Nokota Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Nokota Horse can be found in the Badlands region of North Dakota. It is a fairly recent breed, first established in the 19th century, but it was almost wiped out in the early 20th century. Bred on ranches from horses that were originally bred from local tribes, many were turned out and formed feral and semi-feral herds.

Because the horses competed in the Badlands region for valuable pasture space, local ranchers and the US Government worked together to eliminate them. By the 1940s, the Nokota Horse was thought to be extinct. Through good fortune, when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created, a few herds were found to be living within the borders of the park. That act helped to preserve the breed.

For about 40 years, the US Government maintained the herds within the national park until the cost of maintaining them became too great. At that point, several of the herd’s stallions and outside stallions that had migrated to the park were sold off. To preserve the breed, the Kuntz brothers began purchasing the horses.

In 1999, Frank and Leo Kuntz formed the Nokota Horse Conservancy. Through this organization, they began a breed registry. Then, in 2009, the North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry was created to register other horses that had been removed from that specific national park.

To maintain herd numbers within the park, an average of 85 horses are sold each year.

It should also be noted that Nokota is a registered trademark. 

What Is the Origin of the Nokota Horse?

When the Spanish first started to explore North America, they brought their horses across the Atlantic Ocean to help with their transportation needs. Although horses were originally found in North America, their populations had died off. The Colonial Era brought the horses back.

Although the Spanish never went up to North Dakota as part of their early efforts, at least according to how history has documented that period, the native tribes in North America were quick to embrace the comeback of the horse. From the 16th century to the 18th century, as equine populations grew, many tribes began focusing informal breeding efforts toward specific characteristics.

For the tribes in North Dakota, the Badlands offered a very inhospitable region for life. They required horses that were versatile, flexible, and adaptable. Life was centered along the banks of the Little Missouri River, which actually flows northward through the local grasslands of the area.

At the same time, many ranchers, military units, and some native tribes were abandoning their horses because they were too costly to maintain. Some horses would escape their confines and head out into the wilderness as well. Living in this feral state, the horses formed into herds and would find their own territory. Eventually, some of those herds would make their way into North Dakota. 

By the 19th century, when ranchers in the United States were making their way westward, they encountered the feral herds living in the Badlands region. As the ranchers settled down, some of their own domestic horses began to crossbreed with the feral horses. Additional bloodlines from horses owned by the native tribes were included with this process.

The end result was a horse that was quite hardy thanks to a massive combination of genetics. Within the Nokota horse, one can find Spanish, Thoroughbred, Arabian, Shire, and Quarter Horse bloodlines, along with numerous similar types.

Nokota Horses are similar to Mustangs, but because there has been a separate breeding interest within the region, they are treated as a different breed.

During this period on the 19th century, the US Government was essentially domesticating the native tribes, forcing them through war or by treaty to settle onto reservations. Once peace occurred, the horses of the tribe were either slaughtered or sold to limit their movement. Many of the breeding efforts from this era were lost because the horses were deemed to be invaluable because they were so common.

One French aristocrat disagreed with that sentiment. He was attracted to the stamina and hardiness of horses that came from the tribes of North Dakota and invested heavily into purchasing them when offered by the government. The town he founded, Medora, would become the center of the national park. 

Theodore Roosevelt once ranched in the region, which is why the national park there is named after him. He described the horses as being as “wild as the antelope.” Thankfully, the Nakota herds were not as nimble as an antelope, unable to jump the fences that the National Park Service began putting up to protect the parklands. 

The Kuntz brothers loved the Nokota Horse, so when the US Government began selling horses from the park, they made an initial purchase of 54 horses at a 1986 auction. By 1993, the brothers had a herd of 150 horses and North Dakota had passed a motion that made the breed the honorary horse for the state.

Today, the Nokota Horse Conservancy is tracking about 1,000 total individuals, both living and deceased, to maintain bloodline information about the breed.

Since 2006, there was a total living census of about 1,000 Nokota horses globally. Of that population, the Kuntz family owns about 50% of the total number that are known.

There are two stories that are suggested about how the breed got its name. One is that the breed is named after the tribes which lived in the Dakotas before ranchers and homesteaders made their way to the region. The other is that the Kuntz brothers combined North Dakota into one word.

What Are the Characteristics of the Nokota Horse?

The Nokota Horse is relatively small as a breed, with many having a height that would classify them as a pony instead. Because the breed exhibits “horse” qualities, however, the breed is still referred to as a horse. Part of the reason for this is because there are two different foundation types that can be found within the breed.

The traditional Nakota, which are descendants from the herds that were present in the national park when it was created, tend to have more refinement and are closer in appearance to Colonial Spanish horses. They are smaller as well, coming to a height of 14-14.3 hands high.

The Ranch horses, which come from the additional breeds the national park added to its herds from 1940-1980, tend to be a bit larger and resembled Quarter Horses. Some stallions in this subtype may reach 17 hands high, with 15 hands or higher very common.

Nokotas should have prominent withers, a low-set tail, and an angular frame that shows off a sloped croup. One of the most common coat colors for this breed is blue roan, which is very rare in many other breeds. Gray and black tend to be the other common coat colors. Horses have been seen with bay, chestnut, grullo, dun, red roan, and palomino coats.

Although somewhat rare, overo and sabino Pinto patterns have also been observed with this breed.

Both subtypes of the Nokota Horse display an ambling gait that was once called the “Indian Shuffle.” That is in addition to the other standard gaits that are found with most equine breeds.

Nokotas are intelligent and quite versatile, with a unique willingness to learn if their independence is respected. Western riding and endurance racing are the two most common activities for this breed, but some have excelled in dressage, eventing, show jumping, and various types of hunting. 

What Is the Future of the Nokota Horse?

With so many of the Nokota horses being owned by the Kuntz family or the Nokota Horse Conservancy, the focus for the breed is now expansion. A breeding herd is being managed and a growing number of supporters, owners, and conservancy members have come together to support future generations for the breed.

The national park still sells horses from its grounds every year, but the Nakota Horse Conservancy doesn’t accept these new horses for registration as they are no longer thought to be of the original line of horses that were in the park. Most of the horses in the park seek out human contact and have Quarter Horse traits.

Nokota horses are one of the most affordable ways to expand a herd or start one of your own. Some sales are limited to preservation breeders only, but there are several horses available for $1,500-$3,000. Those who don’t wish to purchase a horse can still get involved by sponsoring foals, mares, stallions or young horses as part of a donation.