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Archive for Sunday, June 9, 2002

Nearly extinct horses find a home south of Baldwin

June 9, 2002

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— Sleek and graceful, two brown Kiger mustangs romp freely across an open pasture, their glossy black-and-blond manes flowing behind them.

It's a scene so serene, a scene right out of Dreamworks' new animated film, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." But these horses live just 5 miles south of Baldwin.

Randy and Kristi Billinger own four of the only six Kiger mustangs in Kansas. Since 2000, the Billingers have dedicated much of their time and energy to taking care of this rare breed of horse.

"We've had them for just over two years now, and they're intriguing horses," Randy Billinger said. "It's fun to see how much more we can learn about them."

Kiger mustangs are descendants of the first horses Spanish conquistadors brought to North America, he said. Less than 1,000 Kiger mustangs exist today in the United States.

Kiger mustangs carry markings of the dun factor gene, which include a white dorsal stripe, zebra stripes on the legs, a broad, flat forehead, dominant eyes and a well-crested neck, according to the Web site for Kiger Mesteño Assn., www.kigermustangs.org.

Romance of the range

Randy Billinger said part of the reason he loves the breed so much is its history.

"There's quite a romance to owning a wild horse," he said.

Wild Kiger mustangs were unknown to horse experts until 1977, when they were discovered during a Bureau of Land Management mustang roundup in Oregon.

Officials noticed the unusual Spanish markings and began inspecting wild mustangs for them. They found that only 1 percent of the Mustangs had the markings. Since then, Billinger said, the bureau has been protecting the breed in areas of southwest Oregon.

The Billingers acquired their first Kiger mustangs  mares called Steens Eleana and High Desert Segura  after Kristi Billinger saw a Kiger pictured on a Web site.

"It was just their striking beauty," she said. "We traveled to Oklahoma ... to see one in person. We said, 'If they're so sweet like this all the time, we have to have one.'"

The Billingers tried to purchase a Kiger for several months before they succeeded. They bid on two horses in a timed Internet auction in January 2000, but were unsuccessful because the horses were in such high demand.

Finally, in March 2000, the Billingers bought their Kigers from a private breeder in Oregon.

"(The horses) got here, and we really fell in love with them," Kristi Billinger said.

The horses were the first Kiger mustangs in Kansas, the Billingers said.

A close-knit community

About five months later, the Billingers purchased another Kiger, a stallion named Kiger Hawk that also came from Oregon.

Kiger Hawk lived in the wild until he was 7 years old, when he was domesticated and eventually sold to the Billingers. Kiger Hawk is the mascot for a horse supplement company called Equerry's Choice, the Billingers said.

Kiger Hawk and Steens Eleana produced a foal, Estrella, almost a year ago. Estrella is the first registered Kiger mustang born in Kansas.

Steens Eleana is pregnant again, and her due date is Friday. The Billlingers are pleased to own an entire family of horses.

"Our horses are kind of spoiled," Kristi Billinger said as her husband fed Estrella and Segura another cup of grain. "The hard part is the fear that they will come to Kansas and get fat. In Oregon they live on next to nothing."

But the Billingers' horses are far from fat.

"These are great horses," Randy Billinger said. "People could use them for competitive endurance racing and driving cattle."

Because such a small number of people own mustangs, the Billingers have become friends with many other owners.

"It's kind of a neat Kiger community," Kristi Billinger said. "It's a close-knit community."

She said that Kiger owners have anxiously awaited the arrival of "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" for three years. She said she hopes the movie will bring attention to the breed.

"I could absolutely tell that was a Kiger running when I was watching the movie," Kristi Billinger said, as she gazed at her own Kigers. "It was very exciting."

Randy Billinger watched proudly as his horses grazed in front of a setting sun.

"What you see here in this pasture is not a result of high-degree, calculated, breeded pedigree," he said. "It's what Mother Nature has done."

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