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Saving the Nokota Horse

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Continuing from my previous post, "The Nokota Horse:"

1979 was a big year for the mustangs of North Dakota. A rancher and horse breeder named Leo Kuntz bought a couple of them from neighbors, admiring their brains, endurance, strong bones, and willing nature. He originally intended to breed them with other breeds, to introduce the mustang qualities to his Thoroughbreds and quarter horses. Meanwhile, the park management decides to "improve" its horses by selectively removing typical mustangs, and replacing the stallions with a grab-bag of breeds, including part Shire, Arab, and quarter horse bloodlines. They have to remove the wild stallions, because they'd beat the crap out of the domestic horses being introduced. So they take the Nokotas, round them up, and sell them.

From the Nokota Horse Conservancy's web site:

Nokota Horses are characterized by a square-set, angular frame, tapering musculature, V-shaped front end, angular shoulders with prominent withers, distinctly sloped croup, low tail set, strong bone, legs, and hooves, and "Spanish colonial" pigmentation. Their ears are often slightly hooked at the tips, and many have feathered fetlocks. Nokotas tend to mature slowly, and some exhibit ambling gaits.

There was a huge roundup in 1986, and Leo Kuntz saw his chance. He and his brother Frank purchased 54 mustangs being culled from the park.

Another roundup in 1991 gave the Kuntz's seven more important foundation horses. But the park management wasn't through culling. Roundups continued in 1994 and 1997. At this point, the Kuntz's are holding and preserving the pure Nokota bloodlines that the park management is determined to wipe out. In 2000, their newborn Nokota Horse Conservancy was granted non-profit status by the IRS. (Nokota, short for North Dakota Horse). And the park holds yet another roundup, and removes the last Traditional Nokota horse from the wild. NHC supporters purchase it and four more.

There was another roundup in 2003. Once again, typey Nokotas were the target. Even as I write this, I shake my head. What's the point here? To rub out that which is unique, that which is perfectly adapted to the conditions and habitat of this unforgiving place? To deny the Nokota's history and heritage, and replace it with something prettier? If you're going to have a "demonstration herd" of wild horses on public land, why not demonstrate what the Lakota ponies looked like, instead of letting a bunch of domestic breeds mingle there?

I am deeply thankful for the Kuntz's, and the Nokota Horse Conservancy, for recognizing the breed, for preserving irreplaceable bloodlines dating back to the Lakota (Sioux) ponies. Perhaps someday the park management will recognize that it eliminated its finest and best adapted animals in a quest for improvement.

I know there are purists (including one staunch Floridian who struggled free of the coils of an Everglades Burmese python long enough to raise the flag in a comment on my last post) who don't believe any horse belongs in the wild. And that can be argued, too. It raises many, many questions. Interestingly enough, the genus Equus originated in North America about 4 million years ago, and spread to Eurasia via the Bering land bridge. So let's think about that. Mitochondrial DNA analysis has revealed that Equus caballus, the modern horse, originated about 1.7 million years ago, right here in North America. Europeans domesticated horses by crossing wild strains of an animal that actually originated right here. Our native horses died out as late as 11,000 years ago, in some of the mass extinctions that took many of our unique North American megafauna. The last surviving North American horse, the Yukon horse, was called E. lambii. Mitochondria DNA analysis has shown the the Yukon horse was genetically equivalent to E. caballus, the modern horse.

Had they not migrated to Asia and Europe, the species would have died out altogether. Along comes Coronado. In 1519, Equus caballus was introduced to Mexico, where it became wildly popular, and was traded and spread throughout North America. Plains Indians took horsemanship to new places, selecting strains and improving the breed as they saw fit. The Lakota horses were small, wiry, strong, willing, and incredibly smart. Lots of them got loose. And once again, Equus caballus was running on the plains of North America, where it evolved in the first place. You can read more here.

So. Is the horse a feral exotic, or is it a native species, reintroduced 500 years ago? How far back do we need to go to say whether a species is exotic or feral? Do horses belong on the North American plains, if they evolved here? There are people who want to introduce rhinoceros to North America, on the basis that they once lived here, too; calling that a reintroduction. And rhinos do spectacularly well in Texas, breeding, feeding, surviving on game farms. The more you think about it all, the more you realize there may be no correct answer to whether wild horses are noxious exotics, or natives come home. Shades of gray, roan, bay and black.

So there are horses running wild on these mounds and mountains of bentonite clay, and they're not competing with anyone's economic interests in this fenced enclosure. They look great here; they seem to fit. Tourists like me dig 'em. But the Nokotas fit a lot better, thanks to years of intense natural selection in a harsh environment, than the doubtless bewildered domestic quarter horses, draft horses, and paints being released by park management in an effort to "improve" the herd.

I've adapted the Nokota horse story from the excellent web site of the Nokota Horse Conservancy
which has a wealth of information and glorious photo galleries by Christopher Wilson (don't miss them!) of typical Nokota ponies and the people who love them. From the web site:

Nokota owner Margaret Odgers coined the term "the equine all-terrain vehicle" to describe the athleticism, durability, and stamina that are Nokota characteristics. Nokotas are sound, low maintenance horses with extremely solid legs and strong hooves. They all seem to have an uncommon jumping ability and are very handy and agile. These qualities have made them popular among fox hunters. Mentally, Nokotas are "problem solvers," who actively think their way through things, sometimes quite independently. At the same time, they tend to develop unusually strong, reciprocal bonds with those they trust.

We watched this stallion, with a large, still-open neck wound, have a squealing disagreement with a red roan stallion over a little bunch of mares and foals. I shot hundreds of photos of the argument, the rearing and prancing, the vanquishing of the rival, all of which were lost in the Great Computer Meltdown of July 2009. All of which were are deeply mourned. I never even got to see them on the screen before the computer crashed and ate them. The photos here are by Bill of the Birds. And I thank him for them.

The red roan beats a retreat.

A young foal and his placid mama.

Whether these horses were Nokotas or not, they were lovely, and I suppose that's all the park management is shooting for: something pretty for we tourists to exclaim over. It's a great shame. I trust that, through the efforts of the dedicated breeders in the Nokota Horse Conservancy, this wonderful breed will be appreciated and perpetuated into the future. It's regrettable that the park management doesn't get the big picture; doesn't value the home-grown North Dakota horses enough to appreciate that it's rubbing out its own history and heritage.

The horses at Theodore Roosevelt are busy multiplying, as Equus caballus does so very well. No matter how docile, a horse released remembers how to run wild.

It's good to know that, thanks to people of vision and foresight, the Nokota will not be lost forever. I hope I've gotten their story right, and thank them for all they've done. And thanks to Stacy Adolf-Whipp, USFWS biologist, for telling me about Nokota Horses in the first place. Without her input I'd just have been exclaiming at all the pretty horses, instead of thinking hard about priceless Lakota bloodlines, nearly exterminated and now conserved. I think if I ever got a horse, I'd want a Nokota.


I know which Floridian made that comment and although he is a really, really nice guy, he don't know nothing about horses. After four hundred years, the Florida Cracker horses are perfectly suited for the environment and were prized as Florida cow ponies until bounties on their heads during a 1930s tick eradication program wiped almost all of them out. In a story similar to what you tell here, ranchers began saving as many as they could and a small herd now roams in two state parks and members of the Florida Cracker Horse Assocation are working hard to save the breed and sing the praises of this hardy little animal. Were something to happen to my Morgan horse, bred for the winters of Vermont and totally miserable in the Florida climate, I would be first in line for a Florida Cracker horse. Thanks for the great story. I know the thrill you describe having been blessed to see two herds of wild horses outside of Cody, Wyoming a few years ago.

I learned so much reading this post.
And I love the photo of the foal with the blaze forehead.

I believe in a certain amount of culling to keep herds healthy and viable. Unfortunately, there is only so much land to support them. By culling, I mean selectively removing foals and selling them to *approved* owners, for pleasure riding or ranches, or possibly by means of equine birth control/gelding etc, to limit the numbers of herds, for health reasons only.

I do not -and never will- understand why we think we have the right to remove animals from habitats they are perfectly adapted to and have lived on for centuries. Horses were here long before us white folk. Why can we not leave nature as it was intended? Why do we have to mess with it, removing natural predators, getting rid of herds or certain species? WHY???? Just because we can? because we think it's our God given right to?

Can we not ever leave anything alone?

thank you for the education. It continually amazes me how little we know about our world!

When I was a kid one of my favorite books was one by Marguerite Henry called "Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West," about a woman who campaigned for laws protecting wild horses back in the 1970s. I can sort of understand why wild horses are still so controversial, what with all the flap over non-native species, but they're also a beautiful piece of living history and I'm glad there are still at least some free-roaming herds.

Aha, here's the woman the book was about:

Actually, I do know plenty about horses, and Island Rider makes my point exactly... although I don't think she meant to do so.
The Florida Cracker Pony was saved from extinction by ranchers. They are not tolerated as ferals running roughshod over the natural environment of Florida. One or two parks allow them in controlled (ranching) herds as living history items. They are livestock.

That was the point of my comment on your first horse post.

"The more you think about it all, the more you realize there may be no correct answer to whether wild horses are noxious exotics, or natives come home. Shades of gray, roan, bay and black."

Good point, maybe there is no correct answer, but consider this ...

The extinction of the American horses allowed other species of plants and animals to adapt to a horseless environment. Reintroducing feral horses (BAD DeSoto, BAD, BAD MAN!)dramatically affects them.
The science is there.

Modern Asian horses may be genetically similar to the extinct American horses, but that is not a ticket to return to the environment that selected against them 11,000 years ago. If we reason that way, let's release African elephants to run wild in North America ... there's only a 1.5% DNA difference between them and the mammoths that went extinct at about the same time the horses did.
That should be fun.

Look, no one can deny the beauty of horses running free. Julie's pics capture their grace and big-eyed cuteness perfectly.
I'm just saying they should be running free on agricultural ranch lands, not lands that we consider to be wild.

It's the curse of cuteness and it's why feral cats continue to kill countless native birds and small mammals.

Okay, I've probably irritated enough people, so I'll get back to whacking this burmese python on the head with a walking catfish, while at the same time dredging water hyacinth from the stream that flows through the Maleleuca/Brazillian Pepper forest, which is inhabited by (cute .. arrrghh!) monkeys and parrots.

And ... just for the record, I don't hate horses ...I just can't eat a whole one.

Florida Cracker makes me laugh in an irritating kind of way. Actually, I realized as I was writing that I was probably supporting his position, but I still am in love with the thought of a wild horse running free. Not so much the python or the monekys.

Floridacracker, that is eggg-sactly the comment I wanted to tease out of you (and I threw in the rhino "re-introduction" to see if you'd rise to it). Yeah, elephants on the plains...

Island Rider, I consider FC to be a Silverback Science Chimp. And his comment on my first post sentenced me to an entire evening of research (well, if you can call Web surfing research...)and spurred me to think more deeply about whether horses "belong" running wild. For the record, the point I'm trying to make here is that it's pretty dumb to eradicate the wild horses that were originally in TRNP, and replace them with domestic ones, and call it a "demonstration herd." I'm not advocating release of wild horses on all public land. However...

I'd like to ask you this, FC. How do you feel about CATTLE running all over public lands? Because all over the American West, while traversing our public lands, you find cowpatties and barbed wire and ruined riparian zones. If you've ever gone looking for an elegant trogon in the Chiricahua National Monument and run into a herd of cattle mucking up a struggling Arizona streamlet, you may have questions about why it's apparently OK to put CATTLE on delicate desert and montane and riparian public land-- "Land of Many Uses," as the big brown signs proclaim-- but it's not OK to let a few wild horses graze there, too.

We've pretty much killed off the bison, relegated them to private ranches. We've replaced them virtually everywhere with domestic cattle. We round up or shoot the horses so they don't compete with cattle. What's with that? Why do cattle get to occupy the grazer niche?

Off to go get a bit of beef jerky to chew on while I ponder the question.

And also for the record: I'm not sure that it's fair to compare a herd of wild horses within a fenced park with the deplorable subsidy nationwide of colonies of feral cats. Far as I know, wild horses aren't actively killing billions of birds and small mammals every year. But then again, if you ask a botanist, you might get a cry of alarm for the plants being trampled. Seems to me that grasslands were meant to be grazed, and I'd submit that horses are far less damaging than cattle. However they are not as tasty to humans, and that probably holds the entire key to my question about why we turn a blind eye to herds of cattle, but deplore horses as feral exotics. Excuse me?

Mmm. Beef jerky.

So many issues all wrapped up in one...Nokota horses. Thank you, Julie, for this whole series of posts, from the bucks to prairie dogs to wild mustangs. Each of these have raised meaningful awareness and concerns. Thank you, as well, for your thoughtful commentary and research. Bill's horse images are beautiful. Just seeing them brought tears to my eyes...a lifelong love. I grieve for the loss of your photos...I know they were special, given the special moment you witnessed.

I won't enter the feral vs wild debate except to say, that wild mustangs are more comparable to the plains buffalo and the woodland buffalo in the east...gone. Over-hunting, over-crowding and loss of habitat. Where wildlife is concerned, in this case a clearly separate and evolved equine subspecies, when management decisions are based predomiantly on "appearance" for human pleasure, or "function" for human consumption/ utilization, or when a species is sacrificed/exterminated for individual gain, we go far astray of what I consider to be a core responsibility and obligation for the human species, sound respect and stewardship of our earth and the preservation of its beauty, diversity and resources. We are an arrogant species...and it would behoove us to examine our motives for decisions, over an over again, to uncover what may be hidden beneath.

Vickie, thank you. I get so much from your comments, from the expressions of all my thoughtful readers. And realize that the thread running through all the recent posts, about slob hunters, about those who would annihilate prairie dogs and the ecosystem that goes with them, about the purposeful elimination of a unique strain of horses--is human arrogance; a lack of respect for that which is perfect and valuable in its own right. A failure to see where we fit into the entire scene; grabbing the power to eliminate that which we find inconvenient in favor of what works for us.

And on the other side of that, the Kuntz brothers, valuing and preserving the Nokota horse for what it truly is; the rare ranchers who welcome prairie dogs as the soil-restorers and community builders they are; the hunters who are grateful for the lives they take and treat the animals and their habitat with real respect. And the people who are willing to learn more, enough to really think about these issues.

For me, it's not enough to say, "I don't approve of hunting!" or "I just love seeing wild horses!" or "Prairie dogs are so cute!" I feel a keen obligation as a citizen of this planet to turn the page and look deeper at these things, about how everything seems to be working or not working, and I deeply appreciate how you all help me think about them.

I am so easily baited.

I promise to drop it after this answer to your question about cattle.
I will.

I think cattle fall under the same noxious exotic label when it comes to WILDlands... National Parks, etc.
BLM lands are different, they were set aside for multiple use and in a western state where Uncle owns most of the land, it's only fair to share some of it with Agriculture ( I like beef jerky too ... not really into horse jerky).

No cattle on environmentally sensitive lands/unique ecosystems though. And if the land is designated agricultural, then horses could run where cattle trot.

National Parks, State Parks, NWR's, and similar areas meant to be pristine and represent preEuropean North America should be free of ALL exotics though.

On wild lands, I like sterilization programs that gradually whittle down the feral population of horses and burros.

I think the adoption program has no real effect on wild populations and is way too expensive for the end results.

As a kid, we fed our dog Crackers ALPO horse chunks in a can.
I don't support the ALPO or French solution to the feral horse issue.

I have secretly wanted to own a Florida Cracker Pony and name it ALPO, but now a days, nobody would get the joke.

Sorry I irritated Island Rider. She's a blogger I know personally and I know she loves her horses ... which she keeps in a fenced pasture ... not at the local state park.

Oh, no ... I've done it again.


Have a spectacular day Julie and family, I must now go wrestle my nonferal fair pig into the trailer for a fair registration day ... in a cold

I'm 10-7 on the horse issue now and will not rise to any more bait, but I sure enjoyed it!

I totally agree with Florida Cracker. Said much better than I could have said it.

Another fascinating and educational post. We saw some horses when we visited TR last summer too. In fact, distressingly enough, one of them was down, sick or dead. They live wild, nothing tame about them.

I knew nothing about the Nakota story before reading your post. I wonder at the constant human urge to tamper with nature. Through nature, the ponies adapted perfectly to the harsh conditions here. I wonder why our standards of physical beauty or personality mean that which is not well adapted.

I'm glad that some people have had the foresight to try to save the Nakota ponies. Thanks again for your blog and another great post.

Posted by Anonymous December 15, 2009 at 7:49 AM

This post got me thinking unto what is the extent of the word danger and safety when it comes to animals. Is it when they are beginning to extinct or is it when they are threatened in their own sanctuary (the wild). I guess, Nokota horses indeed, really need to be preserved, since they are not as famous as other hybrid of horses that most horse lovers have, they on the other hand had given a glimpse of the history of a certain place and as well as the history of people and their culture. :)

Thanks for sharing,
Cathy@online scrubs

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