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The Nokota

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 bloodBlue Moon, in Linton, North Dakota,  owned by the Nokota Horse Conservancy 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 slaughter.

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 Blue Moon Rising, sired by Blue Moon, owned by Margaret OdgersNokota 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 Plains.


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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