A horse of a very special color

A once-forgotten herd of wild mustangs is spurring attention
from experts and filmmakers
Sunday, June 20, 1999

By Gordon Gregory, Correspondent, The Oregonian

ALFALFA -- It's a story with all the elements of a great screenplay: a touch of salvation, an undertone of passion and the prospect of riches. It is "Cinderella" with a Western twist.

It is the story of the Kiger mustangs, a collection of small equines that roams fairly freely in the remote and isolated Steens Mountain area of southeastern Oregon. While there is some debate about the animals' origin, many people are convinced these wild horses are descendants of the ancient Spanish breeds first brought to this continent by the conquistadors centuries ago. Most of the horses possess the coloration, markings, conformation and behaviors of the Andalusian and other Spanish breeds.

Named Kiger mustangs for a creek in the area, the once-forgotten horses that roam federal lands today have become by far the most popular and expensive wild horses on the range. The high prices paid for good Kigers led the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to abandon its flat fee system for wild horses on federal land. This fall, the bureau's Burns district will for the first time offer wild Kigers for adoption on a competitive fee basis.

Dean Bolstad, the bureau's wild-horse specialist, expects the adoption to draw people and their money from all over. He says that of the 203 BLM wild-horse management areas in the West, the public is by far most interested in the Kiger herds of Steens Mountain.

"They are, without question, the most popular wild horses," he said.

Steven Spielberg's movie studio recently bought a Kiger colt from an Alfalfa horse breeder for tens of thousands of dollars. DreamWorks SKG bought the horse as a model for a computerized animated feature that stars a wild horse. The breeder, Rick Littleton, says studio officials looked all over the country for a horse with the right look and movement and told him his Kiger was the best thing they had seen.

The studio isn't ready to discuss the project in detail, but Fumi Kitahara, spokeswoman for DreamWorks Animation, says the Kiger breed has the aesthetic qualities they will try to capture in the movie. "They're sort of the quintessential, beautiful wild horse," she said.

Expert recognizes lineage
Those horses might have been lost if it weren't for Ron Harding, a retired wild-horse specialist for the bureau.

Harding was one of the first to recognize that this herd could have ancient lineage. That was back in the early 1970s, shortly after he arrived at the bureau's Burns office to manage the agency's wild-horse program. He had always been intrigued by the Spanish horses and wondered if any might be left in distant parts of Oregon.

"I started asking whether there were any Spanish mustangs left, and this old horse runner says, 'Well, if there was any left, they'd be in the Beatty's Butte,' " he recalled.

That area in southwestern Harney County was untamed by fences and so rough and remote that the old mustangers, the men who rounded up the wild horses to sell, didn't work the area.

Back in the 1970s, range horses were largely consider pests because they competed with cattle for forage. The bureau was more focused on thinning the wild horse populations in the West than in preserving unique herds.

In late 1978, Harding's office began rounding up horses on Beatty's Butte. Harding said that as soon as he saw the animals he knew they were special.

Many of the horses had the classic Spanish characteristics: colors from true gray or grulla, yellowish tans, called claybanks, and rich, red duns. They had marked dorsal stripes down their backs, hooked ears, zebra markings on their hocks and knees. They were small-boned but tended to have heavy necks and thick chests.

"Having been around horses all my life, it didn't take me long to figure out what we had," he said.

Somehow, this herd had remained isolated enough through uncounted generations to retain a close biologic tie to those distant cousins. Harding said he and his bosses were thrilled with the discovery, but they immediately recognized a dilemma: "The question was, what are we going to do because nobody really cared about them for what they were? At that point in time, about the only interest was 'let's get the wild horses off the land because they're overgrazing.' "

They removed all the range horses from two areas near Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon and repopulated those areas with some of the best Spanish mustangs. They wanted to keep the animals isolated from other wild herds so they wouldn't lose the strong Spanish characteristics. Over the years, bureau officials have kept the herd at a manageable size by regularly rounding up and adopting out the less favorable animals.

The bureau's work, as well as efforts by several breeders to improve and promote the Kigers, has elevated the mustangs to a position of renown among horse enthusiasts. Wildlife films, articles in top horse publications and shows and competitions have featured Kigers. Their grace in movement, their beauty and their indefinable air of calm-spiritedness has caught the imagination of thousands of people.

Wild but gentle animals
On a warm spring morning at his ranch on the high desert plains east of Redmond, Littleton kicked feed to several dozen Kigers from the back of a beat-up flatbed truck he left in low gear to drift across the field.

He couldn't seem to take his eyes off one particularly striking colt. The days-old horse was light in color, had a dark dorsal stripe and heavy zebra markings on its legs. It scampered on bony legs across the thin grass, shied from the snorts of the other horses and nuzzled that warm spot on its mother's belly when it felt secure.

"That," said Littleton, "is what it's all about."

He seemed a man in love with his animals.

While any horse, particularly any wild horse, can be difficult and dangerous to work with, many Kigers are steady, even-tempered and gentle. Littleton's top stallion, Steens Kiger, is calm enough to allow children to ride, he said.

Littleton has about 90 head of Kiger today, most of them adopted from the bureau or purchased from others who had adopted the animals from the government. He breeds and sells them to people from all over the country. He figures he's sold about 300 for prices up to $5,000 apiece, not including the DreamWorks deal.

Several other breeders in this country and one in Germany specialize in these horses that were virtually unknown just 20 years ago. Littleton believes people are willing to pay a lot for a Kiger in part because of the romantic thought that these horses have blood ties to centuries past.

In addition, more horse people are coming to see Kigers as remarkable animals. He said Kigers are intelligent, possess secure personalities and can be stunningly beautiful. And their reputation, he says, will help ensure that Americans continue their love affair with wild horses.

"This Kiger thing has changed the image of the wild horse," he said. "It's given the mustang an image it never had."

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