Kiger Mustang

  • HEIGHT: 14–15 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Discovered in the Kiger Gorge on Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon, but genetic heritage goes back to the early Spanish horses and the ancient Sorraia of Iberia
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Always dun, grulla, or buckskin with dorsal stripes, exhibit “Spanish conformation,” and may be gaited
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Working cattle; endurance, trail, and pleasure riding

The history of the Kiger Mustang involves a long string of remarkable events that cross continents, cultures, and ages. To begin somewhere in the middle of the story, when Columbus made his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he intended to bring along some fine Andalusian horses. The night before they sailed, however, some of his men sold the fancy horses, bought cheap local horses of the Sorraia type, and spent the difference on a huge drinking binge. Furious, but on a schedule dictated by the tides, Columbus ended up bringing the tough, plain, dun-colored Sorraia types to the Americas.

Sorraias are indigenous to Spain and Portugal. Despite having been profoundly important in the development of the Andalusian and Lusitano breeds, these horses were not highly regarded in either Spain or Portugal at the time, but they were widely used for everyday work as packhorses and riding animals. Those first individuals that arrived in 1493 were tired, worn-out horses in fairly poor condition. On later voyages to the New World, many more Sorraia types were sent, because they were cheap and available. Spain didn’t want to risk sending its best horses, which it needed for military purposes in Europe and for stock replenishment of top-quality horses at home. Because it was present, the Sorraia played an important part in the first large-scale horse-breeding experiments in the New World, which were highly successful. Its genes were widely incorporated, first in the Caribbean, then later in Mexico, Florida, and the American West.

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived in the New World in 1540. In his quest for Cíbola, the city of gold, he traveled north and was one of the first Europeans to be seen by the Indians in North America. Before long, the Indians learned to ride, and as the era of Spanish missions began, horses were sometimes given to Indians who worked for the missions. By the late 1600s, however, the Indians deeply detested the Spanish, and they stole horses in increasingly large numbers. The Indians and others often kept horses in semi-feral herds from which some escaped. Huge herds of ownerless horses, known as Mustangs (Spanish for mongrel), developed on the western plains over the next 150 to two hundred years.

Horses of the Wild West

The Shoshone had long traveled a network of trails extending from what is now Oregon all the way to the Aztec capital in central Mexico. These well-trotted trails were highways of commerce among distant tribes. Once horses were acquired, somewhere in the second half of the sixteenth century, Shoshone culture changed quickly from a pedestrian society to one of skilled horsemen. With the added strength and speed of horses, they traded over larger distances and hunted larger game, which enabled them to feed larger family groups.

They also gained a huge military advantage over unmounted tribes. Horses became the primary trade item and the centerpiece of Shoshone culture. Horse raids into Mexico became so important and so successful that a group split off from the main Shoshone nation to form a permanent supply source for the northern tribes. These people were known among themselves as Kansas, but the increasing numbers of Europeans called them Comanches.

Kigers are closely related to the early Spanish horses. They often display the typical Barb head and body proportions of the Spanish Colonial Horses. They are always some shade of dun, buckskin, or grulla, with dorsal stripes.

The horses that lived wild on the plains or with Indians flourished on nothing but the native grasses. They were quick and resilient, usually no more than about 14 hands high, and initially, of course, they were of strictly Spanish descent. But as the continent began to be settled by other Europeans, other types of horses arrived, particularly draft types to pull wagons and to work on farms. Inevitably, some of these horses escaped or were stolen, and they also joined the wild and Indian herds.

The U.S. cavalry wanted military horses that were bigger than the readily available Mustangs. They brought in some Thoroughbreds and Morgans to develop larger remounts and officer’s horses, and they began a systematic program of shooting Mustang stallions and releasing draft breed stallions to mix with the wild herds. Draft horses were also deliberately allowed to run with Indian herds whenever possible in an effort to slow down the Indians. Large numbers of horses of French descent from Canada also intermingled with both wild and Indian herds in the West. All of these efforts greatly diluted the influence of the Spanish horses in the herds of Mustangs.

THE SORRAIA HORSE

For thousands of years an indigenous horse roamed the Iberian Peninsula. These horses bore a striking resemblance, in color and type, to the drawings found on cave walls in La Pileta, Spain, that go back some 25,000 years. They stood about 14 hands and were always some variation of dun, mostly a gray dun, with dorsal stripes. The muzzle was dark, the legs sometimes had faint zebra striping, and some individuals had cobweb markings on the forehead. Foals were born with zebra striping on the legs, neck, and rump, which usually faded as the horse matured. Their heads were plain with either a flat or with a slightly convex profile all the way from the forehead to the muzzle. In horsemen’s terminology, these horses were somewhat Roman headed, not just Roman nosed. From the front, the heads were narrow with a long distance from the eye to the muzzle.

Sorraias had a tendency toward lateral gaits. These native horses contributed genetically to Andalusians and Lusitanos, and are given credit for the conformation that allows these great breeds to flex at the poll and to collect from behind. They also contributed a seemingly natural ability to work cattle.

Herds of Sorraia horses roamed the wilds of Portugal from at least the time of the cavemen until the 1920s when Dr. Ruy d’Andrade gathered some of the very last remaining horses and brought them to live in a semi-wild state on his ranch. He called them Sorraia, which was the name of the river near where they were found, or Marismeno, which meant horses of the swamps, because of the type of remote, nearly inaccessible land where he found them and where they had survived for thousands of years. About two hundred semi-wild Sorraia continue to exist in Portugal but they hover on the brink of extinction. According to Dr. Hardy Oelke in The Sorraia Horse: “A population that numbers around 200 head is extremely threatened by any biologist’s standard. At least half of these are non-breeding animals — older horses, stallions that aren’t being used as studs, or youngsters. But that is only half of the story. The population in Portugal is divided basically among a few owners: four d’Andrade family members (grandchildren of the late Ruy d’Andrade), each with a band of Sorraias; the Portuguese National Stud; and a few private breeders with just one or two mares. All these horses stem from d’Andrade’s herd.”

At the time Oelke was writing, neither the breeders nor the National Stud had plans for preservation of the breed.

When ranchers moved in, they believed Mustangs were competing with their cattle for food and systematically killed as many as possible. During the second half of the 1700s, there were reported herds of “many millions” of Mustangs on the Great Plains. At the end of the 1800s, there were an estimated two million wild Mustangs, but within thirty or forty years the numbers had been reduced to 150,000. By 1971, the estimate was 30,000, and it was virtually taken for granted that the original Spanish Mustangs were extinct.

The Kiger Horse Is Discovered

In 1971, through the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over management of wild Mustang herds, attempting to balance the numbers of wild horses with available grazing. Among other activities, they rounded up horses and put them up for adoption. In 1977, an unusual group of twenty-seven horses came in from the Kiger Gorge on Steens Mountain in remote southeastern Oregon.

All were some shade of dun, ranging from grulla (a mouse gray) to reddish claybank dun to very pale buckskin. They had dorsal stripes, and some had zebra striping on the legs or cobweb markings on the forehead. Typical of most Mustangs, they were not large horses, usually between 700 and 800 pounds, but they had the classic Barb head, with a flat or very slightly convex profile from forehead to muzzle and considerable length of muzzle from eye to nostril, as well as many other Spanish traits.

The horse experts at the BLM recognized that these horses were something special. Blood samples tested by the University of Kentucky showed that this little population of horses was a genetically distinct group. They were clearly of Spanish descent and closely linked with the early Andalusians and Sorraias, with almost no admixture of anything else. Because of the remoteness of the region in which they were discovered, apparently no other horses found their way in to dilute the Spanish blood. Considering the degree of dilution found in most Mustang herds and the huge systematic removal of horses that took place at times throughout the West, historians find the discovery of the Kigers all the more remarkable.

To prevent the possible loss of the newly discovered horses to some natural disaster, the BLM separated the original herd of twenty-seven into two groups. Twenty were released back to the Kiger herd management area and the other seven were sent to the Riddle Mountain area, both in southeastern Oregon. The BLM continues to manage these herds and it sells some of the horses at auction from time to time. A few private breeders have acquired horses from the BLM to begin their own Kiger breeding programs. Kigers are now well known, especially in the West. Their fame spread and their prices soared when a Kiger stallion became the model for the horse in the Disney cartoon adventure Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Breed Characteristics

Kigers are quick and agile and seem to be naturals at working cattle, a strong characteristic of Spanish-type horses. They also make good choices for endurance, trail, and pleasure riding.

Interestingly, one of the first private owners of Kigers has noted that, over the years, several of his horses have shown a clear indication of lateral gaits. At first he thought they were lame, but soon realized they were perfectly sound and that their tendency to amble occurred most often when the horses were running free and playing. He feels that trainers familiar with gaited horses would have no trouble bringing out smooth lateral gaits in these animals, although he adds that not all Kigers exhibit this tendency.

When a group of horses that looked like these was rounded up from the remote Kiger Mountains, they were immediately recognized as something special.

Some Kigers show a tendency to amble, though smooth gaits are not necessarily characteristic of the breed.

Conformation

The Kiger Mustang exhibits typical Spanish-type conformation. The head is small, with a slightly convex or flat profile. The eye is placed high and is usually almond-shaped. The small ears curve inward. The arched, well-muscled neck connects to a clean throatlatch. The withers are pronounced and long. The back is short, the croup gently sloped with a low-set tail. The narrow but deep chest connects to muscular shoulders. The hindquarters are rounded and smoothly muscled. The long and comparatively fine legs have plenty of good bone and broad, strong joints. The extremely tough feet are always black and well shaped.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

There are several Kiger Mustang organizations. The Bureau of Land Management also maintains some records.

According to the primary Kiger Mustang Association (founded in 1987):

• It has registered about 300 horses.

• Between 75 and 100 foals are inspected for registration each year.

• Foals must be a year old before being registered.

Color

All Kigers are some shade of dun or buckskin, ranging from grulla to reddish clay-bank dun all the way to very pale buckskin. All have dorsal stripes. Zebra striping is sometimes present on the legs, as are cobweb markings on the forehead.

Many Kigers have cobweb marks on the forehead and zebra stripes on the legs.