First Trip to Kiger Country -- My search for and finding a national treasure in the Oregon desert

The locals last night at supper, at the Diamond Hotel, had warned me that a lot of people spend a lot of time looking, but often never finding the Kiger Mustangs. Even so, I couldn't turn back now — after eight hours driving from Seattle to get to the southeastern corner of Oregon. So this morning, with the BLM's direction from their Kiger Mustang brochure in hand, I head up the gravel road behind the hotel, toward the management area (36,000 acres) where the horses might be found. The gravel turns into dirt after a couple of miles and then the dirt turns into a four-wheeler's test track that will prove to be a challenge to my Jetta's low-slung confirmation. But the deeper washouts had thoughtfully been filled with crushed stone just the day before, and my steed made it like a champ.
      About six miles 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 almost total silence, the only noise being an occasional shuffle or snort or the near-silent click of my shutter, 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 have been observing a near miracle — a surviving population of true Spanish Mustangs — history running wild in the Steens Mountain of Oregon.
      Imagine arriving in North America, before there was a United States, making your way to the wilderness of the Steens Mountains in eastern Oregon, and somehow surviving there undetected for several hundred years. This is the remarkable attainment of this herd of wild horses. 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.
      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 200 Kigers are left in their original wild environ- ment. About every four years, when the herds reach their maximum population, 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 homeland I had to first go to Burns, Oregon in sparsely populated Harney county. I drove southeast from Burns on a smoothly paved 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 then east into sagebrush and juniper country toward the wild Steens Mountain wilderness. I found the “Kiger Mustang Viewing Area” sign and took 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. I was very lucky.
      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. [back to Journal Index]

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