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


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.


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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

kuntz brothers
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.

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.