Articles

The Breed Registry

The Nokota® breed registry is complex, and this page attempts
to clarify the various registration categories and methods.

runsaloneThe Nokota® breed has been developed since 1986

The NHC has created a breed registry to support the conservation, breeding and individual ownership of Nokota® horses into the future. The registry currently tracks around two thousand horses, including both conservation breeding stock and those owned by close to three hundred and eighty private individuals. The registry database was developed by Charlie Fleischmann and is maintained by the NHC office in Linton, N.D. Shawna Lichtenwalner, registrar, welcomes comments and questions and may be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Registration is vital to the future of the Nokota® horses, and it becomes more important each year, as new foals arrive. By registering your horse and keeping us aware of births, deaths, and transfers, you make an important contribution towards establishing their security. Thank you for your help, and please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions. Nokotas® are a new breed and our policies continue to evolve. The NHC breed registration committee convenes at the annual June meeting and welcomes input from owners and breeders. Recent discussions have addressed how to restrict the re-sale of horses that are critical to the conservation effort, and how to encourage preservation breeders.

Initially the Kuntz family intended to cross-breed the park horses with their own ranch lines of Thoroughbreds, paints, ponies, and grade using horses. Later, two distinct breeding programs emerged: one aimed at preserving the original park strain, and a second, more commercial operation aimed at producing superior performance horses and ponies based on careful, limited outcrossing.

The basic categories of registration reflect these complementary goals. We seek to preserve and promote the family lines and phenotypes of the “original” Nokotas® removed from Theodore Roosevelt National Park while also recognizing the offspring of Nokotas® bred to non-Nokotas®. The Nokota Horse Conservancy® is concerned soley with preservation breeding for the original type.

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Grandpa Smoke is a perfect example of the Ranch Nokota®. He is also a stunning example of the tiger dun overo coloration. Photo by Shelly Hauge, summer of 2000.

REGISTRATION CATEGORIES

A.    Foundation Nokotas® were removed directly from the park, primarily during the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of the foundation stallions and mares, which formed the nucleus of the breed, are now deceased. Their offspring are termed “Foundation-bred” Nokotas®.

B.    On the advice of Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, the Foundation and Foundation-bred horses have been differentiated into two phenotypic categories, National Park Traditionals and National Park Ranch types (See “Nokota® type”). The conservancy manages a small herd of mostly traditional, but also of ranch-type foundation horses (approximately 75 in 2017) in order to maintain as much of the original spectrum of Foundation bloodlines as possible.  
 
C.    Cross-bred Nokotas® have also been organized into two subtypes, National Park Cross (NPC) and National Park Part Bloods (NPPB). National Park Cross horses must be at least 50% foundation-bred, and all non-Nokota® influence must have derived from the original Kuntz Breeding Stock (BS) used for the first several generations, when the gene pool was small. Kuntz Breeding stock horses included Blue Haymaker, a running AQHA stallion, Roundelle, a champion American Paint Horse mare, and a number of grade mares from Standing Rock reservation such as Sioux, Sloopy, and Joe’s Grey. Some NPC horses are more than 95% foundation bred, and some foundation Nokota® lines are only represented in NPC descendants. National Park Part Bloods must be at least 25% foundation bred, and their non-Nokota® heritage can be from any source. Such non-Nokota®, non-breeding stock horses are designated as “Other” (O) in the registry.

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Red Wolf, a two year old Ranch type filly.
Photo by Dr. Castle McLaughlin, summer of 2002.

THE REGISTRATION PROCESS

Ideally, the registration process involves three steps: the filing of a foal report, the issuing of official papers, and, if applicable, the transfer of papers when ownership of the horses changes.

A.    Foal Reports are issued for $10 during the first year of a horse’s life and for an additional $25 per year depending on the age of the horse by July first. Only foals whose sire and dam are in the registration database are eligible. The application form requires the name of the parent stock and a description of the foal. Upon filing a foal report, the horse will be issued a registration number and will be added to the database.

B.    Registration Papers are issued upon request for a fee of $50.00 once a “foal report” has been issued.

C.    Transfers of ownership can be accomplished with a $20 transfer fee.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact the registrar, Shawna Lichtenwalner, by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Lakota Dancer, a Traditional herd stallion, 1993.

Meet Some Nokota® Horses

Nokota® Horses are being used for a wide variety of uses across the country, including ranch work, trail and pleasure riding, show jumping, fox hunting, cutting, and even liberty performances! Their intelligence, agility, and soundness have won praise from their owners and handlers, most of whom have acquired Nokotas after experience with other breeds. Click on the images below to read some of their stories.

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Bad Toe

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Nocona

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Black Fox

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Chief

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Chico

The Nokota® Timeline

Theodore Roosevelt, who ranched in the Little Missouri area between 1883 - 1886, wrote that:

In a great many--indeed, in most--localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some Indian or ranch outfit, or else claiming such as their sires and dams, are yet quite as wild as the antelope on whose range they have intruded.

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The North Dakota Badlands

Great Depression Era - Many of the wild horses of the Northern Plains are intentionally exterminated by both locals and the United States government as competition for faltering range lands.

Late 1940s - 50s - Theodore Roosevelt National Park is formed and fenced, inadvertently enclosing some of the wild horses of the area

1960s - Theodore Roosevelt National Park's rugged terrain proves the last stronghold for wild horses on the northern plains as all other wild horses in North Dakota are ultimately exterminated

Park's Creation - 1979 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park adopts a range of varying policies towards its horses, but most of these are aimed at extermination, which keeps the population very low and very wild, sometimes dropping under 20 individuals

1979 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park gives in to popular public approval of its wild horses and declares that it will maintain a small "demonstration herd" to simulate what the range would have looked like during Theodore Roosevelt's stint in the area.

1979 - Leo Kuntz purchases his first Nokota® horses, Luppy, and then a few months later Bad Toe, from local ranchers in the Medora area. His full intention was only to use these horses for competing and for breeding to create competition horses with more bone, more brains, more agility, more endurance, and more heart than any other modern horse, but this would be the beginning of a very long, very arduous, and still very precarious fight for the survival of an entire type of horse, the last of the original horses of the Northern Plains.

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Capture of Red Badger

1981 - Leo Kuntz purchases his first horses from a Theodore Roosevelt National Park Roundup, including Jumping Mouse, Wolf Vixen, and the Bald Faced Blue.

Early 1980's - Theodore Roosevelt National Park decides to "upbreed" its current herd of wild horses by introducing a range of outside horses over the course of a few years, including a part Shire bucking horse stallion, an Arabian stallion, a Quarter Horse stallion and mares, and three Bureau of Land Management stallions. Naturally, these horses could not come even close to competing with the locally adapted wild horses, so the Park also had to couple these releases with very selective roundups to remove the original horses.

1986 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park holds its most influential roundup ever. Leo and Frank Kuntz purchased 54 horses, including such crucial individuals as Black Fox, Black Squaw, Blue Roan 54, the Bobtailed Blue, Crazy Horse, Grey Butte, Grey Eyes, Grey Wolf, Hawkeye, Katz, the Keen Red, Lakota, Lakota Dancer, the Lead Blue, Lone Warrior, Nocona, Night Hawk, the Short-backed Grey, the Split Eared Blue, the Stout Blue, War Chief, and Wary Wolf. Midnight, a small black Traditional stallion, will also forever live in history for escaping capture by charging the helicopter in this roundup.

1986 - Another outcome of the 1986 Theodore Roosevelt National Park roundup was the chance meeting of Leo and Frank Kuntz and Castle McLaughlin, who was at the time researching the wild horses for Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

1989 - Castle McLaughlin published her incredibly intricate report titled The History and Status of the Wild Horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

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Spotted Reesy

1991 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park removes still more of the most important Nokota® horses, some of which are yet again purchased by Leo and Frank Kuntz. Infamous for his defiance but ultimate capture during this roundup was Target. Other important purchases included Painted Lady, the Bohen Blue, Remy, the two Bay NPs, and Reesy.

1993 - During the legislative session, the Nokota® horse is declared North Dakota's Honorary Equine.

1994 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park holds another discriminating roundup to further modernize its herd.

1996 - The struggles of Frank and Leo Kuntz to save the Nokota® horses are detailed on ABC World News with Peter Jennings.

1997 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park again removes the most Nokota® of its horses, with Leo and Frank purchasing the most important, including Blue TT, Painted Canyon II, and Blue Canyon.

1999 - The Nokota® Horse Conservancy incorporates and holds its first annual meeting.

2000 - The Nokota® Horse Conservancy is granted official non-profit status by the Internal Revenue Service.

2000 - Yet again Theodore Roosevelt National Park holds a devastating roundup, this time removing the last Traditional Nokota® horse, 9007, from the wild. 9007 was purchased by NHC supporters, as were such horses as 8102, the Grigg's Grey, Luna, and 8503.

2003-2006 - Sioux Artists Feature Nokota® Horses in Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Project

2002 Hank Award - Frank and Leo Kuntz, for their work with the Nokota® horses, were the recipients of the 2002 Hank Award

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Horses on the Prairie Camp

June 2003 - "Horses on the Prairie: An Equine Science, Math, and Culture Camp" funded in part by NASA and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium gave both Native American and non-native children from various Bismarck elementary schools a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the Nokota® horses while also furthering their scientific, cultural, and artistic studies that all tied in with the Nokota® horses.

October 2003 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park held yet another very selective roundup that left their horses looking even less like true Nokotas. Fortunately, various Nokota® supporters purchased some of the most important horses that were removed, including Wanblee and Lucky Dust.

June and July, 2004 - 2004 Horses on the Prairie Camp features the Nokota® Horses.

The Nokota® Type

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Papa Smoke and his band of Nokota® mares and foals.

Nokota® horses share a set of physical and behavioral characteristics that reflect their known history since the late 1800s (see "A Brief History"). Their ancestors include early Native American and frontier ranch horses bred for use as war horses, buffalo runners, and all-purpose saddle horses. Many of those horses were descended from Spanish colonial stock. During most of the twentieth century, they lived wild in the rugged Little Missouri badlands, an area of rugged topography, erratic climatic conditions and long, sub-zero winters. During that time, their survival depended on avoiding capture by humans. These physical and social pressures combined to form durable, athletic, intelligent horses.

Those conditions also seem to have selected for the retention of the original phenotype associated with late nineteenth and early twentieth century ranch and Indian horses on the Northern Plains. Historic photographs taken of Nokota® ancestral stock-the Lakota (Sioux) horses and their offspring owned by the Marquis de Mores and the HT Ranch (see "A Brief History")- show that today's Nokotas look remarkably similar.

Nokota® Horses are characterized by a square-set, angular frame, tapering musculature, V-shaped front end, angular shoulders with prominent withers, distinctly sloped croup, low tail set, strong bone, legs, and hooves, and "Spanish colonial" pigmentation. Their ears are often slightly hooked at the tips, and many have feathered fetlocks. Nokotas tend to mature slowly, and some exhibit ambling gaits.

The overall type is somewhat larger and rangier than the Spanish colonial horses of the southern Plains ("mustangs") while retaining typical Spanish coat colors (especially roan, frame overo, and dun) and other points of conformation. During North Dakota’s open range days, ranchers deliberately crossed Spanish colonial and “native” (wild and/or Indian mares) with larger stallions, hoping to preserve the agility and stamina of Southwestern strains while increasing their size and strength. The result was an all-purpose ranch horse that could be both driven and ridden and required little care.

Historically, such horses were known by terms such as "Montana horses," "Northern Plains ranch horses," and "cayuses." Western frontier artists Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington rode and painted many ranch and Indian horses that looked like today's Nokotas. Remington noted that horses of the Northern Plains such as the "cayuse" had developed a distinctive phenotype based on their mixed ancestry:

The cayuse is generally roan in color . . . he is strongly built, heavily muscled, and the only bronco which possesses square quarters . . . This native stock was a splendid foundation for the horse breeders of Montana and the Northwest to work on, and the Montana horse of commerce rates very high. This condition [is to the credit of] a strain of horses imported from the West, which . . . had its foundation in the mustang.

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This group of young Nokota® stallions exhibits a range of typical coat colors, including roans and a dun overo.

Nokotas generally exhibit coat colors characteristic of colonial Spanish horses. Many Nokotas are blue roan-so many that his relatively rare color has become a hallmark of the breed. Other common colors are black (the base color for blue roan) and grey. Frame overos and sabinos-some with blue eyes-are also considered characteristic (tobiano patterns occur only with cross-breeding). Typical overo patterns consist of one or a few irregular white body spots and bold white facial markings, although "medicine hat" patterns occur occasionally. Other colors include red roan, bay, brown, and chestnut. A few Nokota® lines produce dun and gruella offspring, sometimes with pronounced "tiger stripes" on their legs and withers. Some horses change colors during the course of their lifetime: roans may be born dun or black and grey as they age.

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Many Nokota® foals are dun or gruella but change color as they mature.

Nokota® owner Margaret Odgers coined the term "the equine all-terrain vehicle" to describe the athleticism, durability, and stamina that are Nokota® characteristics. Nokotas are sound, low maintenance horses with extremely solid legs and strong hooves. They all seem to have an uncommon jumping ability and are very handy and agile. These qualities have made them popular among fox hunters (see related article in Covertside: The Magazine of Mounted Foxhunting, July 2005). Mentally, Nokotas are "problem solvers," who actively think their way through things, sometimes quite independently. At the same time, they tend to develop unusually strong, reciprocal bonds with those they trust. Jean King trained her Nokota, Bright Cloud, from a wheelchair (see Stephanie Lawson's article about Jean King and Bright Cloud, "He Put the Life Back Into Me"). They are highly interactive with “their” people, and tend to be kind, brave, and reliable.

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This “dun factor” filly has a dorsal stripe as well as leg stripes.

While all Nokotas share many characteristics, the foundation stock acquired from the wild by Leo and Frank Kuntz during the 1980s exhibited two somewhat different phenotypes. These types have been further segregated by selective breeding and are now called "Ranch Nokotas" and "Traditional Nokotas." Horses that exemplify each end of the spectrum are easy to differentiate, but many horses of pure Nokota® ancestry fall somewhere between the two extremes.

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The Traditional Nokota

To see additional examples of the Traditional Nokota,
please visit the Nokota® Traditional Type Gallery

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Black Fox, a Traditional Type Nokota® stallion.

While the Nokota® population is of mixed ancestry, a small percentage of the horses exhibit conformation that is consistent with a "Spanish colonial" heritage, quite similar to the Spanish mustang breed. These horses have come to be called “traditional” Nokotas, in homage to the earliest Indian and ranch horses. To read more about contemporary American horses of Spanish colonial descent, including the Nokota, see Dr. Phil Sponenberg's survey, The North American Colonial Spanish Horse, Part II: Foundation Strains of the Present Breed.

"Traditional" Nokotas are small (14-15 hh) and relatively refined, exhibiting many concentrated "Spanish colonial" conformation traits. In 1994, Dr. Sponenberg evaluated both the Theodore Roosevelt park horses and the Kuntz horses, and concluded that there were about twenty individual animals owned by the Kuntz brothers (and none left in the park) that were phenotypically consistent with accepted standards for "Spanish colonial" horses. There may have been diverse and varied Spanish influences on the Nokota® population over the past century. On the advice of Dr. Sponenberg, Leo Kuntz has selectively bred "traditional" Nokotas to preserve their "Spanish" characteristics, and their numbers are increasing.

"Blue Moon Rising", a traditional Nokota® gelding owned by Margaret Odgers, was recently accepted for membership in the Horse of the Americas registry, an umbrella organization for horses of Spanish colonial descent. While the Spanish heritage of Nokotas is evident in their appearance, it is also suggested by their stamina, intelligence, and movement-Dale Offerman's traditional stallion, "Chief" even performs #34;airs above the ground.!"

Still few in numbers, many traditional Nokotas are reserved for breeding stock and/or belong to the Nokota® Horse Conservancy. For Spanish colonial conformation standards, please see the following essay by Dr. Phil Sponenberg: North American Colonial Spanish Horse, Part I: History and Type.

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The Ranch Type Nokota

To see additional examples of the Ranch Type Nokota,
please visit the Nokota® Ranch Type Gallery

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A drawing by Sitting Bull depicting one of his own war horses. Courtesy the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Copyrighted, and all rights reserved.

Dressage riders have jokingly called Ranch Nokotas "Nokota® Warmbloods.", and they are certainly proving to be popular and useful sport horses. They are generally larger and heavier boned than the Traditional type, often maturing at 16 hh or above. Ranch Nokotas reflect a heritage of intentional, historic cross-breeding with Thoroughbreds, draft horses, and possibly with larger Iberian strains such as Andalusians. At the same time, they share all of the same colors and many points of conformation with the "traditionals," as well as their temperament. Historic ranchers and Native people developed this strain as all-purpose horses, and versatility remains their hallmark. Because of their size, power, and athleticism, Ranch Nokotas make excellent saddle horses, and we are hoping that someone will develop them for driving. Ranch Nokotas are currently being used as dressage horses, fox hunters, show jumpers, and as packing and trail horses. Well conditioned Ranch Nokotas present all of the power and fluidity of movement associated with popular dressage and forward seat breeds, while their colors and character make them stand out in any crowd.

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Spud, a Ranch Type Nokota® stallion

These horses were historically the backbone of the ranching industry, and are the type produced by the HT ranch and many others. During the first part of the twentieth century they were used as loggers, ranch mounts, wagon horses, roping horses, and rodeo pick-up horses (but not as rough stock-Nokotas do not have the temperament to make good bucking horses). These Nokota® are similar to some of the early, stouter Quarter Horse ranch lines, such as those bred by the Hancock family. A heavier, draftier earlier twentieth century type that may have contributed to the Nokota® were the "Dakota stouts," Percheron crosses that were famously all-purpose, "can do" animals that were commercially bred and exported to other farming states. Photographs of the wild herd in the park taken during the 1960s suggest that some individual animals may have had Andalusian or other Spanish ancestry.

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Jill Murray on her Nokota, Cody. Just as they were 100 years ago, ranch Nokotas continue to be popular and versatile saddle stock.

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Nokota® Crosses

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Thomas, a Throughbred/Nokota® cross owned by Jennifer Schuck, Joint-MFH of the Long Lands in Minnesota

While they cannot be part of the conservation effort, out-cross horses can be recognized in the The Nokota® registry. The Kuntz family privately developed a line of pony crosses for driving and riding, and these make outstanding children's ponies. They also have continued to breed Nokotas to their own family lines of running Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and others. Many Nokota® crosses have been developed into outstanding cross-county racers, sport horses, gaming horses, and fox hunters.

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Two fabulous pony crosses ridden by Fate and Destiny Rocholl of Fergus Falls, MN.

Nokota® History in Brief

by Castle McLaughlin, Ph.D.

for a brief glimpse of the entire Nokota® history and upcoming events you may also wish to view the Nokota® Timeline

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Band of wild Nokota® Horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 1987. The blue roan stallion is the center left is Target. To find out more about Target click on the image.
Photo by Castle McLaughlin.

Please Note: Use of the historical images reproduced here is prohibited without the express permission of the cited institutions. Reproduction of this text in whole or in part is also prohibited without the permission of the author.

Summary

Nokota® horses are descended from the last surviving population of wild horses in North Dakota. For at least a century, the horses inhabited the rugged Little Missouri badlands, located in the southwestern corner of the state. When Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created in the 1950s, some of the wild bands were fenced in, an accident that proved to have far-reaching consequences. While the raising of federal fences provided the horses with a measure of protection, the National Park Service (NPS) does not allow wild or feral equines, and is exempt from related protective legislation. Consequently, the park spent decades attempting to remove all of the horses. During the 1980s, Frank and Leo Kuntz began purchasing horses after N.P.S. round-ups, named them "Nokotas," and started to create a breed registry.

Before Nokotas: Wild Horses in Western North Dakota 1880-1950

Today’s Nokotas are descended from generations of wild horses that lived in the rugged Little Missouri badlands in western North Dakota. Early Euroamerican travelers such as the artist George Catlin wrote about the presence of wild horses in North Dakota during the 1830s. Native people occasionally chased and caught wild horses, but generally acquired their horses through trade and by raiding enemy camps.

During the early 19th century, North Dakota was a crossroads of international commerce and colonialism. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara villages along the Missouri River were centers in a vast intertribal exchange network that linked communities across the continent. French and English fur traders based in Canada joined this system in the late 18th century, and were displaced by American traders during the 1830s. Trade goods from distant parts of North America and from unseen parts of the world flowed in and out of these riverine villages, and horses were among the most important commodities.

Most of the earliest horses in the Dakotas originated in the Spanish southwest and were traded north by Indian "middlemen." Native groups with direct ties to the southwest, such as the Shoshone, Pawnee, and Arikara, were the first to acquire large numbers of Spanish horses and mules. By raiding, trading, and breeding, other northern Plains peoples such as the Crow and Sioux built up far larger numbers of horses as well as political and military power. When Canadian (English and French) and American traders established posts in the area, they furnished new markets and additional animals.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, some horses must have come into North Dakota from Canada, where the French developed the "Canadian horse" from stock imported from Normandy and Brittany. The French horses descended from both European "cold" bloods and "hot" Oriental strains including Andalusians. Like Spanish mustangs, Canadian horses developed a reputation for durability and stamina. Initially bred for two general types, the Breton small and relatively refined, the Norman horse larger and heavier, they coalesced into tough all-around horses that could be used for both riding and pulling, and many worked as loggers. While they have been all but forgotten today, Canadian horses were widely admired as late as the Civil War, and they probably influenced generations of Indian, ranch, and farming horses in the Dakotas, as well as their feral brethren.

Written sources on wild and Indian horses in Dakota Territory date largely from the 1880s, when the range cattle industry expanded from the Spanish southwest. Photographic and archival documents from the period 1880-1920 often reference horses that were obviously "Spanish colonial" or mustang in type, including many brought into the area from Texas and Montana. During the open range era, there would have been little difference between wild and domestic ranch horses. Horses were run in range bands, and there is abundant evidence that many domestic horses joined the wild herds. Theodore Roosevelt, who ranched in the Little Missouri area between 1883 - 1886, wrote that:

In a great many--indeed, in most--localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some Indian or ranch outfit, or else claiming such as their sires and dams, are yet quite as wild as the antelope on whose range they have intruded.

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The "Lead Blue," a traditional mare removed from the park in 1986, with her 1987 filly, the only known live birth following the round-up.
Photo by Castle McLaughlin.

The expansion of the range cattle industry into the Dakotas was made possible by the virtual extinction of bison and the forced removal of Native Americans to reservations. Until the 1870s, the Little Missouri badlands and surrounding plains were home to a diverse and dense community of animals, including a great concentration of bison. Mandan, Hidatsa, Lakota, and Crow people hunted in the badlands and passed through them en route to and from tribal territories and hunting grounds in Montana. In 1876, George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh cavalry followed trails through the badlands en route to the valley now known as the Little Big Horn battlefield. Only five years later, most Sioux and Cheyenne bands had been subjugated by the U.S. military and settled on reservations. To discourage their mobility, the U.S. Army killed or confiscated most of their horses as a matter of policy. The Hunkpapa Lakota resistance leader Sitting Bull had sought refuge in Canada following the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho victory over Lt. Custer at the Little Big Horn, but in 1881, he and his followers returned and surrendered at Fort Buford, North Dakota. Their horses were confiscated and sold to the post traders. Most confiscated Indian herds essentially disappeared after being dispersed through public sales. There was little interest in preserving such horses, which were not perceived as rare or especially valuable. Some people felt that the rough appearance, loud coat colors and small size of many Indian horses made them undesirable prospects for saddle stock.

The Marquis de Mores, a flamboyant French aristocrat and pioneer rancher in western North Dakota, disagreed with that opinion. De Mores, a sophisticated man of the world and expert horseman, admired the stamina shown by the Lakota horses, and purchased 250 of them from the Fort Buford traders. De Mores and his American-born wife, Medora, invested a fortune in developing the cattle industry in the Little Missouri badlands, building an elegant house and elaborate stock facilities, including a packing plant. De Mores founded the town of Medora, became active in civic affairs, and pioneered a stage line to the Black Hills. But his ranching career was meteoric. Like many of his contemporaries, including Theodore Roosevelt, he abandoned his cattle enterprise after the devastating winter of 1886-87. After returning to France, De Mores was killed in the Sahara desert while undertaking a diplomatic mission among Tuarag tribesmen. But the town of Medora grew into a thriving ranch community and county seat. During the 1950s it became the headquarters of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and today Medora is the most popular tourist destination in North Dakota. The "Chateau de Mores," now run by the state, is one of the prime attractions for visitors.

Both De Mores and his wife were regarded as excellent riders and crack shots. An experienced and discerning horseman, De Mores championed the merits of what many derisively called "Indian ponies," and set about breeding his Lakota herd. He and his family used some as saddle and ranch horses; the rest were range-bred in the badlands as was the practice of the day. Some of his horses were never recovered and are believed to have contributed to the wild bands in the badlands. De Mores’ wife, Medora, was photographed with a roan saddle horse that looks strikingly similar to the horses that survived wild in that area until the 1980s, and are now known as Nokotas.

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Medora von Hoffman, the Marquise de Mores, posing as the quintessential frontier lady. Her rifle and sturdy roan saddle horse, almost certainly from the Sitting Bull herd, are symbols of the "wild west" adventure that she and her husband shared in the badlands of Dakota.
Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota 0042-81.

In 1884, De Mores sold sixty of the Sioux mares to A.C. Huidekoper, founder of the immense HT Ranch near Amidon, N.D. Wallis Huidekoper wrote that some of the horses still carried scars from bullet wounds suffered in battle-if so, their Lakota owners must have held them in high esteem. Like De Mores, Huidekoper operated on a large scale, grazing his horses on one hundred square miles of open, unfenced rangeland. However, Huidekoper practiced the more intensive style of management typical of the "ranch farmers," who settled the Dakotas, growing much of his feed and systematically breeding livestock for commercial sales. Huidekoper was a pioneer breeder of Percherons, which were enormously popular as all-around farming and driving horses. Like many ranchers of the era, Huidekoper wanted to create a superior line of using ranch horses, and felt that Indian horses were useful foundation stock for cross-breeding. He bred the Sioux mares to Thoroughbred and Percheron stallions, and marketed their offspring, which he called "American horses," as saddle stock, race horses, and as polo ponies. Some were sold to eastern buyers and others to those local residents who could afford them. The HT ceased operating early in the 20th century, but decades later, local residents told historian Frank Dobie that their descendants were still in the badlands as well as in the hands of area ranchers. Leo Kuntz credits Huidekoper with developing the original Nokotas, and uses one of the historic HT brands, the "Z4."

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Sitting Bull depicted his own war horses in a series of autobiographical drawings recording his war deeds. Like Nokotas, the horses he drew are heavier in frame than most Spanish mustangs, with thick manes and tails and feathered fetlocks, but, like this frame overo, they show Spanish coat colors and other features.
Courtesy the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Sitting Bull’s own depictions of his war horses suggest that even before they were bred to "blooded" ranch stock, some of the Lakota horses were larger and more robust than the classical Spanish mustangs that are often represented as having been the "true" Indian ponies. The difference between Spanish horses of the southwest and the rangier, heavier boned Northern Plains horses was recognized and described by contemporary writers such as Frederic Remington (see "Nokota® type"). Those differences may reflect the influence of Canadian horses, which were robust, with feathered ankles and thick manes and tails. Lakota people, especially the Hunkpapa band, were known for their blue roan war horses. Blue roan is a rare color, but is dominant in the Nokota® population.

After the closing of the open range, private land ownership and fencing made it increasingly difficult for wild horses to survive in western North Dakota. The transition to small-scale farming and ranching operations entailed more intensive land management and more specialized livestock breeding. While most early farmers and ranchers had relied on the same Spanish-based "common horses" used by Indian people and running in the wild herds, this began to change with settlement. Horses were an important part of personal and cultural identity, and ranching culture increasingly valorized horses "improved" by generations of selective breeding. The rugged badlands area became an enclave for remaining bands of wild horses and refugees from nearby ranching operations. Local ranchers occasionally rounded these horses up for both sport and profit. During the drought and depression of the 1930s, some local people made money by catching and selling wild horses to canneries. One family used the proceeds to finance the purchase of their first Quarter Horses, becoming the first breeders in North Dakota.

In the aftermath of the depression, federal agencies gained control over the management of public lands and began to regulate agricultural production policies. Wild horses were regarded as unwanted competition for domestic livestock. During the 1940s and 1950s, federal and state agencies cooperated to eradicate wild horses in North Dakota, rounding them up and shooting them from aircraft. When Theodore Roosevelt National Park (THRO) was developed during the late 1940's, a few bands of wild horses were inadvertently enclosed within the Park's boundary fence. By 1960, they were the last surviving wild horses in North Dakota.

The Creation of the Nokota® Breed

Between 1950 and 1970, the National Park Service (NPS) attempted to remove all horses from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Most of the captured horses were sold for slaughter; some were used as food for captive lions and tigers at a local attraction. The NPS successfully fought inclusion under federal laws that were passed to protect wild and free-roaming equines in 1959 and 1971. But public opposition to the removal of the horses in THRO, and a growing recognition that wild horses had been part of the historical scene during the open range days, led to a change in local policy during the 1970s. Since that time, THRO has tolerated a limited number of horses, which are managed as a "historical demonstration herd". Periodic round-ups are staged to limit the population, and culled horses are sold at public auction.

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Nocona, a dominant Ranch type herd stallion being removed from the Park, 1986.
Photo by Castle McLaughlin.

During the 1980's, however, Park administrators decided to change the appearance of the wild horses by introducing outside blood lines. The dominant stallions in the Park were removed or killed, and were replaced with an Arabian, Quarter Horses, two feral BLM stallions, and a part-Shire bucking horse. Several large roundups were held, and many of the original wild horses were captured and sold. According to the N.P.S., the primary rationale for replacing the original horses was to improve their appearance and sale value at auction.

At that point, horsemen Leo and Frank Kuntz of Linton, North Dakota, began buying as many of the original park horses as they could, in order to save them from slaughter. The Kuntz family bred their own lines of horses and ponies for a variety of uses, including driving, gaming, and competing in a cross-country racing league called "The Great American Horse Race." The brothers had already purchased a few animals removed from the park and were impressed by their intelligence, durability, bone structure, and strong legs and feet. Originally, they intended to cross the park horses with their family lines of race and performance horses to add bone and stamina.

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Leo Kuntz and Bad Toe in Medora, 1987. Photo by Castle McLaughlin

They also recognized that the park horses looked different from modern breeds, and seemed to form a common physical type. During the 1960s and 1970s, several park visitors had reported to park authorities that they thought the horses might be Spanish mustangs. When Leo Kuntz began riding his first park horse, "Bad Toe," old-time cowboys often stopped him to ask about the gelding, wondering where he had found the "Montana" or the "Indian" horse. In early 1987, the park commissioned the author, Castle McLaughlin, to research the history, origins, and status of the park herd. Leo Kuntz and Medora rancher Tom Tescher served as research advisors, as did several wild and Spanish horse experts. The final report, based on extensive archival, oral history, and observational data, was submitted in December 1989. The report documented the long presence of the horses in the area, their relationship with the local ranching community, and their management by the N.P.S. It also suggested that the horses descended from closely related early twentieth century ranch and Indian stock, a type of horse that had been considered obsolete and worthless since the 1950s. The report recommended that the park manage the herd to preserve this "original" badlands type based on their historic value to visitors and their physical tenacity under harsh conditions.

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Brothers Leo Kuntz (left) and Frank Kuntz (right) with the Rev. Floyd Schwieger, who was instrumental in saving the Pryor Mountain wild horses. Photo by Shelly Hauge.

However, the park elected to continue removing and replacing those horses, which were generally known as "parkies." For most of the following decade, the Kuntz brothers lobbied the park to change that policy and reinstate the original horses. This agenda was supported by several wild horse researchers and authorities, but was opposed by some members of the Medora ranching community, who expressed a preference for Quarter Horses. The park also refused to acknowledge the horses as "wild," despite their having survived as a "feral" herd far longer than most "wild" horses on federal lands elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Kuntz herd grew larger, threatening to overwhelm their scant resources. They purchased the nucleus of the current population in 1986, and select individuals at subsequent auctions through 2001. By 1990, Frank and Leo were devoting every waking moment to caring for the horses, and had begun calling the horses "Nokotas," a name coined by Leo to signal their North Dakota origins. Leo acquired the historic "Z4" brand once used by the HT Ranch and began to fashion a breeding program, while Frank worked tirelessly to promote the horses and publicize their plight. Slowly, horse people began to recognize the virtues of the Nokotas as using horses, and became intrigued by their history and appearance. Support for Nokota® horses built slowly, through the efforts of one key person after another.

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From the left, Senator Pete Naaden, Leo Kuntz, Governor Ed Shafer, and Frank Kuntz. State Senator Pete Naaden was one of those people. A life-long rancher whose father rodeoed with Standing Rock Sioux bronc rider George Defender, Naaden remembered and appreciated the role that cross-bred Indian horses played in state history. He championed a successful campaign to have the Nokota® horse designated North Dakota’s "Honorary State Equine," a recognition they received in 1993.

In 1996, the Kuntz brother's fight to preserve the animals and to have them returned to Theodore Roosevelt National Park was profiled on ABC's prime time news. The park hired Dr. Phillip Sponenberg to evaluate the herd for evidence of Spanish ancestry, which is often viewed as establishing the historic value of wild herds. Sponenberg concluded that Leo Kuntz had already acquired the most Spanish looking horses from the park herd, and that the remainder showed evidence of cross-breeding. In response, the park continued to remove "old line" animals at the expense of the introduced horses and their offspring; today the park’s "wild horses" are primarily Quarter Horse crosses who no longer avoid human contact.

Because virtually all of the surviving Nokota® horses are now owned by the NHC, the Kuntz family, and other private individuals, the focus has shifted to preserving breeding stock and promoting their offspring as a new breed. This transition was nurtured by Charlie and Blair Fleischmann of Pennsylvania, who encountered Leo and some of his Nokota® horses in Montana during the late 1990s. In 1999, Blair Fleischmann organized the non-profit Nokota® Horse Conservancy (NHC), and Charlie designed a breed registry and database. With advice from consultants such as Dr. Sponenberg, the Kuntz brothers and the conservancy manage the breeding herd. A growing number of Nokota® owners and supporters across the country promote the breed by campaigning their own horses and staging fund-raising events.