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.