The Nokota is the Native
Horse of the Northern Plains – the turn-of-the-century Indian-Ranch Horse –
who traces his lineage back to the confiscated war ponies of Sitting Bull
and his followers.
In 1881, the surrender of Sitting Bull and his followers marked the end of a
great horse society. His war ponies were mostly Spanish Mustang type. Many
were blue roans – a rare color favored by many Lakota war societies. For
years before and after Little Bighorn, these battle-scarred ponies
out-maneuvered the relentless pursuit of the cavalry. In the end, they were
quietly surrendered and sold to local ranchers.
During this era, most Indian ponies were slaughtered – to disarm and
discourage rebellion on the reservations. Sitting Bull’s surrendered horses
were among the last surviving Lakota war ponies.
During this time, Theodore Roosevelt had his brief yet significant career as
a North Dakota gentleman rancher. It was Theodore Roosevelt’s friends and
neighbors – including the Marquis De Mores - who purchased the Sitting Bull
ponies. Their purpose was to cross them to domestic horses - to create an
all-purpose work horse with the infusion of Spanish Mustang blood. This was
a single horse capable of everything from cattle-work to plowing fields.
Beyond just the Nokota, this was common practice in the Old West. The
infusion of Spanish Mustang blood
was critical to breed stamina into the horse of the white settlers. And so
the durable Indian-Ranch horse was created. Long before the Quarter Horse
was king, they were the backbone of the ranching community.
But times changed. Open range was fenced and specialized breeds replaced
them. The common Indian-Ranch horse became obsolete. Discarded – many joined
the wild herds. And, like the buffalo before them, they were hunted and
killed to near extinction.
The Nokota survived - isolated for over a century in the Little Missouri
Badlands. In the 1940s, the Badlands were enclosed to form the Theodore
Roosevelt National Park. The horses were trapped within. By the 1950s, they
were last wild horses in North Dakota.
Even within the National Park, the Nokotas remained under pressure. After
years of attempting to eradicate the horses as ‘trespass stock’, the
popularity of the Wild Horse Annie movement in the 1970s influenced the Park
to maintain a demonstration herd. However, the Park’s wild horses were
exempt from the protection of the Wild Horse Annie laws. The Park
periodically rounded up the horses to keep the population contained. At the
end of the roundups, the horses were sold at auction, and most went to
Despite maintaining the demonstration herds, the Park had a generally
negative attitude toward the looks of the native horses. In the 1980s, they
decided to change their appearance by killing or removing the native herd
stallions and replacing them with more fashionable types – such as Quarter
Horses and Arabians. This decision threatened to forever destroy the
phenotype of these unique horses.
At this critical moment, brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz – local ranchers and
life-long horsemen - intervened. Leo Kuntz owned and competed a Park horse
in the local endurance-racing circuit. Over and again, the old-timers
commented on the distinctive appearance of his former wild horse, Bad Toe.
They wanted to know where Leo found his old-fashioned Indian-Ranch horse – a
horse that long-ago disappeared.
This launched the Kuntz brothers’ lifelong mission of saving the Native
Horse of the Northern Plains – the horse they named Nokota. Thanks to their
efforts, the horses have survived.
In the years that followed, the Nokota gained recognition from people across
the country. In 1999, the non-profit
Horse Conservancy was formed with the help of these supporters. And today,
the Nokotas no longer run wild in the Little Missouri Badlands. They live on
rented land found and funded by the Nokota Horse Conservancy and managed by
the Kuntz Family.
They look like they stepped from the pages of a history book – living
replicas of horses long ago discarded. Some resemble Indian ponies – others
the strapping ranch horse. Most fall somewhere in between. They are tough,
versatile riding horses with an angular built, sharply sloped croup and
distinctive, squarish hindquarters. They have strong, round feet and legs
and remain incredibly tough and rugged – an equine all-terrain vehicle.
Their colors range from Indian-overo, greys, blacks and red roans. Blue
eyes, bald faces and bold markings reveal their Indian pony ancestry. But
the rare blue roan color – the color favored most by Sitting Bull’s people -
remains one of the hallmarks of the Nokota breed.
They are one of the last-known surviving lines of this early 20th Century
Indian-Ranch horse - the mostly-forgotten horse that settled the Northern
Plains. In long-over-due recognition of their place in history, the Nokota
was named North Dakota’s Honorary State Equine in 1993.
Despite this recognition, the Nokota remains very endangered – numbering
less than a 1000. They are protected only by the Nokota Horse Conservancy –
dedicated to preserving the Nokota – the Native Horse of the Northern
Submitted by Margaret Odgers, Crazy Horse Farm, Paris, KY
The Nokota Horse Conservancy is a 501 C(3) non-profit organization.
Photo credit to: Shelly Hauge of the Nokota Horse Conservancy--photo
of "Blue Moon" (owned by The Nokota Horse Conservancy)
Kathryn Bauder--photo of "Blue Moon Rising" (owned by Margaret Odgers) son
of "Blue Moon"
at the Kentucky Horse Park Breyerfest 2009
Special Thanks to Jenny Siebenthaler for help in obtaining this article!
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