This the sixth and our final part of this story about the Nokota horses. After the ranchers’ era came to a close in the beginning of the 20th centry, the age of wildlife preservation would emerge and out of the mists came the wild horses.
The wild horses
The settlers that came into the Badlands area had a hard time trying to grow crops in the poor dry prairie soil and after the drought during the nineteen thirties depression most of the claims were returned to the government and eventually the National Park Service.
In the remote parts of the Little Missouri Badlands, herds of wild horses had roamed for centuries. Some Spanish Colonial horses wandered free from the south, some had belonged to Spanish Conquistadors and American Indians at some point in history. Most of them were Sitting Bulls Lakota horses that De Mores’ and Huidekopers’ had lost or left behind, some were crossbred with Huidekopers Percherons and maybe some occasional stray horse in the area. They had all one thing in common though; they were strong survivors, tender footed weaklings didn’t last for long in that part of the North West.
The rough Little Missouri Badlands, carved out in the Missouri Plateau, is a deeply eroded country along the Little Missouri River that stretches from Bowman County north to the confluence with the Missouri River. The wild horses lived a tough life in this remote and undisturbed area for decades through dry summers and long devastating cold stormy winters. But the robust horses had endured hard conditions for centuries and were used to take care of themselves, so they managed to survive.
The variation in the horse population in combination with the harsh environment and extreme inland climate conditions were a perfect base for what the biologists call “natural selection”. The extreme winters and droughts that must have occurred may have reduced the population at some points in time which led to some kind of uniformity of winning characteristics, with other words; The Little Missouri Badlands itself formed a special breed of horses. It began when the first horses came to the area about 300 years ago and continued into the twenty first century.
The wild horses had an overall effective athletic conformation built for climbing, strength and low energy endurance. Their ability of solving problems and use strategic thinking to outsmart predators and figure out how to get to the best grazing places and wind shelters was vital for their survival. They were equipped with excellent coats, often red and blue roans that were darker in the winter to absorb sun heat and lighter in the summer to reflect the heat. The long broom tails were an important weapon to keep insects away, standing in a circle with the heads in centre swinging their tails. Their eyes and ears were bigger, sharper and better. The wild horses on the northern prairies were slightly taller than their cousins in the south because long legs were an advantage in deep snow and when climbing hillsides or jumping over gorges. The legs and hooves were strong and had some protective feathered fetlocks so they could dig through deep snow crusts to find enough old grass to survive during winter and they could knock holes in thick ice covered streams and waterholes. The wild horses actually helped the critters to survive, contrary to some cattle “experts” that claimed the wild horses to be a free-grazing-nuisance. The cattle could follow the wild horse trails through the deep snow and graze were the horses had already removed the snow crusts. And so the horses roamed free in the inaccessible Little Missouri Badlands and thrived without interference by humans.
The National Park
In the 1940:s the civilization grew closer and herds of private livestock needed to use more and more public land so the free grazing wild horses became bad for business. Federal authorities were set under pressure so anything that was bad for business must be exterminated; soon the once large herds of wild horses that roamed all over the northern plains were gone. But the remote Little Missouri Badlands were useless for livestock, so in honor of the former president Teddy Roosevelt, former rancher in the area, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park was established in 1947. (Today the park´s 110 square miles (285 km²) is managed by the National Park Service and was renamed; Theodore Roosevelt National Park .) Soon miles and miles of fences were built all around the Park.
By fortune some of the wild horses found themselves surrounded by a protective fence and nobody knew they were there, at first. The goal for the National Park was to preserve wildlife for visitors to see how it once was before the Europeans came. Horses came to America by the Spanish Conquistadors so they did not belong in the National Park; consequently the goal was to exterminate any trace of wild horses. Luckily it was easier said than done, these horses had been Lakota buffalo runners and dog soldiers for a hundred generations so they knew how to stay out of reach. 1971 a law was enforced to prevent horse slaughter, “Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act”, unfortunately that only applied to public land governed by Bureau of Land Management (BLM), not the National Park Service. So the hunt for wild horses within the National Park continued unrestricted by law.
When the first explorers like Louis and Clark pushed through the West they sat on the backs of Indian ponies they had traded from the Shoshone people and they saw large herds of wild horses everywhere they went, so wild horses was definitely already a part of the landscape when Theodore Roosevelt lived in the area.
In the seventies public pressure led to a reconsideration of the non horse policy so finally a small herd for demonstrational purposes was accepted in the National Park (140 horses in 110 square miles). But the oppression of wild horses was not over by that, because you see, the appearance of wild weather-beaten Indian ponies was not fancy enough. Some genius Park Service associate came up with the dazzling idea to change the appearance of the horses. So they began “removing” the stallions and replaced them with more “modern” breeds of horses, like Quarter horses, Arabian, Shire- and Thoroughbred-crosses. Again the toughest wild horse stallions proved to be difficult to wipe out and besides the stable fed newcomers did not impress the wild mares much at all. Not until the roundup in 2003 the last traditional Nokota horses were removed from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Well, nowadays that is history and I’m sure most National Park Service employees have an admirable awareness, ambition and expertise to preserve all wildlife including wild horses, but unfortunately it’s one human generation too late. I wish their devotion to preserve wildlife within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park would have included the original wild horse of the northern plains. It would have been a breath taking sight to see, hear and feel big herds of wild Nokota horses (instead of the present surrogate) running free in their rightful environment . Maybe it will be possible in the future. It feels good to know that some people are working for it.
The Kuntz brothers and the Nokota® horse
The two brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz were competing in the Great American Horse Race, a cross country race in extremely rugged terrain. Like everybody else they used Quarter horses and Thoroughbred horses and they had problems with durability, the horses just didn’t last. They searched for something stronger. Every now and then there was a round-up at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park to keep the horses in manageable low numbers and excess horses were sold at auctions. In 1979 Kuntz’ bought a few horses at one of the first auctions at the National Park. Soon they understood that these unnamed horses where really special and realized under what circumstances the horses existed. They bought all pure bred horses they could get at the auctions, trying to save what was left.
Leo Kuntz named them Nokota, after North Dakota. In 1986 Dr Castle McLauglin began a research project on the horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Soon she joined forces with the Kuntz brothers and the efforts to save the Nokota horse became more intense, they worked hard to restore the breed to a safe number. More people joined in and the Nokota horse was recognized by the state as The Honorary Equine of North Dakota.
1999 the Nokota Horse Conservancy was founded and a breed registry was established. Today the Kuntz families care for about 500 Nokota horses on 7000 acres of North Dakota prairie. Nokota is now a Registered Trademark of The Nokota Horse Conservancy.
The Nokota horse is still to be regarded as an endangered breed and totally depending on voluntary and private supporters. Nokota horses are now beginning to be spread all over the US and on our side of the big pond there is a small but growing number of Nokota horses in France at the ranch of la famille Marchal, and here in Sweden under the wings of the Zeigler family in northern Sweden.
So in a way you might say the big circle is closed, some of the descendants of the horses that once migrated to America has returned to Europe and they are stronger than ever.
This was the sixth and final part of our story about the Nokota horse. In writing this story I have been restricted to use input information as a foundation for all conclusions, as in all historical essays the writer is seldom of sufficient experience or age, no matter how old and wheater-beaten, to tell everything accurately and wisely out of own life experiences. So don’t be too harsh on me if something is utterly misinterpreted. Among the sources of information I recall, are the following references:
Papers and articles by Dr Philip Sponenberg and Dr Castle McLaughlin
Books by Hope Ryden, Dee Brown, Gawani Pony Boy, …
Wikipedia and other internet sources