The market for Oregon’s unique wild horse has been limited, but growing demand from European buyers is heating up the Kiger economy.
BY LEE VAN DER VOO
Above: A herd of Kigers at Rick Littleton’s Kiger Mustang Ranch in Bend, one of the largest Kiger breeding ranches in Oregon, and one of only a few breeders in the United States to maintain a herd of mares and stallions in a regular breeding program. Only about 100 Kiger mustangs exist in the wild today. Another 1,000 live in captivity.
Below: Rick Littleton’s grandfather had him riding wild horses at the age of 3 and breaking them by 7. The family earned $30 for each wild horse they broke and sold on their Wyoming ranch in those days. Today Littleton is one of the largest Kiger breeders in Oregon, once selling a horse for roughly $20,000.
// Photos by Joseph Eastburn
Steve Polinger fell in love. Too many times. With his wife’s permission to bring three or four horses home from Oregon, he ended up with 12. They were so good, he says, he just couldn’t stop bidding.
The horses, all Kiger mustangs, all rounded up in Southeast Oregon by the Bureau of Land Management, are something of a seed crop now. Only about 100 Kigers still exist in the wild. The other 1,000 or so live in captivity with owners and breeders like Polinger, entrenched as he is in a personal pursuit to preserve this horse with presumed ties to the Conquistadors.
“Integrity is how you make money,” Polinger says. And from that perch, he is poised to become the provider of the highest-quality Kigers in the Southwest. At his home in Tucson, Ariz., he keeps a small herd of Kigers in a state-of-the-art adobe barn. He plans to compete with prominent Kiger breeders in Texas, Washington and Oregon, where the breed was founded. Numerous small breeding operations also dot the Pacific Northwest and the country.
Polinger’s enthusiastic entry into the Kiger marketplace comes amid hopeful discussion about the future of the breed, talk that follows several years of breeder consolidation in a generally limping horse economy. It also follows deep controversy in the Kiger community about crossbreeding of the horses with other mustangs, a practice that’s called counterfeiting by some, a nonissue by others, and has meanwhile raised major concerns for buyers.
These horse lovers will tell you: Kigers are not just any other mustang. A unique wild breed that exhibits characteristics of the Spanish mustang, Kigers hail from the remote Steens and Riddle ranges of Southeastern Oregon. They are collected by a diverse fan club that includes trail riders and eccentrics, executives and well-heeled Europeans. Coveted for an unusual ability to form close bonds with humans, they are also known for their good looks: stripes on the knees and hocks, stunning bicolored manes and tails, dark ears, and face masks evocative of the Wild West.
Above: Kigers are prized for their good looks, including dark ears and face masks, bicolored manes and tails. But they are especially cherished for their unusual ability to form close bonds with humans.
Below: Tara Martinak of BLM (left) with head horse wrangler Wendy Rickman. BLM first began managing Kigers and “adopting” them in the early 1980s.
// Photos by Joseph Eastburn
Rick Littleton, a former pilot who flew frequently for the Bureau of Land Management, helped popularize the Kigers when rangers keen on his knowledge of mustangs introduced him to the horse. Littleton says he quickly knew he would start a breed. But even when BLM held a roundup, giving four of the horses to Littleton, he regarded them as a novelty, not a moneymaker.
Now Littleton runs the 120-acre Kiger Mustang Ranch in Bend and is among the two largest Kiger breeders in Oregon, and one of only a few in the United States to maintain a herd of mares and stallions in a regular breeding program. He remains at the top of the market as the breed recovers from its recent three to four year slump. Like most Kiger breeders, he runs another business that’s helped him weather the downturn. This season, Littleton says, he’s seeing hopeful signs.
“The true, good-quality Kiger horse has a place and will keep on going,” says Littleton. “People are coming to us. They’re coming buying the real Kiger horses because the economy has weeded out a lot of people,” including counterfeiters.
Betty Linnell, who has 27 Kigers on her 300-acre Double L Kiger ranch in White City, and who joins Littleton as one of the two largest breeders in Oregon, also sees signs of a turning market. She typically breeds about 10 horses a year. But in the past two years, she’s bred only a few, cutting back while the general horse market slowed, and concentrating on a family ranch and guide business.
Though the last few years have been rough — the most inquiries came from the dozens of breeders trying to sell out — Linnell sold what few horses she had this season and already has a deposit on a foal for next. With more and more buyers coming from Europe, Linnell says demand for the Kiger may again spike.
“These horses are all over the United States, and now they have entered into Europe,” she says.
That’s a good sign. European buyers are a new kind of customer, paying $10,000 just to ship a Kiger overseas, more than the cost of the horse itself in the United States. That price tops out at about $7,500, though much higher prices have been paid.
The BLM wild-horse corral facility in Hines. The agency manages wild horses and burros on public rangelands, including Kigers (not pictured), and makes them available to the public for adoption.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn
Some credit Littleton’s salesmanship with the initial popularity of the Kiger. Littleton defers, instead crediting one of those first horses, Steens Kiger, a sire that proved so magnetic that actress Bo Derek once stood in the rain for hours to meet him, and actor William Shatner invited him to a fundraiser.
As the unofficial ambassador to the breed, it was Steens that landed Kigers in magazines and on French television. Actor and comedian Drew Carey’s wife eventually bought five. But Littleton really hit pay dirt when he sold a horse named Donner to animation film giant DreamWorks as the model for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. The price tag was roughly $20,000. And while short of the tens of thousands fetched by best-showing quarter horses, and far below multimillion prices of top thoroughbreds, the price was unheard of in the mustang world. It tipped the Kiger to elite status.
Yet behind the scenes, tensions were at a boil. Crossbreeding with other look-alike mustangs is an issue in the breeding community. Because wild-caught Kigers still leave the BLM corrals for as little as $125 — it is broken Kigers, new foals and the very best of the wild horses that command the high prices — backyard breeders buy them for quick gain, pairing them with even cheaper horses.
“A lot of people got into this because they got the horse for $100,” says Littleton.
He was the first to highlight fakery, calling out cheating in auctions and crossbreeding of Kigers with “found” mustangs from Paisley, Ore., Nevada and elsewhere. The Arizona breeder, Polinger, was first an unwitting buyer. After buying his first Kiger, Smoke, for $3,000, he was dumbfounded to learn the horse had a grandmother from Paisley. He sadly had it gelded and got into the business, determined to breed better.
The counterfeiting issue disappointed more than a few. Some simply lost money, paying thousands for a horse worth a few hundred. Others, however, lost substantial investments while in-fighting between multiple Kiger horse registries failed to resolve what to do, leaving many legitimate Kigers unregistered and prices crashing.
Nevada owner Hale Henson explained how the inability to register five horses amounted to a $25,000 loss in a complaint to the Oregon attorney general’s office.
Linnell says in-fighting in the Kiger community has since cooled off. She’s among the founders of the Kiger Horse Association and Registry, born in part because of the dispute. KHA now uses appendices for found horses that encourage breeders to breed up.
Something else has changed, she says: Breeders themselves have become more attuned to crossbreeding’s pitfalls. She bred three half-Kigers in the era of nonchalance. Now she realizes, “The controversy surrounding this [horse] issue can be detrimental to anybody in the breeding business.”
While found horses are still around and being sold as Kigers, buyer education is also better. Savvy buyers know to avoid phony ponies.
Auctions at the BLM corrals in Hines draw Kiger fans from around the world, last year garnering $72,575 in one day that sent 88 Kigers to 22 states and Sweden.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn
High prices were hardly foreseen when BLM first began managing Kigers and “adopting” them approximately every four years in the early 1980s. The goal is to manage the range for sustainability, says Tara Martinak, public affairs specialist for the Burns District of BLM. Overpopulation can lead to a shortage of food and water for wildlife, can cause heavy damage to riparian areas and can deplete forage.
Since breeders popularized the Kiger, BLM adoptions, previously a lottery system, shifted to more lucrative auctions. These events at the BLM corrals in Hines now draw Kiger fans from around the world, last year culling $72,575 in one day that sent 88 Kigers to 22 states and Sweden. The fresh-from-the-wild Kigers are eyed by breeders eager to refine their characteristics for the marketplace. They’re also a find for horse lovers looking for their own piece of the West.
Martinak says there is far more interest in Kigers than other wild mustangs. “Our other big event in 2011, we maybe adopted 15. It is nothing like 88 horses in a single day.” But BLM benefits mostly by avoiding costs to lodge the animals. The real money in Kigers is on the private side.
As breed popularity grows, Kiger registries have popped up worldwide. And some of the latest buyers from Sweden and Germany are beginning breeding programs, like Arizona’s Polinger.
Wild-horse advocates, however, question whether Kigers really belong behind corrals and in barns, or whether they are being managed for the benefit of breeders and grazing livestock, a charge Martinak denies. In July 2011, wild-horse advocacy group The Cloud Foundation sued the Oregon BLM, aiming to push Kigers’ preservation on their rangeland. The suit was settled, ostensibly while BLM and The Cloud Foundation work together to safeguard Kigers’ genetic variability and improve management. Martinak says horse hair is tested for genetic variation after every BLM roundup, and that so far no problems have come up.
For his part, Polinger looks forward to diving into the market to keep the Kiger bloodline alive. More than money, he says, the business also comes with another motivation.
“I’m going to make horses that knock people’s socks off,” he says.
Lee van der Voo is a Portland-based journalist. Her last story for Oregon Business was about the battle over genetically modified seeds. She can be reached at [email protected].