History Running Wild

Imagine arriving in North America, before there was a United States, making your way to the wilderness of the Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon, and somehow surviving there undetected for several centuries. This is the remarkable achievement of this herd of wild horses called the Kigers. These survivors are the direct descendants of the horses brought to the New World by the gold-hungry Conquistadors in the sixteenth century. They were unknown to modern America until they were discovered in 1977 by a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) survey team.

    In 1977, while investigating the wild horse herds that roamed the BLM wilderness of eastern Oregon, Ron Harding, a newly appointed wild horse manager at the BLM discovered a herd of mustangs that looked to be of pure Spanish descent. Harding had found a herd of twenty-seven horses that looked almost alike; all had similar color, conformation, and markings known as the dun factor, which includes distinguishing patterns like tan and gray color overall, black tail, black mane and dark lower legs with faint zebra stripes. Here was a herd of pure heritage and blood line that for five-hundred years had somehow managed to endure undiscovered in the remote and rugged wilderness of southeastern Oregon, still astonishingly unchanged from their remote, Conquistador-ridden ancestors.

The Jetta Jeep takes a break
at the Diamond Hotel

    Government BLM horse experts agreed that they had discovered a very different and special kind of horse. For preservation’s sake, they moved the small band of horses to other areas on the north end of the Steens Mountain near Kiger Gorge. The Kiger breed takes its name from this region. It was decided to have genetic testing performed to determine their heritage. The DNA testing, done at the University of Kentucky, showed a high level of Spanish markers linking these “Kigers” to the Spanish explorer’s horses of the 1600’s which also carried the primitive gene for the dun factor. This test result clearly ties the Kigers to the Spanish horses ridden by early Spanish Explorers, since these specific DNA markers are not found in any other horse breeds. Only about 100 Kigers are left in their original wild environment. About every four years, when the herds reach the maximum population their area will support, the extra horses are rounded up and taken to the Burns, Oregon Wild Horse Corrals where they are made available for adoption to the public.

    To reach the wild Kiger Mustang management area I had to first go to Burns, Oregon in sparsely populated Harney county. I drove southeast from Burns on a state highway to the small settlement of Diamond, about 70 miles from Burns as the hawks fly. It’s a journey through a land of hay fields, leaning fence posts strung with spare barbed wire fences. A good paved road took me through the Diamond Valley and to the Diamond Hotel, a holdout against the migration to the city and "better life" most of the neighboring families have opted for. Their reputation has enabled one family to remain, now mostly serving tourist who still appreciate hospitality and good food, which the hotel is known for. I get some directions about which fork in the road to follow and I'm soon leaving the ranching country heading east and up -- into sagebrush and juniper country -- toward the wild Steens Mountain wilderness. I find the “Kiger Mustang Viewing Area” sign and take the gravel road that diminishes into a dirt track, long before it completes the eleven miles to the top of the ridge where the mustangs might be seen if one is lucky. My Jetta easily assumes the duties of a Jeep. I am most fortunate that the county has filled and graded some of the rougher spots just the day before.

The Kiger's stare is inquisitive and cautious

    The locals had warned me last night that a lot of people spend a lot of time looking for them, but often never find the Kiger Mustangs. But about half-way up the mountain I see them -- maybe twenty or so -- casually searching for what little grass is left after a long dry spell. There is no place to pull off the dirt track, but neither are there any other vehicles, so I stop in the road and quietly get out with my camera. It’s a slow hike of a quarter mile across a sloping meadow. They know I’m here, but they allow me into their private estate without protest. They seemed as curious about me, and what I am up to, as I am interested in them. They let me approach close enough to manage some fairly intimate photographs – what I came for. After maybe twenty minutes of observing in awesome silence, I get the feeling that I am intruding on an incomprehensible mystery. Politeness dictates that it’s time to leave. I voice “thank you for being here,” hoping somehow they will understand, and turn toward the car. I felt like I had been a guest in a sacred space.

    I just sat in the car for some time and pondered what I am seeing across the meadow. This band has existed totally free -- totally independent of any of the support that even farm horses depend on -- a living example that if left alone Nature's design is unfailing and unfathomable.

Many questions traveled down the mountain with me that day: How did these amazing creatures get there? How did they escape their original masters? How did they survive so long undiscovered? How did I find them so easily? Had I become part of the mystery by being there? What are the dark, inquisitive eyes that I will see later in my photographs trying to convey? Perhaps the last question can be answered something like this: let us live in peace and prosper for another five-hundred years. We have endured, isn’t that enough? You can know our heritage but not our history. Let the mystery continue.

© Marlin Greene (Article first appeared in NW Horse Source Magazine)