The Kiger Registry Controversy - Why are there two registries?

In the 1970s, twenty-seven unique, wild Spanish Mustangs were discovered by the Burns office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Starting with this small band, the the BLM began to manage wild horses for Spanish conformation and color in order to preserve the bloodline of these ancient Spanish Mustangs. By the late 1980s they had established two special Herd Management Areas (HMAs) in southeastern Oregon for wild horses with Spanish Mustang traits. These are the horses that came to be known as Kiger Mustangs. Early on the BLM decided, after consultation with horse geneticists, that in order to manage the Kigers for consistency and to preserve the ancient bloodline, they should allow horses from outside the two management areas to be added to the Kiger herds, provided their conformation and visual features closely matched those of the original Kigers. These horses became know as "found horses," a term used by BLM horse expert Ron Harding to describe Kiger-type horses that came from areas other than the original HMAs. In a sense, all the first Kigers were "found" because when the original twenty-seven were brought in they certainly didn't come from the Kiger HMAs, which didn't exist. Now these added horses are designated as “translocated,” not "found" by the BLM, but the practice of adding Kiger-type horses to the Kiger HMAs has continued up until today. This is a part of the BLM's herd management protocol intended to insure genetic viability while preserving the Kiger type.

    However, using current protocol, these added horses are not designated as Kigers by the BLM; they retained their identity from their place of origin. If they have offspring on the Kiger or Riddle HMAs, those offspring are branded as Kigers by birthright. Here is the explanation from a BLM spokesperson Patty Wilson.

    “A horse’s lineage as a Kiger should only begin when the horse is born in either the Kiger or Riddle HMA, or is born in our facility after a gather from these areas. Yes, many horses that have Kiger characteristics have been taken from other herd areas and released in Kiger and Riddle HMAs. They are already branded. Just because they now reside in Kiger and Riddle herds does not make them a Kiger. For example, during a gather if we bring in a previously branded mare that comes from Kiger HMA but was originally from Coyote Lakes, we would not list her as a Kiger. If someone were to call with a brand to look up, our information is going to show the herd that horse originated from.”

    Note that the purpose of the freeze brand the BLM gives Kiger HMA horses is just to record where they come from. The brand does not indicate anything about the quality of the horse.
Kiger Mustangs in the BLM corral
following the 2015 gather

    The Kiger Mesteño Association (KMA) is the original registry which was organized by a group of horse breeders in 1977 who wanted to “protect, preserve, and promote the Kiger horses, both in the wild and in captivity.” By adopting and breeding them true to type in private horse operations, the KMA hoped to guarantee that the Kigers could be established as a legitimate breed. With the BLM adding found horses to HMAs, KMA followed suit and allowed horses from outside HMAs to be registered as Kigers. This is all a matter of record. Some people were upset with this practice but most went along with it. Ron Harding set up the original rules that both the BLM and the newly formed KMA followed to determine if a horse qualified as a Kiger.

    This practice is how the BLM built the herd and the KMA breeders built up the registry at a time when Kiger Mustangs from Riddle and Kiger HMA’s were in short supply. KMA felt that building up the registry with these mustangs that were “Kiger-type” would be acceptable, as this was the same criteria used by the BLM to build up the wild Kiger herds. The KMA subsequently allowed the registration of many of these found horses. (The KMA now states that this practice was discontinued as of January 1, 1996, but it has cast a long shadow.)

    Things were going smoothly until some of the KMA breeders began to disagree about the rules and record keeping. Some breeders wanted only horses branded as Kigers by the BLM to be allowed in the registry; others wanted horses from other HMAs that were Kiger-type and of high-quality to be registered. The Kigers were not breeding true on the BLM designated areas; the experiment was failing. Better horses were coming from outside the Kiger HMAs. This led to disagreement over what constituted an authentic Kiger. Even the KMA admits, "The way things were done back then was inconsistent and messy."

    The found horse issue led to the breaking away of a group of the original members of KMA to form a second registry in 1993: the Steens Mountain Kiger Registry (SMKR). The SMKR registry did not allow for any horses with found ancestry to be registered. The SMKR stated that the only way to preserve the integrity of the Kiger breed was by limiting registration to horses directly connected to the Kiger or Riddle HMA’s. There is controversy about how honestly this policy was enforced with accusations of "bending the rules" and biased review panels. Since none of the SMKR records are public the true story may never be known.

    In 2006 yet another registry was formed: the Kiger Horse Association and Registry (KHAR). KHAR is an organization which, like the other two registries, stated its purpose as, “to preserve the Kiger mustang.” KHAR did allow mixed blood horses to be registered but the registration records had to be explicit about the horses’ origin. In March 2015 the KHAR and SMKR registries merged. Hopefully this will lead to clearing up some past confusion and more public disclosure at some future date.

    Why does all this matter? People new to the Kiger world wonder what is meant by a “found horse." The public also associates the horses that bear the BLM freeze brand with being the only genuine Kiger. Indignation may be felt by someone who purchases a Kiger from a breeder and finds out afterwards that their horse has found blood or ancestors from outside the Kiger or Riddle Mountain HMAs.

    Horses with found blood are clearly identified by both the KMA and KHAR registries, and this will show in the horse's papers. However, some people overlook checking on this in the excitement of buying a horse. There are also some unscrupulous breeder who may advertise a horse as a Kiger when it has only a slight visual resemblance to Kigers and no connection with the BLM branded Kigers and their offspring. Other people fall in love with a horse and don't really care that the horse has found blood or where it was born. But If the pedigree of the horse is important, the buyer must insist on seeing the registration records.

    One thing to keep in mind is that the BLM freeze brand does not guarantee a horse will pass the scrutiny of the registration review boards. So the insistence that a horse's origin be the Kiger HMAs doesn't really accomplish anything, nor does the rejection of a horse with "found blood" ancestry. To continue this misguided approach just confuses the issue. Stacey Harnew-Swanson of the KMA accurately states, "For the last twenty years or more we have been arguing about a group of horses that were admitted by a committee that Ron Harding sat on over twenty years ago. This fighting diminishes everyone. We have a treasure here and a duty to honor these animals." In short, the whole idea that a horse merits membership in the Kiger club just because it happens to be, or not be, born on a certain piece of land is silly.

Respected horseman Reinhard Oelke put the found horse situation this way...
The population that became known as "Kiger Mustangs" was artificially planted in the Kiger HMA and Riddle HMA, and from the word "go" was willfully put together of horses from various different herds in Oregon – no less than 12 different areas. And even after the original creation of the herd that came to be know as the "Kiger herd", a number of horses from other HMAs were purposefully planted in the Kiger HMA. The BLM's concept of the Kiger, however, was that of a type — not that of a horse born on the Kiger HMA regardless of type. This is born out by the fact that the BLM introduced a Sheepshead mare (Teacup) at demos as a Kiger Mustang, a perfect example that the BLM considered the Kiger a type, not something born on the HMA regardless of type. It shows that to the BLM type was the overriding criteria, not birth on the HMA. So for all practical reasons, the "found horse" controversy is ridiculous from a genetical point of view, and a genetical point of view is all any serious breeder is concerned about.

Read all of Mr. Oelke's article [HERE]

    The obvious solution for the protection of the owners and the Kiger is for the records of the early horses to be made public and the lineage of any Kiger, when in question, to be verified by the BLM. For horses born to breeders, accurate records must be shared and horses must carry a designation based on their genealogy, not simply looks or what geographic location they happened to be born on. If a horse is only one-quarter Kiger it does not diminish the horse to reveal that fact, it only means the horse is accurately described according to agreed-upon rules. Until all the records of all the horses can be crossed referenced and open to the public, the accurate linage of any individual horse cannot be assured. This could happen if the remaining two competing registries would unite with the common purpose of putting the Kigers first. This is a required step toward legitimizing these exceptional horses as genuine and their breeders as trustworthy.

Research both Kiger registries on their websites:
    Kiger Mesteño Association (KMA)
    Kiger Horse Association and Registry (KHAR)

Dissension is not the language of cooperation or democracy. We must go forward putting the Kigers first -- by consensual agreement -- toward a better place. We need standardized record keeping with DNA, heritage and lineage records made verifiable and available. This is the only way to faithfully establish the Kiger pedigree into the future. The Kigers are famous for their excellence. We should keep their records just as notably. This will guarantee their preservation into the decades to come.
      Steven Polinger — Founder and President of Kiger Mustang Refuge, Inc

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