original mustangs were a mix of the Andalusians, Sorraias, Garranos and Spanish Barbs that the Spanish brought to the New World. Over the years, mother breeds mixed in, to the point many thought the original bloodlines were gone.
But the Kigers show physical characteristics of these primitive breeds. Blood work by the University of Kentucky showed traits of the Spanish breeds, and DNA analysis showed ties to the Sorraia, still bred in Portugal, Harding said.
Back in 1977, when Harding rounded up the first batch of horses that would become the Kigers, he knew just by looking at them what they were.
"How do you know the wind is blowing in your face?" he asked. "You can't see it. You just feel it."
The horses have zebra striping on their legs, a dorsal stripe down the back, fine muzzles, eyes wide apart, and hooked ears with dark outlines and tufts of hair at the bottom. They are short and compact. Some have manes that stick up as much as lay down.
Some ranchers have long considered wild horses no better than coyotes, to be shot on sight. In the movie "The Misfits," Clark Gable lassoed mustangs from the back of a pickup for dogfood.
But every once in awhile, an exceptional mustang turns up. Helicopter pilot Cliff Heaverne recalled how his dad roped one back in 1944 or '45 that became a Nevada state show champion.
Harding's all-time favorite was a dun stud he called Mesteno, a Mexican word for an unclaimed sheep that evolved into a mustang.
"He wasn't a great big horse, but he was really a proud horse - that's what caught everybody's eye," said Harding. "He would trot to one side of the pen and blow snot on you from 20 feet."
Mesteno's bones are probably lying sun-bleached on the range. No one has seen him for three years, and he was 27 then, looking "like the last rose of summer," said Harding.
During the early BLM roundups, they gathered the mustangs on horseback, instead of with the helicopter used now. The country was so rugged, no one would risk a good horse, so the mounts were all a little crazy.
"They would ask you what you were looking for to keep your horses on their feet," Harding recalled. "You didn't look anywhere. You were scared to look up and scared to look down. You would just shut your eyes and go. You couldn't hold your saddle horse. They just wanted to run."
In 1977, when they first went after the Beatty Butte horses, they gathered 21 head and turned them loose on the East Kiger Herd Management Area. Kiger Creek runs through it, hence the name. To preserve the gene pool, they put six more horses on Riddle Mountain and removed nearby herds that didn't show the Spanish traits.
Though he is now retired, Harding still turns out for the Kiger gathers, and helps wild horse manager Dean Bolstad choose which ones go to town. The best ones, like Mesteno, always go back on the range.
"If you always put the good ones back, you'll always get the good ones off," Harding said.
In the past, people adopting wild horses paid just $125. Two years ago, BLM turned to auctions. The Oct. 23 auction will be the first on the Kigers. Bidding could go into the thousands.
Rick Littleton started breeding kigers in 1987 and now has 100 on his ranch in Alfalfa. He has sold Kigers for as much as $13,000 - not much for a top thoroughbred, but a high price for horses once hunted for dogfood.
His top stud is Steens Kiger, who sired Donner, the model for "Spirit." DreamWorks and Littleton won't disclose the price paid for Donner, but the purported number is $50,000, which Littleton allows is "in the neighborhood."
"When I first started this, no one wanted these horses," Littleton said. "But within a couple years, people were selling their picking numbers (from the adoption lotteries) for thousands of dollars.
"Most of my customers are romantics," Littleton said. "The horses are part of American history."
Bill and Judi Smith of Myakka City, Fla., fell in love with Kigers from a magazine article left behind by an air conditioning repairman. They plan to go to the auction looking for a couple of brood mares to add to the colt and mare they bought from Littleton.
"Not only are they absolutely beautiful, but their disposition is unlike others," said Judi Smith. "My mare is so docile, so calm and sweet. And they train so easily."
Harding has never owned a Kiger, though he has been a horseman all his life. When he was working for the BLM, it would have been a conflict of interest. Now, he prefers to think of them running free on the range.
"All the wild ones would be considered the apple of my eye," he said. "I feel a closeness."