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.