If our love affair with the fabled Kiger mustang, perhaps the most sought-after wild horse in the West, can be summed up by a single person, then listen to Betty Linnell.
As owner of the Double L Kigers and Three Creeks Ranch outside Medford, she bought her first Kiger in 1993 and fell so hard for the breed that she eventually sold off all her quarter horses and replaced them with Kigers.
"It was their beauty and their romantic history linking them to the historic Spanish mustangs that first caught our eye," Linnell says. "But it was after using them, after seeing their stamina to go all day chasing cows in rugged terrain, that we really got hooked on them."
Now she breeds and sells them nationwide.
Thirty years after a group of wild horses was moved to the isolated Kiger Gorge on Steens Mountain because of similarities to the Spanish horses brought to North America centuries ago, hundreds of people have become, like Linnell, smitten with the breed and its lore.
But not all wild mustangs are so popular.
The federal Bureau of Land Management oversees an estimated 31,000 wild horses in 10 Western states. Because the horse faces no predator in the wild, other than mountain lions, herds would double every five years if not culled. To keep a balance between horses and habitat, excess animals are offered for adoption through public auctions, but not all find a home.
Of the roughly $38 million spent on the program, more than half goes to caring for the 22,000 older horses that haven't been adopted and live on ranches primarily in Oklahoma, where each horse costs the government about $1.27 a day.
The BLM's horse specialists are looking at ways to better match the number of horses culled with the number adopted. Some herds undergo birth control that renders mares infertile for one cycle, says Craig MacKinnon, head of the program for Oregon and Washington.
Kigers, however, seldom end up in government sanctuaries. Most are adopted, and many fetch prices that surprise those affiliated with the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro program. Today, the Kigers are their own cottage industry. Four registries compete for authority and prestige. Kigers generally sell on the market for between $900 and $6,500, stud fees range from $250 to $850, and there's even a KigerFest once a year.
the time the Kiger auction takes place every three or four years &
the Internet buzzes with chatter. Breeders get excited about the new stock; trainers look at their calendars, knowing they'll be called on to tame the wild animals; and horse lovers across the Northwest &
and from as far as Rhode Island, Georgia and Michigan &
start booking motel rooms because they go fast in the town of Burns, population 3,000.
The hype filters all the way down to remote southeastern Oregon, 70 miles from the nearest town, to the rocky canyons and rimrock buttes of Kiger Gorge and Riddle Mountain, where two Kiger herds run free.
The government subcontracts the roundup to a Utah company, one of two such outfits nationwide. Wranglers and a helicopter sweep the wild horses from their sagebrush-and-juniper haunts.
The animals that best represent the breed are corralled, examined and freeze-branded before they are released to propagate the legendary herds. The others are held for adoption.
But before the chosen return to the wild, a wrangler traps them in a steel chute and yanks out a fistful of mane hair. The hair is bound for a California genetics lab that may one day solve the mystery of their ancestry.
Then they are loaded into trailers and driven for miles back over rugged roads until they reach a bowl of land surrounded by low mountains for as far as the eye can see. The cowboys turn their rigs around and pop open the back doors. Ten mares and three stallions thunder from their confines and disappear back into the wild.
What do you get when you buy a Kiger?
You get a horse used to foraging on bunch grass. You get "a magnificent mind," says Linnell, who also is registrar for the Kiger Horse Association and Registry. "Very even temperament, a bonding between a horse and a person that I have never seen in a domestic horse."
You get a horse so healthy that California breeder Shauna Dingus says not everyone shoes them. You get a horse so majestic that DreamWorks paid a reported $50,000 for one named Donner and used him as the model for the central character in the animated movie "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."
"You are getting something that is a part of American history," says Dingus, owner of Flying D Kiger Mustangs and registrar for the Kiger Mesteno Association.
What you don't get is definitive confirmation that your horse is a purebred descendant of the 16 Andalusians that Cortez took to Mexico in 1511.
"The only thing I can tell you for sure is they exhibit characteristics known as the dun factor," says specialist Jim Johnson at the BLM's Vale office. "The Spanish horses had the dun factor. At least it was common to a lot of the horses the Spanish introduced."
The dun factor means a range of colors from a buckskin brown to a reddish dun brown to a mousy gray called a "grulla." Other characteristics that link the Kigers to Spanish horses include a dorsal stripe down the back, zebra stripes on the knees and hocks, ears outlined in black and bicolored manes. Kigers are smaller than other horses, and have a slender face and wide-set eyes.
The government didn't get into the wild horse business until an Arizona woman named Velma Johnston, nicknamed "Wild Horse Annie," was outraged by the slaughter of feral horses. Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. In 1977, BLM managers in Oregon noticed that horses rounded up in isolated Beatys Butte had striking features.
Bill Phillips, 80, was one of the BLM managers who segregated the horses in 1977. He is as surprised as anyone at the hoopla.
"It wasn't our goal to set up a breed," he says. "Our goal was to preserve those horses. Here was a concentration of genes we thought worth preserving."
Today, Kigers are an official breed, but Phillips wonders if the future might reveal the interest to be a fad. Palominos were once hot. Then it was appaloosas.
One thing the future may bring is an answer to the Kiger's lineage.
The mane hair gathered at last month's roundup could go to geneticist Cecilia Penedo at the University of California at Davis if the BLM grants permission.
"They obviously have characteristics in common with Spanish-type horses," Penedo says. "The idea is to test them for DNA markers and compare them with other wild horses in the United States, as well as other breeds."
Double L Kigers: http:www.doublelkigerranch.com/
BLM's Wild Horse and Burro program: http:www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/wild""horse""and""burro.html
Kiger Horse Association and Registry: http:www.kigerhorse.org/
Horse lovers fall for beauty and toughness of Kigers