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.