The earliest horses to occupy the Northern Plains were Indian
horses that were also known as buffalo horses. The Nokota
Mustang is the last remaining strain of these Northern Prairie
horses and the last known strain of war horses from General
Custer's battle at Little Big Horn and once ran wild in the
Little Missouri Badlands of southwestern North Dakota. These
horses were also known as Montana horses, Northern Plains
Ranch horses, and Cayuses.
The Dakotah and Lakota tribes of the Northern Plains of the
United States traditionally believe that the North American
horse did not become extinct after the last ice age but that
there have always been horses (Sunkakan) here, and that they
were not brought by the Spanish conquistadors. It is a controversial
theory but the Dakotah Indians believe that the Nokota Horse
is a descendent of the original pre-ice age Dakotah horses.
In Dakotah tribal culture, lightning or “wakinyan tonwairjpi”,
is a very powerful, mythical and spiritual force and in their
legends, the horse originated when lightning struck a large
whirlpool in the Missouri River. It is said that when their
horses run fast and hard in a thunderstorm, lines of sparks
trace and fly off of the horses ears.
The less romantic origins of the Nokota Horse have been traced
back to the horses that were confiscated in 1881 by the United
States government from Chief Sitting Bull when the Sioux Indians
surrendered at Fort Buford, North Dakota. Approximately 350
of their horses were sold to local trading posts who then
sold 250 horses, including all the mares, to the French Marquis
DeMores, founder of the town of Medora. Many of these were
war horses that had been through the battle of Little Big
Horn with scars from the rifles of General Custer’s
troops. The Marquis had intended to do large scale breeding
with these Sioux mares as the foundation stock.
In 1884, A.C. Huidekoper of the HT Ranch bought 60 of the
Marquis’ mares and he also purchased Percheron and racing
Thoroughbred stallions from Kentucky, including the famous
Thoroughbred sire, Lexington. Huidekoper Ranch horses were
crossed with these stallions since this was the common practice
to produce larger, long-winded, fast and strong saddle horse
that were preferred on the Northern Plains. They stood 15-17
hands and this mix was called the American Horse. Now they
are referred to as the Ranch Type Nokota and dressage riders
jokingly call them Nokota Warmbloods. They are generally larger
and heavier boned than the Traditional Nokota Horse and possibly
have larger Iberian strains such as Andalusian in their heritage.
They share the same colors, temperament and some conformation
points of the Traditional Nokota. Ranch Nokota Horses are
currently being used as dressage horses, fox hunters, show
jumpers, and as pack and trail horses.
When the Marquis DeMores died in 1896, some of his herd was
rounded up and sold and the remaining horses were left to
roam in what is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This
area became known as wild horse country and these wild horses
are the foundation for the Traditional Nokota Horse. Charles
Russell and Frederic Remington, frontier artists of the early
American West, both rode and painted many ranch and Indian
horses that looked like today’s Nokota Horses and Remington
once noted that horses of the Northern Plains such as the
Cayuse had developed a distinctive phenotype.
Frank and Leo Kuntz from Linton, North Dakota are primarily
responsible for saving the Nokota when these brothers bought
a few horses from a 1978 U.S. Park Service roundup in Medora
and immediately recognized that the horses were a unique breed.
Through their efforts and determination to preserve this historic
Indian horse, including blood typing and research, the Nokota
was recognized as a registered breed in 1991. In 1993, the
North Dakota legislature declared the Nokota Horse as the
State Honorary Equine for its role in the history of the state.
The Kuntz family also privately developed a line of pony crosses
for driving, riding, barrel and pole racing, and these make
outstanding children’s ponies. This variety ranges from
12-14 hands but the Nokota Pony Registry is inactive with
less than 35 ponies registered.
In 1999, the Nokota Horse Conservancy was established as
a non-profit organization to preserve the Traditional foundation-bred
Nokota Mustang. Out-cross horses can be recognized in the
Nokota registry but they cannot be part of the conservation
In 2000, the last Traditional Nokota Mustang was removed
from the National Park during a roundup, leaving what is known
as the Nokota Park Cross. These Park Cross horses must be
at least 50% foundation-bred and all non-Nokota influence
must have come from the original Kuntz breeding stock used
in the first few generations when the gene pool was small.
Kuntz breeding stock horses included a Quarter Horse stallion,
a champion American Paint Horse mare, and several grade mares
from Standing Rock reservation. Some Park Cross horses are
more than 95% foundation bred and some of the foundation Nokota
lines are only represented in Park Cross descendants, but
no longer found in the Traditional Nokota lines.
The traditional Nokota stands 14.2 to 15.3 hands and resembles
the Andalusian. The head has a straight or slightly concave
profile, large kind eyes, broad forehead, thick mane and low-set
thick tails. Their ears are often slightly hooked at the tips.
They are more square on the quarters than most breeds and
this gives them an uncanny jumping ability. Many have feathered
fetlocks. They are large boned and have feet with thick hoof
walls that rarely need to be shod. The Nokota has unusual
strength and endurance that makes it an ideal mountain trail
horse and some individuals exhibit an ambling gait.
The most common colors of the Nokota Horses are blue roan,
red roan, gray and black which are the colors originally described
in the 1800’s. Blue roan is a relatively rare color
in most breeds, but so many Nokota Horses carry it that it
has become a hallmark of the breed. Blood bay and overo are
also part of the color patterns with some having blue eyes
and bald faces. Some Nokota lines produce dun and gruella
offspring that have pronounced tiger stripes on their legs
and withers and sometimes even a dorsal stripe along their
backs. Some horses change colors over their lifetimes and
roans may be born dun or black and then turn gray as they
The Nokota Horse is extremely hardy and could starve through
the winter, but as soon as the grass returned, the horse filled
out and was ready for any ride, even covering great distances
in a short time. The Nokota has a natural instinct when it
comes to cattle and tends to remain calm, studying the cow.
The breed possesses a keen intelligence and a calm, quiet
but curious, disposition. They are very well behaved and tend
to mature slowly.
Clyde McDouglas writes for Horse
Clicks classifieds featuring Nokota
horses for sale.