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Horse Breeds
First Posted: Jan 22, 2010
Sep 25, 2010

Nokota Horse/Many Gaited


Country of Origin: United States

The Nokota horse is a feral and semi-feral horse breed located in the badlands of southwestern North Dakota in the United States. The breed developed in the 1800s from foundation bloodstock consisting of ranch-bred horses produced from local Indian horses mixed with Spanish horses, Thoroughbreds, harness horses and related breeds. The Nokota was almost wiped out during the early 1900s when ranchers, in cooperation with state and federal agencies, worked together to reduce competition for livestock grazing. However, when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created in the 1940s, a few bands were inadvertently trapped inside, and thus were preserved. Today, the park conducts regular thinning of the herd to keep numbers between 70 and 110, and the excess horses are sold off. In the late 1970s, brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz began purchasing the horses with the aim of preserving the breed, and in 1999 started the Nokota Horse Conservancy, later beginning a breed registry through the same organization. Later, a separate breed registry was begun by another organization in Minnesota.

The Nokota horse has an angular frame, is commonly blue roan in color, and often exhibits an ambling gait called the "Indian shuffle." The breed is generally separated into two sections, the traditional and the ranch type, which differ slightly in conformation and height. They are used in many events, including endurance riding, western riding and English disciplines.

Breed Characteristics

The Nokota horse has an angular frame with prominent withers, a sloped croup, and a low set tail. Members of the breed are often blue roan, which is a color rare in other breeds, although black and gray are also common. Other, less common, colors include red roan, bay, chestnut, dun, grullo and palomino. Pinto patterns such as overo and sabino occur occasionally. There are two general types of the Nokota horse. The first is the traditional Nokota, known by the registry as the National Park Traditional. They tend to be smaller, more refined, and closer in type to the Colonial Spanish Horse, and generally stand between 14 and 14.3 hands (56 to 59 inches, 142 to 150 cm) high. The second type is known as the ranch-type or National Park Ranch, more closely resemble early "foundation type" Quarter Horses, and generally stand from 14.2 to 17 hands (58 to 68 inches, 147 to 173 cm). Members of the breed often exhibit an ambling gait, once known as the "Indian shuffle." Nokota horses are described as versatile and intelligent. Members of the breed have been used in endurance racing and western riding, and a few have been used in events such as fox hunting, dressage, three day eventing and show jumping. The Nokota derives its name from the Nokota Indian tribe that inhabited North and South Dakota.


The Nokota horse developed in the southwestern corner of North Dakota, in the Little Missouri River Badlands. Feral horses were first encountered by ranchers in the 1800s, and horses from domestic herds mingled with the original feral herds. Ranchers often crossbred local Indian ponies, Spanish horses from the southwest, and various draft, harness, Thoroughbred and stock horses to make hardy, useful ranch horses. Theodore Roosevelt, who ranched in the Little Missouri area between 1883 and 1886, wrote: "In a great many-indeed in most-localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some ranch or Indian outfit, or else claiming such for their sires and dams, yet are quite as wild as the antelope on whose domain they have intruded."

In 1884, the HT Ranch, located near Medora, North Dakota, bought 60 mares from a Sioux Indian herd of 250 originally confiscated from Sitting Bull and sold at Fort Buford, North Dakota in 1881. Some of these mares were bred to the Thoroughbred racing stallion Lexington, also owned by the HT Ranch.

By the early 1900s, the feral horse herds became the target of local ranchers looking to limit grazing competition for their livestock. Many horses were rounded up, and either used as ranch horses, sold for slaughter or shot. From the 1930s through the 1950s, federal and state agencies worked with ranchers to remove horses from western North Dakota. However, when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in the 1940s, during construction, a few bands of horses were accidentally enclosed within the Park fence, and by 1960 these bands were the last remaining feral horses in North Dakota. Nonetheless, the Park fought to eliminate these horses, and in the 1970s won exemption from federal laws that covered other free roaming horse and burro management actions.

In the late 1970s, growing public opposition to the removal of feral horses prompted management strategy changes, and today the herds within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park are managed for the purposes of historical demonstration. However, the Park added outside bloodlines in the 1980s with the aim of modifying the appearance of the Nokota. The dominant herd stallions were removed and replaced with two feral stallions from Bureau of Land Management Mustang herds, a crossbred Shire stallion, a Quarter Horse stallion and an Arabian stallion. At the same time that the stallion replacements took place, a large number of horses from the park were rounded up and sold at auction. At these auctions, concerned about the welfare of the Nokota horse, Leo and Frank Kuntz purchased a large number of the horses. After researching the history of the breed, the Kuntzs stated that they had found evidence that the horses in the park were probably related to the remaining horses from the band of 250 Sitting Bull horses, who had been range-bred by the Marquis de Mores, who founded the town of Medora. However, the Nokota Horse Association today says that there is no evidence that this is the case.

1990s to Today

In 1999, the Kuntz brothers founded the Nokota Horse Conservancy to protect and conserve the Nokota horse. In 1993, the Nokota was declared the Honorary State Equine of the state of North Dakota. In 1994, researchers conducted a study of the horses in the park and on the Kuntz's ranch, and discovered that none of the horses in the park, and only about 20 on the ranch, had characteristics consistent with the Colonial Spanish Horse. Since then, the horses on the Kuntz ranch have been bred to maintain and improve their Spanish characteristics. The Nokota Horse Conservancy currently tracks around 1,000 living and dead horses, and Nokota horses can be found in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Montana and Oregon, as well as North Dakota.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has continued thinning the herd, with several roundups conducted throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In 2000, the last horse to be considered of "traditional" Nokota type was removed from the wild. The National Park Service currently maintains a herd of 70 to 110 horses. In 2006, the breed was chosen to be the beneficiary of Breyer Animal Creations' annual "Benefit Horse" Campaign for the following year; a Breyer model was created, manufactured, and marketed in 2007, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Nokota Horse Conservancy.

Today, there are two registries for the Nokota horse. One is run by the Nokota Horse Conservancy and is called the Nokota Horse Registry. The second is a Minnesota-based organization called the Nokota Horse Association. As of October 2009, the two registries are disputing which one has the right to the Nokota breed name, with the Association claiming that they own the legal trademark to the name. The Registry is suing, contending that they created the name and have a longer history with the breed. A US District Court has ordered that the Association cease registering horses until the matter is settled. The Association is also making accusations that the Conservancy may be sending some horses to slaughter and accepting donations for horses they do not actually care for.

For More Information:

The Nokota Horse Registry

Horse Breeds