Nokota Horse

Nokota Horse
  • HEIGHT: Traditional Nokotas, 14–14.3 hands; Ranch Nokotas, 14.2–17 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: North Dakota
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Tough, intelligent, sound horses of Spanish ancestry
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Pleasure and trail riding, endurance racing, ranch work, dressage, and jumping

The Nokota Horses from the southwestern corner of North Dakota have close ties to Sitting Bull’s horses. They are a distinct type that once ran wild in the Little Missouri Badlands. When cattle ranching expanded north into the area in the late 1800s, wild horses were plentiful. This was an era of open-range grazing; there were no fences, so domestic horses were often turned out to breed among the range bands. Whatever the bloodlines of the domestic horses, they were incorporated into, and therefore had influence on, the wild herds. Theodore Roosevelt ranched in the area at the time, and he was thoroughly familiar with the horses, according to his own writings.

Many of the early ranches acquired and bred local “Indian Pony” or “Spanish” mares, exported from the Southwest, to Thoroughbred, draft, early Quarter Horse, and harness-bred stallions to produce tough, all-purpose horses. The huge HT Ranch near Medora was typical of this approach. The HT bought sixty Sioux mares during the summer of 1884 from the Marquis de Mores, a French entrepreneur, who had purchased 250 head, including all of the mares, from Sitting Bull’s confiscated herd which was originally sold at Fort Buford in 1881. Some of the HT mares had visible bullet wounds from their lives with the Hunkpapa Sioux, who had fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Interestingly, the HT Ranch also purchased the great Thoroughbred stallion Lexington from Kentucky, and they crossed him on some of the Sitting Bull mares.

In the early twentieth century, bands of wild horses continued to run in the area, but they became the targets of political and emotional issues — and guns. Local ranchers wanted to limit any grazing competition between their cattle and the wild horses, so they often rounded up the horses, took some for using horses, and sold the rest for slaughter or shot them for “sport.” After the drought and the Great Depression of the 1930s, federal and state agencies, under great pressure from cattlemen to prevent future dust bowls, cooperated with ranchers to eradicate wild horses from western North Dakota. During the 1940s and 1950s, most of the remaining bands of horses were shot from aircraft or rounded up and sold for slaughter.

Meanwhile, also during the 1940s, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park was being developed, and a few bands of wild horses were accidentally enclosed within the 70,000-acre park’s perimeter fence. By 1960, these were the last surviving wild horses in North Dakota. The National Park Service continued to try to eliminate the horses, and it also fought for exemption from the federal laws that were passed in 1971 to protect wild and free-roaming horses and burros. The park service won that battle, and today it is not subject to the laws and regulations governing wild-horse management on public lands.

Public opposition to the removal of the horses and a growing understanding of their importance in the history of the area led to a change in policy in the late 1970s. Since then the park has managed a “historical demonstration herd.” Sadly for those interested in preserving the original type and lines of horses, in the 1980s the park’s administrators decided to modify the appearance of the horses by adding outside bloodlines. The dominant stallions in the park bands were either shot or removed. They were replaced with an Arabian, a Quarter Horse, two feral BLM stallions, and a part-Shire bucking horse. At about the same time, several large roundups were held and many of the park horses were sold at auction.

Grays and blue roans are common in these descendants of Sitting Bull’s horses.

The athleticism and staying power of the Nokotas has earned them fame in endurance races.

Rescue and Revival

Concerned about the future of these horses, Leo and Frank Kuntz, of Linton, North Dakota, began buying as many of the original park horses as they could. They had become interested in them after purchasing a few for breeding and for use as crosscountry racehorses. The Kuntz brothers became convinced that the horses were a unique and historical type, and they had high respect for their endurance and agility. Researching the origins of the horses, they discovered that the Marquis de Mores (who founded the town of Medora, right where the park headquarters were later located) had purchased and range-bred Sitting Bull’s confiscated Indian ponies. The Kuntzes grew to believe that Sitting Bull’s horses were related to the herds of horses that later were enclosed within the park.


The Dakota Nation originally consisted of native people who inhabited the northern forests along the upper Mississippi River. It was divided into three groups: the Dakota, the Nokota, and Lakota. The Nokota moved west to what are now South and North Dakota.

Since their discovery of the link to Sitting Bull’s horses, the Kuntz brothers have devoted their lives to preserving this strain, which now survives on their ranch near Linton. The breed name reflects this history of both the land and the horses on it. Until the Nokota Horse Conservancy was founded in 1999, the Kuntz brothers were the only force standing between these special horses and extinction.

In 1994, Dr. Phillip Sponenberg evaluated the park horses and the Kuntzes’ horses and concluded that about twenty animals owned by the brothers and, sadly, none in the park, were phenotypically consistent with accepted standards for Spanish Colonial Horses. Since that time, Leo Kuntz has selectively bred those animals to maintain their Spanish characteristics.

Indian people and others urged the state of North Dakota to designate the Nokota Horse the Honorary State Equine, which it did in 1993.

Breed Characteristics

The Nokota Horse Conservancy reports that these horses look a great deal like the horses that belonged to the Northern Plains Indians of the late nineteenth century, a type that was larger and rangier than the horses of the southern Plains. It was a type often painted by the great Frederic Remington, and its outline is also that of the Spanish Colonial Horses.

Nokota owners describe their horses as intelligent, quick to learn, kind, and versatile. Nokotas are used for endurance racing, ranch work, and all Western sports, and a few have found their way into dressage, show jumping, eventing, and foxhunting. Many of the horses exhibit a smooth amble, which was once known as the Indian shuffle and was prized for its comfort by riders in the old West.


According to the Nokota Horse Conservancy: “Nokota Horses look much like the northern Plains Indian horse of the late nineteenth century, a type that was rangier and larger than the horses of the southern plains. As a group, they are quite consistent in terms of conformation. Nokota Horses tend toward a square-set, angular frame, tapering musculature, V-shaped front end, angular shoulders with prominent withers, distinctly sloped croup, low tail set, strongly built legs, and Spanish Colonial pigmentation. Their ears are often slightly hooked at the tips. Beyond such commonalities, there exists a range of variation, creating several different subtypes.”


This subtype tends to be smaller and somewhat more refined and to exhibit more concentrated “Spanish Colonial” traits. These animals are known by the Nokota Registry as National Park Traditional, or NPT, horses.


This subtype reflects “a history of interbreeding between Spanish/Indian animals and other early ranch strains, of both saddle and utility types,” and resemble early foundation Quarter Horses. Known as National Park Ranch, or NPR, horses, these are the living descendants of the old ranch hybrids. They possess many of the characteristics of the traditional horses, but also exhibit some traits that were common in popular domestic breeds of the time, such as the Thoroughbred and the Percheron.


Nokotas are frequently blue roan, which is rare in most populations of horses; other common colors are black and gray. These colors are all associated with Spanish and Indian breeding. Less common colors among the Nokota include red roan and bay. Chestnut, dun, grulla, and palomino occur occasionally. Blue eyes and both the overo and sabino color patterns are not uncommon. The sabino color pattern has not been well studied. It comprises a wide array of variations, from near solid to extremely roaned, speckled, or patched, all the way to apparently solid white, including everything in between.


According to the Nokota Horse Conservancy (founded in 1999):

• The Nokota Horse Registry has been established with several categories for the various types of Nokota Horses.

• The conservancy currently tracks 1,000 horses, both past and present.

• While the majority of Nokotas reside in North Dakota, they can be found in many other states, such as Pennsylvania, Montana, Minnesota, and Oregon.

Leave a Comment