A Bright Vision

Alexandra Werner (C) 2013

If we would see the world through eyes like these,

No one would hunger, no one would freeze.

We would travel the earth over unshod feet,

And no one would tremble by her heartfelt beat.

If we would feel the warmth of her red roan coat

We would grasp the idea; we are sharing the boat.

I guess this world would be saved alright,

We would see our future prosperous and bright,

If we would see the world through eyes like these.

Inspiration provided by Windflower Dancer – Nokota Horse

Photo by Alexandra Werner, Words by H.M. Werner

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 15,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

Speak freely, my horse

Bluebell Star NokotaOnly your horse can tell you who you really are!

Horses ways of communicating thru body language is often described in a very simple form, meaning that all they can tell us is to give vague clues about their present mood, like whether they are angry, challenging, satisfied, at rest, curious, expectant, fearful, submissive and uncertain.

Horses living in social structures close to those of free roaming wild horses depend on a very advanced language. The Nokota horses in North Dakota have been doing so for many, many generations. The interaction, not only within a band of wild horses in all of its complicated social structures, but also in their awareness of a natural environment of seasons, food and water resources, predators, shelter etcetera, draws the importance of communication to an edge. No horse is able to stay under the protection of a wild horse band for very long if she do not follow the common rules of behaviour set up by generations of free roaming horses.

Their language is precise, distinct and most often subtle and quietly, elusive to mankind and far beyond our present knowledge.

mw nokota 257 The average domesticated horses, whose past hundred generations have lived in captivity out of the social structure of a herd has, in the best of cases, developed another language adapted to the domesticated way of life. It is however not an unlikely scenario that their ability to use any language at all, is substantially lost. Many horses are restricted to stalls or boxes most of their time, sometimes given a few hours in small individual outdoor corrals. There is only a need for a very simple basic language among these horses. The communication between horse and rider is traditionally a one-way-communication and the horse quickly learns not to question their trainer’s orders.

The reason these horses are kept in individual stalls and corrals, according to their owners, is to avoid fights and injuries, which is perfectly logical and correct since these horses do not know how to communicate; the risk of horses misunderstanding each other’s actions is eminent.  Just like medieval convicts kept in dungeons for decades, the domesticated horses eventually lose their language and become emotionless and traumatized, unable to function as individuals, much less within a social structure. Some call such a horse mean or evil, which is not entirely true.

mw nokota 271Ever since the horse was first domesticated, several thousands of years ago, mankind has been breeding horses for its own purposes; meaning towards a horse that is submissive to our needs. But isn’t that what most horse owners still want; a horse who performs exactly as one wants, whenever one asks? What’s the use for a saddle horse to know the “wild horse lingo”, it only makes them confused when trying to learn their job, doesn’t it? For many horse trainers a wild horse is a nightmare to train; they seem stubborn and elusive!

mw nokota 286A wild horse breed like the Nokota horse has kept its advanced language skills. They have an open mind, they are curious to figure you out, eager to learn. They want a two way communication. These horses are good at language; it’s as simple as that. Besides, they are strong and extremely agile. Maybe this is what the 21st century human ought to be looking for in a horse.

I think this is the most important lesson our very short but intense experience of Nokota horses has taught us. It is in good agreement with something said by Frank or Leo Kuntz, I’ve read or heard somewhere, which states that some very skilled horse trainers have failed with Nokota horses, just because they used a traditional but wrong approach.

A fundamental and common truth in horse training is that a horse must learn to submit to, or back away from, pressure. Once that is accepted a horse learns fast. It implies that the horse surrenders to your will.

(We must however acknowledge that in european culture once this wrongly seemed to be the only purpose of the horse; to serve us, as what we today might call a truck or a four wheeler. Today many of us have the privilege to own and work with horses by free choice, a gift we must nurture.)

Nokota horses do not like the concept of surrender and they do not react well to domination or abuse. A Nokota horse must be honestly convinced, fair enough.

They are perfectly aware of that their own social intelligence is not subordinate to ours and they can tell if a human is trying to fool them. The only true way to approach a Nokota horse is to be completely honest. Only then will they listen and together you can work towards a common goal. Take turns in being the leader, make a suggestion then let your horse show you an alternative, maybe she knows a better way than you do. Domination will not bring you to where you want to be.

Wild Prairie Rose NokotaOur three Nokota horses make up a very good team. Bluebell Star came to us as a three year old mare, very familiar with the Nokota language. Wild Prairie Rose, the filly who came to us freshly weaned from her mother, the extremely wild lead mare Lucky Dust. Windflower Dancer was the yearling to fill in the gap, she became a playmate for Rosie, as well as good friend for Bluebell when she felt a need to indulge in more grown up conversations, mare to mare. Together all three of them has grown into very good friends of ours and together we have learnt a lot.

Windflower Dancer NokotaThe only problem is that when you reach this point you begin to dream of more Nokota horses and bigger pastures. You want to emphasize the importance of their language by providing a complete band for them, including stallions, mares with foals and yearlings. Let the young fillies and colts form alliances early in their childhood, let them learn the Nokota language by older mares and stallions to carry the Nokota traditions into the future. Dreams may come true if you really believe in them.

mw nokota 239-1If you want to support wild horses and the efforts to preserve the Nokota horse and help them create a future reserve visit the non-profit organisation: The Nokota Horse Conservancy and consider becoming a member. The horses need you!

Genealogy or genomics?

The genealogy of the Nokota horses in particular and wild bred horses in general, is as interesting as it is difficult. There is no reasonable doubt that the Nokota horses can be claimed to have a significant genetic influence from the horses that were confiscated from the Lakota and Tatanka Iyotake at his surrender in 1881 at Fort Buford, North Dakota. Occasionally questions and doubts arise from different sources, which call for an open and constructive debate.

All breeds of horses have a history of historical facts and tales, more or less supported by evidence. The connection between the Nokota horse and Tatanka Iyotake (Buffalo-Bull-Who-Sits-Down, also known as “Sitting Bull”) is a spectacular story. The story itself does not make the Nokota horses superior or inferior in any particular way, but it sometimes puts the Nokota horses in the spotlight as a symbol, for an endless line of reasons I may return to in many blog posts in the future. Powerful symbols have a tendency to be caught in crossfire between righteous causes and less gracious sides of human character.

Tatanka Iyotake himself was a controversial person during most of his life and his legacy still is. Most written stories and movies about him are based on the work of Walter Campbell (alias Stanley Vestal) and his interviews of the betrayers that were responsible for the murder of Tatanka Iyotake. The true story “Sitting Bull – his life and legacy” is written by Ernie LaPointe, great grandson of Tatanka Iyotake.

Hence, it is important to explain and verify the history of the Nokota horse as clearly as possible. This is our interpretation based on simple human logic and deep appreciation and affection for horses. There may be better explanations than ours, more facts and evidences, so take it for what it is.

First it may be appropriate to define the value of evidence. There are at least three ways to approach the question whether a fact can be claimed to be true; mathematical verification, juridical proof and scientific theory. A mathematical verification is untouchable, like 1+1=2 meaning there is no room at all for interpretation. A juridical proof is to prove something “beyond reasonable doubt” which is achieved thru evaluation of technical evidence, circumstantial evidence and statements by eyewitnesses. A scientific theory is to express the best available knowledge thru logical reasoning, statistical or experimental evaluation.

One attempt to state mathematical evidence against the Nokota horses proposed connection to Tatanka Iyotakes’ horses goes something like this; there must have been a million horses passing thru the Little Missouri Badlands area, only 250 of them were Sitting Bulls horses. (the horses acquired by De Mores at the time of Tatanka Iyotake’s surrender at Fort Buford 1881) 250 out of 1 000 000 is 0,025% or virtually no genetic connection at all. This seems like a perfect proof, but that does not prevent it from being completely false! Let me explain;

First: “one million horses in the area” how is “area” defined? Did anyone actually count 1 000 000 horses, where and during what timeframe? The Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is professionally managed by the National Park Service who by their best standards and knowledge states that the area can only sustainably support 70-90 horses in the park’s 70 500 acres. Secondly: the proposed mathematical calculation states that the genetic variation among one million horses is perfectly mixed together, like pouring a cup of tea in a pond. You may believe in the almighty creator, Charles Darwin, or both; either way it is a deep misunderstanding of how biological processes work. Five hundred years after the first horses set foot on the American continent there are still horses of Spanish Colonial type living on open range in several different locations that show insignificant deviation in conformation from the original Spanish horses. With other words; wild horses don’t mix and blend like water.

A strong juridical proof in favor of the Nokota horses could, hypothetically of course, be if a genetic match would exist between now living Nokota horses and a verified DNA sample from one of Tatanka Iyotake’s horses. This is of course not possible since no such known sample exists.

It is however possible to point out a significant genetic difference between the Nokota horses and other horses in the area, which strengthens the hypothesis that Nokota horses (by that I first and foremost mean the fully foundation traditional type of Nokota) are primarily of Spanish colonial heritage and only insignificantly a mix of later domesticated influence. It is important to understand the circumstances under which the Nokota horse developed thru time.

The horses brought to the American mainland by the Spaniards from 1519 and forward, was primarily Andalusian. The Andalusian type of horse was basically a mix of Arabian, Berber and Northern European horses. As the horses spread across the American continent over the centuries and adapted to the environment they roamed, the composition of their genes changed thru natural selection. Not later than 1730 wild horses lived in what today is known as TRNP, proved by oral Lakota tradition and written documents by explorers like Louis and Clarke. These horses lived in an environment and climate that differed considerably from what their Spanish ancestors came from. This is an important circumstance, because what happens is that the process of natural selection leads to an enhancement of the properties, or genes, that are better adapted to the new environment. Meaning; cold harsh winters favored the genes inherited from their Northern European ancestors. So traditional Nokota horses should have more genes associated with Scandinavian and Northern European breeds, than their Spanish Colonial type of relatives in the southwest. This is exactly what was found at a DNA analysis recently reported for a Nokota horse called Nisa! (The genome of the sample horse is compared to standard genomes that represent different breeds or types. The percentage of matched positions is then put in order of magnitude 1st, 2nd and 3rd) These were the results:

1st percentage: Nordic Fjord Icelandic

2nd percentage: Irish breeds

3rd percentage Non Arabian Oriental (read Berber)

This is of course just one single example, but there will hopefully be more and more results coming in from private horse owners in due time.

Furthermore other properties that might be expected to be enhanced are the roan coat colors, which are better at absorbing heat at winter and reflecting heat at summer. Tough environments and harsh climates always favor smaller individuals, though taller horses have an advantage in deep snow.

All this leads to a very special horse conformation, which by the way perfectly coincides with a fully foundation Nokota horse. The reason I want you to consider this description of natural selection is to present a circumstantial evidence. What does this prove? Nokota horses does show significant differences that connects them to the Spanish Colonial type of Indian pony used by the Lakota and disconnects them from those one million domesticated horses said to have roamed the area.

So I have now pointed at technical evidence in the form of DNA analysis as well as circumstantial evidence that supports that Traditional Nokota horses are not, more than insignificantly, crossbred with domesticated type of horses. But there is more.

After the Battle of The Greasy Grass (also known as the Little Big Horn) Tatanka Iyotake and 3000 of his Lakota people settled in The Land of the Grandmother (also known as Canada). This was a five year struggle against the elements and starvation of enormous proportions. In 1881 only 186 surviving Lakota and their horses returned to surrender at Fort Buford. The remaining horses were the reduced band of the toughest horses out of tens of thousands of the best Indian ponies ever selected by the foremost horse culture that has ever existed.

These 250 horses were obtained by Marquis De Mores. After the terrible winter in 1886 Huidekoper bought 60 of these horses from De Mores when he left America for good. A couple of decades later when Huidekoper got out of business, the descendants of these original 60 (or 250) horses continued to roam the Little Missouri Badlands. A cautious conclusion would be that these horses, descendants of Tatanka Iyotake’s horses, were among the best fitted horses of the area and that they continued to genetically dominate among other Spanish Colonial type of horses that roamed the Little Missouri Badlands and eventually formed into the breed called The Nokota Horse.

Other horses of domesticated types that strayed into the area were not equally adapted to the tough life on open range and could not always communicate successfully among the well structured wild horse population, though several different wild horse bands probably existed in different parts of the rugged area and some bands were more influenced than others, which in part would explain the difference between the Ranch type and the Traditional type within the Nokota horse population.

It must also be understood that a few external mares can only have a small impact on the genome of an existing horse population. A single stallion could, if successful however have a larger impact, but an intruding tender footed domesticated stallion have virtually no chance of conquering a single mare from existing wild horse stallions.

It is my opinion that this brief explanation meets both the standards of juridical proof beyond reasonable doubt as well as scientific theory, to state that Nokota Horses in fact are significantly genetically influenced by, and therefore descendants of, the horses confiscated from Tatanka Iyotake at Fort Buford in 1881.

Another issue is whether Tatanka Iyotake and his Lakota people were exceptionally good horse breeders, which would make the Nokota horses in any way superior to other horses?

The question really makes no sense at all. Correct me if I am wrong, but our European/American conception of “breeding” and “superior” do not exist in Lakota culture or their view of the world and its creatures. Horses are family and nobody is superior or inferior, only different. Breeding is a word for improving. In Europe we have been breeding horses for thousands of years; where did that leave us? The sharpest horses are found among the wild horse populations in North America, like the Nokota horses. I believe that the Lakota people knows that only nature itself can improve (breed) horses. They were nomadic hunters not ranchers, they simply picked out the horses they liked from the existing wild horse bands they came across, or bravely conquered from their enemies.

The difference between how The Nokota Horse Conservancy and other wild horse populations are managed, is that the NHC works to preserve the natural genetic variation already existing within the breed, while others try to improve their population towards better saddle stock thru selective breeding and infusion of external blood lines as in traditional, by the book, breeding.

It is my hope that the NHC will continue their successful struggle for wild horse preservation and beware against lesser goals. To use Tatanka Iyotake’s own words; “Great men are usually destroyed by those who are jealous of them”.

Flashing news!

Bluebell was very good at accepting blankets, saddles and tack last winter, but then she got spooked just one time and that was it; she told us “no more $#¤&* on my back thank you!” So we moved on to Windflower and she learned fast, or more correct; she taught us how to ride on her back.

When Alexandra returned from town today she asked me; “I think I can mount Bluebell today”, so we went down to the pasture.

Rule no 1.

A proud Nokota mare like Bluebell wants us humans to do things straight, the Lakȟóta way; no halters, bits, saddles or other fancy stuff. Bluebell decided not to make a big deal out of it, so Alexandra just mounted up, I say no more!

Some horse experts might consider Bluebell a dangerous horse and would never ever mount a horse that’s not properly subdued to accept all kinds of tack, but this is different.  Nokota horses are known to think twice before they do anything hasty. I have  never seen a more calm and focused horse (and girl). This is how a quite safe first mount should be.

Turn out to pasture

The summer came early this year. After days of rain that blowed in from the sea, the heat finally swept up from the south giving the pastures a perfect green finish. The horses has been walking up and down along the fence that divides the summer pasture from the higher, naturally well drained pasture, the horses lived in during the winter. When we finally opened the gate to let them out in the summer pasture, they hesitated at first of respect to the fence, then Bluebell jumped boldly thru the imaginary forbidden line. They immediately began to graze, taking one mouth full here and there while walking forward at a slowly increasing speed. 

After tasting all the different grass dishes, Bluebell took the lead and began a gallopp around the pasture in all possible routes. As they ran free, memories from their previous home on the vast North Dakota prairies came over them and we could see their smiling faces from a long distance, gosh these horses are happy! After a while the pace slowed down to a slow walk and they began exploring their new pasture, walking in under the trees, smelling the flowers and checking the borders. 

For Bluebell an expanded pasture feels like a relief and a reward for being patient. She has been throwing long looks out into the summer pasture for weeks. She lived her first three and a half years at the Kuntz in North Dakota and has many good memories of friendly humans, countless fellow horses and good vast pastures of tasty prairie grass. To run free on open range as the leader of a small herd of mares is what she dreams of. Now she can feel a taste of that again. A thougt comes into my mind as we stand in the middle of the pasture surrounded by breathing horses; There are too many horses living a stable bound life, with very little chances of getting anything that even resembles a natural horse life at all. My eyes get wet, it’s the strong smell of grass that sticks in my eyes, I won’t admit to anything else.

For Wild Prairie Rose, this is her second summer. Last summer she spent as a newborn exploring the world along with many other horses and her mother Lucky Dust, probably the last true Nokota mare to luckily escape from the TRNP wild-horse-policy. Rosie is strong and happy to be together with her older half sister Bluebell, who truly treats her like a baby sister and we love her like our little baby too. She is learning and growing every day, but always keeps her sweet and friendly personality.

Windflower is now two years old and has developed immensely. When she came to us she was a shy little girl. Now she stands almost as high as Bluebell and she is as smart as she is cool and brave.

When one looks into those big brown horse eyes and she looks back, one can feel how she sees right thru your soul. That friendly and intelligent glimpse, her calm personality and her eager to teach us how to get along with horses, makes you feel special and fortunate.

The connection between Windflower and Alexandra is wonderful, almost spooky. Sometimes when Alexandra walks out to the barn, Windflower spots her and walks up from the pasture, comfortably leaving the small herd behind. As Alexandra picks up a halter and holds it in front of herself, Windflower sticks her own head into it, begging for a moment of fun and learning. If someone asked me 15 years ago how I would like to see our children grow up, I wouldn’t have imagined it could be like this.

The horses just loves fresh grass, they even try to rub it into their skin. If the grass keeps growing out here it might be difficult to find the horses in a month or so, at least if you look at the above picture.

After a long day out in the pasture, the horses always walks back up to their stable by themselves, round it up with a few straws of hay and a sip of cool fresh water. As the sun sets they soon fall asleep and dream nice dreams, of wild horses running free on open range. Early in the morning when we walk out to see them they still lie down inside the stable all three of them, yawning. Horses like to be free, but they also has a natural urge to live in coexistance with humans. Humans all have a long history together with horses, dogs, cats and more. I’m not sure who domesticated whom…

If you look at the picture below Windflower reveals she is just joking about the height of the grass 🙂

Thru the ages there has been different ways to relate to horses. The famous Monty Roberts describes in his book “Shy Boy” his fathers brutal ways of breaking horses. Monty himself represents the opposite, as a boy he befriended wild mustangs out on open range by imitating the horses own ways, the join-up-process as he calls it. The awesome Curt Pate brilliantly teaches the ways of ranch horsemanship and the importance of turning horses out to pasture, living horse life and letting the herd do the job, raising young braves.

Ranchers prefer geldings for ranchwork as they are easy, mares are primarily for raising horse babies and so are stallions. Keeping horses for work on a ranch or for competition means you must find effective ways to prepare a horse for the job that he must learn, there’s no time for spending weeks in a round pen. The oldtime horse cultures actually had a similar lack of time, spending the day working for survival, but as they brought their favourite horse along 24-7 their souls grew together.

Keeping horses for no particular reason, other than the cher joy of it, or because some inner voice tells you that a human soul needs to be with horses, gives you more options as the time factor is taken out of the equation. Well, one still has to work for a living and be away from home for long hours, but one can use several months instead of days to get a horse ready. Giving both horse and human time to think and adapt, eventually it all comes natural and you realize there are no tricks or methods, just common horse sense. Something thats already there, embedded in our consciousness for thousands of years of coexistance.