Nokota Horse

I have a modest collection of Breyer horses, and one of the first I bought was of a breed I'd (yet again) never heard of.  I loved the look of it so bought it and then started finding out as much as I could about it.  Some days I can't decide if I'd love to own a Friesian or a Nokota ...

My 'Breyer' Nokota

The real deal

The Nokota horse is a rare breed descended from wild horses that roamed the Little Missouri badlands in south-western North Dakota for more than 100 years. During the early 19th century, tribes like the Shoshone, Pawnee and Arikara, and Plains people like the Sioux and Crow were able to acquire large numbers of Spanish horses. Fur traders who came to trade along the Little Missouri River brought with them additional animals. Canadian traders had ‘Canadian’ horses, bred from European stock, which were descended from both European and Oriental strains, like the Andalusian. These horses had a reputation for durability and stamina.

In 1881, five years after the Battle of Little Big Horn, many of the Sioux and Cheyenne, overpowered by the US Army, were forced to settle on reservations, with the army either killing or confiscating their horses. Even the horses of Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa chief and medicine man, and his followers were taken and sold. Thought to be useless for saddle stock and with little interest in preserving them, most of the Indian herds disappeared after being sold.

There was one man, though, who recognised their potential. The Marquis de Mores, a French aristocrat and rancher in western North Dakota, admired the stamina of the Lakota horses so much, he purchased 250 of them and started breeding his herd. He used some as saddle and ranch horses, while range-breeding the rest in the badlands, the accepted practice of the day. Because a number of those horses were never recovered, it is believed that they contributed to the wild herds.

De Mores and his American-born wife, Medora, both excellent riders, invested in the cattle industry and founded the town of Medora, which, during the 1950s, became the headquarters of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (THRO). Today, Medora is the most popular tourist attraction in North Dakota.

The de Mores; the horse bears a strong resemblance to the Nokota

In 1884, de Mores sold a number of Lakota mares to AC Huidekoper, founder of the large HT Ranch. It was noted that some of the horses still carried scars from bullet wounds suffered in battle, which means that these horses were held in high esteem by the Sioux warriors.

Huidekoper was a pioneer breeder of Percherons and, like many of his contemporaries, wanted to create top-quality ranch horses. Believing the Indian horses would provide useful foundation stock, he bred the Sioux mares to Thoroughbred and Percheron stallions, and called their offspring, ‘American horses’. Although the HT ceased operating in the early 20th century, local residents told historian Frank Dobie that the horses’ descendants either still roamed the badlands or were in the hands of local ranchers.

Most people equate Indian ponies with the Spanish mustang. But Sitting Bull describes his own war horses as being larger and more robust. Even writers of the time, like Frederic Remington, described the Northern Plains horses as rangier and heavier boned when compared to the Spanish horses of the southwest. The difference may be down to the influence of the Canadian horse, which was robust, with feathered ankles, a thick mane and tail. Another interesting fact – the Lakota, especially the Hunkpapa, were known for their blue roan war horses; blue roan is a rare colour, but is dominant in the Nokota.

After the end of the open range era, only those horses which had been ‘improved’ by generations of selective breeding were considered important. To escape capture by humans, the unwanted and wild horses sought refuge in the badlands. After the Depression, wild horses were regarded as unlooked-for competition for domestic livestock. In the 1940s, federal and state agencies cooperated to eradicate them, which involved shooting the horses from aircraft. When THRO was developed in the late 1940s, a few bands of wild horses were unintentionally enclosed within the park’s boundary fence, to become the last surviving wild horses in North Dakota.

Starting in 1950 and over the next 20 years, the National Park Service (NPS) attempted to remove all horses from THRO. Between 1959 and 1971, the NPS successfully fought inclusion against federal laws that had been passed to protect wild and free-roaming equines. However, they couldn’t ignore public opposition and a growing recognition that wild horses had been part of the historical scene during the open range days, and there was a policy change in the 1970s. Since then, THRO has tolerated a limited number of horses, with occasional roundups held to limit the population, with the caught horses sold at public auction.

During the 1980s, Park administrators decided to change the appearance of the wild horses by introducing outside blood lines, their reasoning being it would improve their appearance and sale value at auction. The dominant stallions 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, with many of the original wild horses being captured and sold.

Brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz of Linton, North Dakota, bred their own line of horses and ponies. They’d already bought a few park horses, with the intention of crossing them with their family lines of race and performance horses to add bone and stamina. They’d noticed that the park horses looked different from modern breeds, and when Leo Kuntz began riding his first park horse, old-time cowboys would stop him to ask where he’d found the ‘Indian’ horse.

When the park began capturing and selling the original wild horses, the brothers began buying as many of the original park horses as they could, to save them from slaughter. They named the horses, ‘Nokota,’ a name thought up by Leo due to their North Dakota origins. He believes Huidekoper was, without a doubt, responsible for developing the original Nokotas; he acquired one of the HT brands, the ‘Z4’ and began to work out a breeding program, while Frank worked tirelessly to promote the horses and publicise their plight.

In the mid-1990s, when evaluation indicated that the park horses showed evidence of cross-breeding, the park continued to remove them; today the park’s ‘wild horses’ are primarily Quarter Horse crossed, which no longer avoid human contact.

Now, virtually all the surviving Nokota horses are owned by the Kuntz family, other private individuals, and the non-profi Nokota Horse Conservancy, organised by husband-and-wife team, Charlie and Blair Fleischmann.  (Most of the information/history of the Nokota I found is on this site as there's little else out there.)