Athletic, intelligent and sturdy, the Nokota is one of North America’s most distinctive breeds. It’s also one of the rarest. Nokotas are the only known surviving line of early Indian-Ranch horses of the Northern Plains. In fact, they trace their ancestry to the confiscated war ponies of Sitting Bull and his followers.
Long before the Quarter Horse was king, the common Indian-Ranch horse was the backbone of ranching communities. Early settlers commonly crossed their ranch horses with Indian ponies (Spanish mustang types) to infuse in them the stamina necessary to survive harsh conditions. By the turn of the 20th century, though, most of these horses were discarded – replaced by mechanization and modern breeds. Many were absorbed into wild herds and were hunted and killed to near extinction. But the Nokota survived, isolated in the Little Missouri Badlands. When this region was enclosed to form the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (THRO) in the 1940s, the Nokotas were trapped within. Park officials labeled them “trespass stock” and they continued to be targeted for eradication. By the 1960s, they were the last wild horses in North Dakota.
Public outcry saves the Nokota
Because their range lay within a national park, Nokotas were excluded from the Wild Horse Annie protection laws and fell under the control of the National Park Service. Helicopter round-ups and slaughter remained common practice. In the 1970s, THRO bowed to public pressure to maintain a demonstration herd. Despite the Sitting Bull connection, however, the Park decided to remove the herd stallions by capturing or killing them, and replace them with domestic stallions.
At this point, brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz, fourth generation ranchers and horsemen from Linton, North Dakota, stepped in to privately preserve the Nokotas. Impressed by the durability of the “park horses”, they originally intended to cross them to their ranch and racing stock. But after being repeatedly questioned by old-time cowboys about their old-fashioned “Montana” or “Indian” horses (the Indian-Ranch horse of earlier times) the brothers began investigating the history of the park horses. When they established the historical links to Sitting Bull and famous early North Dakota ranchers, including Theodore Roosevelt, the Kuntz brothers began a lifelong mission to preserve this special breed.
In 1993, they succeeded in having the Nokota named North Dakota’s Honorary State Equine. Six years later, they formed the non-profit Nokota Horse Conservancy with help from a growing base of supporters across the country. Today, almost all Nokotas live on rented land, found and funded by the Nokota Horse Conservancy.
Despite more than 30 years of repeated efforts, the Nokota Horse Conservancy has yet to achieve its ultimate goal: to have a demonstration herd of Nokotas reintroduced to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and their ancestral homeland, the Little Missouri Badlands. Their work continues.
Nokotas come in all colors. Predominant are black, grey, roans, and overos. Many have blue eyes and bald faces.
Nokotas have a square-set, angular frame, V-shaped front end, distinctively sloped, squarish croup and low-set tail along with strong bones, legs, and hooves.
As a whole, Nokotas tend to be personable, gregarious horses. In most cases and with tactful handling, their sociable nature extends easily to people and they often form a close bond with their riders. Their intelligence and self-preservation is highly evolved, so they are extraordinarily quick learners.
The natural selection of Nokotas within the Little Missouri Badlands resulted in a highly durable, athletic horse. They are particularly noted for their jumping ability and skill in negotiating treacherous terrain. An all-round, all-purpose horse, Nokotas have been successful in many disciplines, including dressage, western, eventing and combined driving.
Nokotas have the highest incidence of blue roan – a rare color type – of any North American breed. The Plains Indians favored certain colors within their bands. Blue roan was the color favored most by Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa people.
The name Nokota was created by pushing together the words North and Dakota. It is often misspelled as Nakota.
Future goals for the breed:
The primary long term goal of the Nokota Horse Conservancy is to purchase land within North Dakota for a protected sanctuary for the horses. What makes this breed a good candidate for “natural” horsekeeping? Given their heritage, Nokotas are the poster children for natural horsekeeping. Adapting to traditional and restrictive horsekeeping environments – including stalls, limited turnout, and high-protein feeds — is the greater challenge for Nokotas and their owners.
What does the horse public need to know about this breed?
Their future is in the hands of the Nokota Horse Conservancy. It is a very small, non-profit organization funded almost entirely by public donations. Without this public support, the Nokotas could disappear forever.