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Brothers try to save Nokota horse bloodline

Linton, N.D.-- Pony Boy has earned a rakish reputation on the pastures dotting the sculpted Missouri River breaks, where the descendants of wild horses graze contentedly.

Graphic: Nokota has mustang roots
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Linton, N.D.-- Pony Boy has earned a rakish reputation on the pastures dotting the sculpted Missouri River breaks, where the descendants of wild horses graze contentedly.

Because he's prone to running off with the other stallions' mares, his band is kept apart from the rest of the horse herd that brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz run. But his romantic success is a matter of some importance.

Pony Boy, an 8-year-old with a mottled gray coat and white face, is part of a crusade to save the Nokota horses, a breed descended from wild horses that once roamed freely in the North Dakota Badlands.

His ancestry can be traced to mustang ponies used by Plains Indian tribes and ranching stock introduced during the open range era.

Pony Boy's pedigree includes Blue Moon, a big blue roan, and Midnight, a fierce stallion famous for eluding capture in a helicopter roundup at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, where wild horses long were considered weeds with hooves.

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He's the latest chapter in a long story of survival - a struggle requiring careful paired breeding, with success measured one foal at a time, and every winter an ordeal to endure.

"You're sitting here with the last bloodlines of a breed," Frank Kuntz says. "Here you've got a living history that nobody really cared about or tried to preserve or actually they tried to destroy."

For decades, the National Park Service rounded up the feral horses and removed all they could catch, selling the harvest at public auctions.

Many surplus horses were sold to buyers who turned them into canned dog food or French cuisine. By 1965, after almost two decades of periodic roundups seemingly bent on extinction, the park's horse herd dwindled to just 16.

Today the horses that remain in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, now maintained as a herd of "historically significant" remnants of the days when Roosevelt tried his hand as a Badlands rancher during the 1880s, are mostly the offspring of domestic breeds introduced two decades ago.

But the old mustang blood from Plains Indian ponies still flows through Pony Boy, one of about 600 horses the Kuntz brothers own or manage - and one of just 250 horses considered "foundation stock," with strong, traditional bloodlines.

In fact, the horses have been linked to the herd that once belonged to one of the Hunkpapa Lakota's greatest leaders, Sitting Bull, whose home reservation, Standing Rock, lies just across the river from one of the Kuntzes pastures.

Leo Kuntz spent hours exploring the solitude of the North Dakota Badlands in the 1970s after returning home from the Vietnam War.

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Soon he began following the herds of horses into their remote hideaways, learning their habits and ultimately their story.

He crossed an invisible line in 1979, when he bought his first "wild" horses from Badlands ranchers. Two years later, stopping at the sales barn in Dickinson as he was about to start a vacation, he ended up buying 11 horses sold by the Park Service - sparing them from the kill market.

Leo and Frank Kuntz were first drawn to the Badlands horses because they thought they would be ideal for endurance horse racing. Both brothers rode in the Great American Horse Race, a contest over extremely rugged terrain.

"The modern horse just don't hold up," Leo Kuntz says.

Though shorter than quarter horses or thoroughbreds, the horses were much sturdier, with better endurance and surefooted agility, traits that served them well in the wild.

Gradually, the brothers were drawn into their quest to preserve the horses' bloodlines. Leo Kuntz kept going back to the sales barn to rescue horses with the distinctive look he came to call Nokota - short, squarish build, sturdy legs and large hooves, prominent withers, often with blue roan coloration.

"I want to see the wild in them," he says, explaining what he looks for in a horse. "It's a whole language in there."

Although the National Park Service began maintaining a herd in 1971 to help preserve the authenticity of the park, rangers kept removing wild stallions, replacing them with domestic breeds.

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Gradually, the influence of the Spanish colonial mustangs and colonial horses of European ancestry that drifted down from Canada grew more dilute.

Over time, the Kuntz brothers grew increasingly alarmed in their concern for protecting the Badlands horses, which had become an island herd after the park was enclosed by a perimeter barbed-wire fence put up in the 1950s.

As their herd grew, so did the financial burden of maintaining it. The brothers are among very few North Dakota ranchers whose livelihood depends on horses rather than cattle or other livestock, an economic challenge in the best of circumstances.

During the severe drought of the late 1980s, the price of hay quadrupled as pastures turned brown, and foreclosure loomed as a possibility. The brothers were forced to make difficult decisions. They culled the herd, likely forsaking some horses to the kill market they'd worked so hard to rescue them from.

"In the last 20 years here, we've lost some of the bloodlines," Frank Kuntz says. "It's a challenge because of the numbers."

Desperate, they turned to the state for help. They proposed that the Nokota be declared the honorary state horse, hoping the designation would increase public awareness that would help protect the horses.

At a horse auction in 1986, the Kuntz brothers found themselves in a bidding duel against a woman who would become an important ally in their fight to save the horses. Ironically, she thought she was bidding against buyers for the canning market.

Castle McLaughlin, who was working as a seasonal ranger at the Park Service's Knife River Indian Village near Stanton, N.D., while earning graduate degrees at Columbia University, outbid the brothers for a striking stallion that fought valiantly to escape.

McLaughlin, now an ethnologist and a curator at Harvard's Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass., was helping with the roundup that summer 20 years ago.

The following year, she began a three-year research project for the Park Service to explore the history of the horses roaming the Little Missouri River area. "The horses touched my heart," she says.

The migration of Sitting Bull's horses from his surrender at Fort Buford in 1881 to the southern North Dakota Badlands is well documented by historians.

Surrendering with Sitting Bull were 43 families and about 350 horses, which the Army confiscated and sold to traders and settlers in the area, near present-day Williston. The Marquis de Mores, the French nobleman who founded Medora, bought 250 of the horses, which he let loose on his ranch.

Another large rancher in the area, A.C. Huidekoper, bought 60 mares from the marquis in 1884, which he used to breed ranch horses. Huidekoper's sprawling ranch once had 12,000 horses rambling over hundreds of square miles of open range.

Huidekoper's HT ranch near Amidon ceased to operate in the early 1900s, but ranchers in the area told a noted horse historian that the descendants of his "American horses" still could be found in the Badlands and neighboring ranches decades later.

Leo Kuntz believes Huidekoper's "American horse," which also included bloodlines from quarter horses and thoroughbloods, among other breeds, marked the beginning of the Nokota horse.

Historic photographs of de Mores' horses and Sitting Bull's horses bear a striking resemblance to the Nokota, McLaughlin says. "They were dead ringers for some of the horses you can see out at the Kuntzes," she says.

McLaughlin is convinced of the link, which she documented in her study for the National Park Service.

"They may be the only herd in the country with strong links to a particular tribal group more than a hundred years ago," she says. Absolute proof, however, is impossible, since no blood tests of Sitting Bull's horses were taken.

The Kuntz brothers were doubters at first, but they came to believe the horses they were struggling to save can be traced to Sitting Bull and his band, as well as other Northern Plains tribes.

"How in the world could we be sitting here with Sitting Bull's horses?" Frank Kuntz says. "So we were skeptical at first."

The Huidekoper-Marquis de Mores-Sitting Bull horse connection was largely forgotten over time, and most ranchers today believe the horses rounded up from the Badlands are the offspring of ranch horses abandoned during the 1930s.

McLaughlin concedes many horses were let loose by failed ranchers during the Depression, and that these horses mixed domestic breeds. But she asks a simple question: Where did the old ranchers' horses come from?

Despite the controversy, the North Dakota Legislature declared the Nokota the state's honorary equine in 1993. The North Dakota Blue Book observes diplomatically: "The Nokota breed may well be those distinct horses descended from Sioux Chief Sitting Bull's war ponies. Some still run wild in Theodore Roosevelt National Park."

Actually, the Kuntzes and their critics agree: After years of systematic removal and the introduction of breeding stallions, the horses left in the North Dakota Badlands, which today number about 110, have little, if any, mustang blood left.

Geoffrey Roehrs first learned about Nokota horses when he attended a lecture about them near his home in Unionville, Pa., "in the center of horse country" five or six years ago.

He and his wife, Jill, both lifelong horse fanciers, were intrigued by what they heard. Now they have four Nokotas, which they find bond with their owners much more readily than quarter horses or thoroughbreds.

"They're a marvelous animal," Geoff Roehrs says. "They're growing in popularity because they're strong and they're smart."

Jill Roehrs' favorite is a mare called Bedaza, a Lakota word that roughly translates as "paying attention."

"They're just endearing," she says. "They're smart because they have to have been to survive. And they're so athletic."

The Roehrs are active members of a nonprofit organization, the Nokota Horse Conservancy, a network formed six years ago to help preserve the breed.

Members gather in Linton each June to compare notes and make plans.

Nokota horse owners and breeders are scattered throughout the country, including in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas, Minnesota and Georgia.

Seth Zeigler made a pilgrimage to the Kuntz ranch six years ago, just days after graduating from high school. He decided to stay, which meant getting released from his delayed-entry enlistment in the Marines.

"It just seemed like the right thing to do," he says. "It seemed like a place where I could make a difference. It's like a calling."

Zeigler, who keeps the official Nokota horse registry, works with the Kuntz brothers and the conservancy's herd, 40 horses selected because of their crucial bloodlines.

As a group of schoolchildren on a summer field trip approach Pony Boy's herd, Frank warns the kids not to make any sudden moves to spook the horses.

He tells the group, from a summer school program at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, the basics of herd society, including the roles of the dominant stallion and mare.

The kids are participants of Horses on the Prairie Camp, a workshop the Kuntz brothers and their supporters hope can expand to include families and adults.

Eventually, the Nokota horse supporters hope to have a sanctuary and what Frank Kuntz calls a "living history museum," an interpretive center and buggy rides to see the horses in their natural environment, an attraction he believes has the potential to become a major draw to lure visitors.

The horses go through their own rites of passage, Frank tells the kids. The adults chase off their male kids, once they're able to fend for themselves.

But Kaitlyn Bird, a 10-year-old from Mandan, is impressed by Pony Boy's protective posture toward the colts in his band.

"I thought it was cool that they actually came up to me," she says after meeting several horses. "I expected them to run away. The leader stays in the front and protects the babies a lot."

The Kuntz brothers and their supporters hope Pony Boy will have more colts to protect next spring.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTAHISTORY
Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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