When the bidding started Saturday on a 6-month-old Kiger mustang filly fresh off the range, 91-year-old Bob Smith kept his yellow bidding card held high.
When he finally laid his card down, the crowd of about 500 people packing the grandstands at the Harney County Fairgrounds for the first Kiger mustang auction shook their heads in disbelief and clapped. Smith had agreed to pay a record $19,000 to adopt the wild horse of his dreams.
"Most wild horses are just that, feral horses," said Smith, a retired biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But these are the Spanish mustangs."
Back in 1971, when the Bureau of Land Management began rounding up wild horses to keep them from overgrazing public rangeland, many ranchers considered them no better than coyotes, to be shot on sight. But each year the buzz grew on those showing traits of the Sorraias, Andalusians and others that the Spanish brought to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries--especially the Kigers, which make their home in the high desert of southeastern Oregon.
With demand growing, BLM two years ago abandoned the lotteries held to award adoption picks, and the $125 fee, in favor of competitive bidding. Because the Kigers are rounded up only every three years, this was the first time they could be adopted by auction.
The price Smith paid doesn't approach the $50,000 that Stephen Spielberg's Dreamworks studio purportedly paid a breeder for a ranch-bred Kiger stud that will serve as the model for the upcoming animated motion picture "Spirit." But it easily doubled anything paid at a BLM wild horse auction.
The next highest at Saturday's auction was a 2-year-old filly for $2,500.
"It's unreal, isn't it?" said Mack Isley of Pasco, Wash., the president of the Kiger Musteno Association. "It looks like some people are finally beginning to realize the value of these horses. It isn't just the Kiger. It's all wild horses."
The most sought-after Kigers have zebra striping on their legs, a dorsal stripe down the back, fine muzzles, eyes wide apart, and hooked ears with dark outlines and tufts of hair at the bottom.
CAPTION: A 6-month-old wild Kiger filly runs with other mustangs in a Bureau of Land Management corral in Burns, Ore.