Origins of the Kiger Mustang

No other horse in the world today is quite like the Kiger Mustang in fact or legend.

Deep in the rugged  Steens Mountains of southeastern Oregon, they were discovered in the 1970’s  by the Bureau of Land Management. There they  had survived in isolation, for the last two hundred years, far from the forces that almost drove the buffalo to extinction! man.

The Kiger Mustangs are thought to be one of the most pure herds of Spanish Horses in the world today. The Spanish Horse reigned, for several centuries throughout the known world as the embodiment of perfection in horseflesh.  But with the advent of the motor-car many believe, that the true Spanish Horse has been nearly cross-bred and abandoned to the point of extinction.

It’s no wonder that the Kiger Mustang has received the title a “Living Genetic Treasure.”

But to truly appreciate the Kiger Mustang one must understand the unique relationship that grew between man and this of this remarkable horse and the historical path they rode together, and to do that we must take a journey into history.

History is sometimes at best conjecture or daring deduction especially when it dates back twenty-five thousand years, this is what I believe transpired.

Old World History

While many historian claim that domestication of the horse first took place around 5000 B.C. Evidence has been found that strongly suggests the domestication of the Iberian Horse as early as 25,000 B.C.   Cave paintings have been discovered in the mountains of Northwestern Spain. Portraying Mesolithic horses being led by men and women. Other caves paintings have been found showing horses With what appears to be rope halters on their heads.  The horses depicted bare an undeniable likeness to the Kiger Mustangs of today.  With the so-called “Barb” head clearly evident.  At first these horses were probably kept as meat or for beasts of burden. The horses, that did not show a propensity toward man, became dinner. It is clear, that the cave dwellers hunted the early horse for food, but some obviously were captured and domesticated. Without realizing it early man was selectively breeding horses that had a partiality, a fondness, for man.

Ancient History

The Iberian horse continued to live and strive on the peninsula. By the Golden eras of Greece and Rome the Iberian Peninsula became known through out the Mediterranean world as the land of Equus.  It was there according to traditional Greek fables, that Zephyr the Greek God of the wind bred the Iberian horses and produced Pegasus the famed winged horse of Mount Olympus.  Greek armies led by Alexander the Great and the famous Carthaginian Legions of Rome mounted on Iberian Stallion conquered the ancient world of their day.   Southern Iberian became the Roman province of Betica and Iberian charger was Betica’s  main export. The Iberian horse became known worldwide for their fire, agility and were a perfect example of controlled power. 

Over the next thousand years we do not know what infusions or strains of imported horses impacted the development of the Iberian horse.  Greeks, Roman Goths, and Moors all occupied the Iberian peninsula at one time or another, and with out a doubt these cultures impacted the development of the Iberian horse, but without question the Arab invasion in 711 A.D. was the frosting on the cake in the recipe that produced Europe’s greatest horse breed. The Iberian charger was no match for the fast Berber horses, who literally ran circles around them. The Berber warrior’s horses brought refinement and refreshment to the heavier breed. Over the next centuries, in the southern provinces of the Iberian Peninsula, the combination of the Iberian charger and the Berber horse’s produced  the perfect combination of desirable characteristics in agility, strength, and beauty and in addition possessed great docility, an obedient nature, and strong loyalty to its master.  From this time forward there would never be a war-horse to equal it.  Every army desired the Iberian Charger. Besides agility and strength, this horse has always had a regal carriage and high step fit for any king.  Far be it for any wealth aristocrat ( for the Iberian charger has always been expensive) to be seen plodding along on a bored, low-headed mount.

Maximillian II of Austria rode one, and William the Conqueror, El Cid. The Crusaders would trek to the Holy Land on them.  There was hardly a breed in ancient times, which did not feel the dynamic impact of  Iberian’s blood.

It was in the hands of the bull owners of Spain that the Iberian steed earned its reputation as the greatest stock-working animal in the equine world. In the valley of the Guadalquiver River Spanish vaguero used their Iberian horses in handling temperamental bulls.  Few horses would feel comfortable working these dangerous animals, yet the Iberian Charger appears to delight in the work.  With incredible speed and handiness, they maneuvered angry bulls, dodging in and out barely missing the hooking horns when the bull charges.  The famous American Quarter Horse and other breeds noted for their “Cow Sense” inherited this ability from their Iberian ancestors.

By Columbus’s second voyage, the early 1500’s, Spanish Explorers began to bring Iberian horses to the New World.  These horses were instrumental in the conquest of Native American civilization like the Aztec and the Inca.   The principal kind of horses imported to the New World, were at first, the North African Barb, and Indigenous Iberian horse(the Sorria) and various mixtures of the Andulusain and the two breeds.  These crosses could be purchased for one-tenth the price of highly bred Andulusians.  A few Andulusian stallion were brought over, however the early Spanish Explorers were not prepared to risk valuable Andulusian stock  to a risky sea voyages and unknown perils, aware that their return was beyond consideration and their survival in doubt.

New World History

By the late 1500’s and into the 1700’s Royal breeding Farms were established in the Indies, and Mexico.  Adulusians of the highest order were provided to them.  Consignment after consignment arrived.  The Adulusian was crossed and recrossed on the stock brought over on previous voyages.

Eventually the horse population from this bases spread with the onward march of the conquistadors, the priest and the settlers that followed them.

Long before the Castillain,  Cortes crossed lances with the people of the Aztec civilization a trail, etched deep through centuries of use, linked the Blue Mountains of Oregon with the Aztec capital of Central Mexico.  The indigenous people at both ends and in the middle of the trail shared a common ancestry, and a common language.   Trade goods passed back and forth along what would later be know as the Shoshoni Trail.  The Aztec in the south and the Hopi in the Colorado basin obtained gold, obsidian, silver, pine nuts and otter skins from the north.  The Shoshoni received turquoise, corn, tobacco and parrot feathers for the south.  More importantly ideas formed a common thread throughout the tapestry.

This trade route extended from Vera Cruz north along the coast to the Rio Grande River.  From there it continued north to Santa Fe, angled across western Colorado through Hopi country thence into Utah, where it crossed the White River; then on to the Green River crossing the Uinta Mountains to the Snake River and thence west where it followed the Malheur River into Harney Basin(Beatty Butte).  Again it turned north to the headwaters of the Crooked River and crossed Big Summit Prairie into the John Day Valley.  At Picture Gorge on the John Day River the Shoshoni Trail from Mexico joined the trade routes of the Columbia River to the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

I have often wondered if the petrogliphs found along this trail have a relationship to modern day billboards.  Anyway on with the rest of the story.

It is ironic, that the Spaniard and the Spanish horse supplied the power for Hernado Cortez to destroy the Aztecs, the most advanced civilization on the North American continent and a few years later the Spaniard and the Spanish horse would provide the Aztec’s cousins the Shoshoni the means to not only survive but to emerge as the leading and  the most powerful and feared tribe in western north America.

In 1541, the Shoshoni watched and marveled as Coronado fought his way up the Colorado River, retreated to the Red River and the plunges north towards the Cimarron.  However it was not the Spaniards who inspired them with awe.  They were men, no different and no worse than other men.  What held the weary Shoshoni spellbound was the Coronado and his soldiers were gliding across the sage, riding on the backs of large animals.  Grass fires, which Coronado interpreted as evil omens, flashed the word ahead, that strange men on large dogs, as dog were the shoshoni’s only beast of burden, were prowling the southern wastelands.  Before the Shoshoni stood the means to a new wealth, a means for greatness. 

After months of observation, the Shoshoni were convinced that if the clumsy aliens could ride such a creature so could they.  It was relatively easy to catch one for the tired old Coronado left horses strung out for 900 miles in his epic crossing of the southwest plains.  The Shoshoni named this fabulous creature Shirri won’hua… the Dog God.

Within a very short span of time, small mobile units of Shoshoni mounted on fast horses covered 800 miles in a single outing no more than a pleasant outing for a people who had walked every inch of ground between the Cascade Range and the Coast of Mexico.

With the added strength and speed of a horse the Shoshoni was able to trade over vast distances, hunt large game and maintain much large family units or villages.  Soon they also held a decisive military advantage over neighboring tribes.

The Spanish horse, now became the primary trade item of the Shoshoni. 

The Spanish crown established missions over northern Mexico, Texas and the American Southwest. .  The Spanish missionaries contributed their share of horses to the wild herds and the Shoshoni.  There where no fences and the mission herds wandered over vast tracts of land owned by the missions.  It was an easy job to gather a hundred mission horses and head them north to Oregon country.  In addition the Jesuit Priest often gave horses to the Indians they were attempting to convert them to Catholicism.

After the destruction of the Aztecs, the Hopi were the next members of the Shoshonean family to feel the bitter sting of Spanish dominance.  The Spanish enslaved the peaceful and with cruelty ruled them. But the Hopi endured for seventy-five years until in 1675 when a plea for help reached the war camps of the northern Shoshoni.  The thousands of Spanish Horses at Santa Fe was all the enchantment necessary to convince a large war party of northern Shoshoni to come to Hopi country and help the Hopi drive out their Spanish overlords. In late July of 1680 five- hundred Shoshoni arrived after a twenty-nine day march at the nearly deserted Hopi Pueblo of Kisa’ kobi.  On August 10, 1680 the Spanish would reap a bumper crop of the seeds of cruelty they had sown.  One fifth of the 2500 Spanish settlers where wiped out.  The remainder fled leaving behind all of the possessions.  They fled south along the Shoshoni Trail, now call Deadman’s road.  They did not stop until they reached the safety of El Paso del Norte.

After the defeat of the Spanish at Santa Fe the Shoshoni-their appetite now whetted for horse and blood moved south into the Texas Panhandle.  From camps along the Canadian and Red rivers the Shoshoni raided Spanish settlements for horses and whatever they had to offer.  War parties sometimes thrust hundreds of miles into Mexico and returning with as many as 1000 stolen horses.  Most of the horses and goods were funneled north into Oyer’ungun as the Shoshoni called the Blue Mountains of Oregon.  They found horses so plentiful in Mexico that this band of Shoshoni raiders decided to take up permanent residence to serve as a supply depot for the northern Shoshoni.  These Shoshoni became the fourth segment to break away form the mother nation.  They called themselves Kansas the Europeans called them Comanches.

The Spanish horse is a hot-blooded, Old World horse, the culmination of centuries of superior breeding.  Honed to perfection in Spain as the world’s finest war, stock and pleasure horse, when transplanted to American soil the Iberian horse never lost its cutting edge.  It’s agility, intelligence, courage and endurance only sharpened as its mettle was tested in the wild interior of the continent.  Never grained or sheltered, the Iberian horse endured and thrived under the harshest of conditions.  Bred to handle the agile bulls of Spain, it was a tailor-made buffalo horse and war pony.

The introduction of the Spanish horse by the Shoshoni to the western tribes change the way of life of many Indians tribes. So radically did their culture change, that tribal existence only a few hundred years prior the acquisition of the horse became to many tribal cultures, at best a mystery, and to many a forgotten way of life.   For the plains Indians to gallop a hundred miles in a day Was not uncommon.  The Horse became a measurement of wealth, The war pony a symbol of great pride.

By the mid 1800’s the American west began to be forged and molded by the cattle ranger.  The Spanish Mustang was used to gather millions of wild longhorns off the Texas range.  These mustangs were ridden by a breed of men as wild as the longhorn and as tough as the Mustang they rode. The Spanish Mustang swam every River from Texas to Canada, enduring stampedes, tornadoes, hailstorms and  Freezing blizzards.  They did it all the while foraging on bunch grass and bitter brush without grain.  Hey came through it with their eyes alert and heads up.  No other breed of horse could have accomplished what the Spanish Mustang did.

The once pure Spanish herds received continual contamination and mixture with other breeds as settlements and ranches were established across the American West.  Sometimes wild stallions tore down fences and made off with tame mares other times tame mares went through the fences on their own: draft horse teams were lost all across the country from farms and wagon trains.  Horses from French Canada were introduced throughout the Mississippi valley as French explorers and settlers descended the valley as far south as New Orleans.  The French did considerable trading with the native tribes. 

The U.S. Cavalry also added to the mix.  They felt the need for a larger horse so the U.S. Cavalry began a systematic program of shooting the Spanish Mustang stallions and turning lose English Thoroughbred into the herds on the American Plains.  By the late 1800’s the use of the horse by the U.S. Army became directed more to the pulling artillery or heavy wagons.  So the U.S. government began to purchase 150 Friesian stallions from Germany, every year and release them into the vast herds of American Mustangs, for by now the pure Spanish Mustang was all but extinct.  This practice continued well into the early 1900’s.  Wherever the cavalry went in those days so probably the East German Friesian horse.

Once, the large herds of wild horses posed no particular threat to human interest, just the opposite they were the transportation,  “The Iron Horse” for a new nation, but eventually this all changed.  Ranchers began to resent the horses, which ate grass needed for their cattle.  Many ranchers adopted a policy of shooting any wild horses they could. 

There were an estimated two million wild horses in the United States at the end of the 1800’s.  By 1935 that number had been reduced to an estimated 150,000.  Mustangers began to use various, often cruel,  methods to capture the remaining horses for sale to the meat packing industry for the production of pet food and by 1971 it was estimated that fewer than 30,000 horses remained of the once vast herds of the American West.

The American Mustang herds of the 1930’s were vastly difference both in appearance and ancestry from the pure Iberian horse introduced by Columbus. The horses that served the early Spanish explorers, the American Plains Indian and the Cowboy for four hundred years.  Most horse enthusiasts thought the vast herds of pure Spanish Mustangs had become extinct.  Imagine the delight of Ron Harding the BLM wildhorse specialist when in 1977 in a remote area of South Eastern Oregon he noticed a group of twenty-seven horses the carried the color, confirmation and primitive marking of the Spanish Mustang.  This herd of twenty-seven horses were gathered and held in the Burns district facility until a suitable area was found to release these horses.  To prevent losing all the horses to a natural catastrophe, two Herd Management Areas were established in a remote area of southeastern Oregon.  Twenty were let loose in the Kiger Gorge area and the remaining seven were released in the Riddle Mountain HMA.

Today, the BLM protect and manage these special horses (The Kiger Mustang) so that they can maintain a pure gene pool.

Centuries ago, the conquistadors sailed to the New World with horses. Since the date this rugged steed set foot on the rocky soil of America, it has remained a legend so intertwined with the conquest of a nation that it has become history in the flesh.  They carried the cowboy, the Indian and the vaquero through all the glories of their careers.

For two thousand years, riders have considered the horses of the Iberian Peninsula the ideal horse.  The Greeks used the Iberian horse as a model for Pegasus; the Roman ruled the known world from the back of Iberian stallions. Spain conquered the vast empires of the New World riding the world’s greatest war-horse. For the American Indian they were a tailor-made buffalo horse and for the American cowboy more than a match for the snaky  wild longhorn.

Today for equestrian’s looking for stunning equine beauty, for horse lovers seeking, the most noble of companions combining spirit with gentleness, for the sports person who wants an easy, fast learner with unsurpassed collection and supreme athletic ability, the first choice-the only choice-is the Kiger Mustang.


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