Connecting With the Nokota Horses

Article by Nicole Birkholzer, first published in Massachusetts Horse

The night I arrived in Linton, North Dakota, a thunderstorm with epic rainfall swept across the prairie. I was to meet some of the semi-feral Nokota horses the next day and hoped that this rainfall was not washing away my plans.

The next morning the sun was out when I arrived at the ranch to meet Frank Kuntz, the executive director of the Nokota® Horse Conservancy (NHC). Frank and his brother Leo, who had sadly passed away due to a tragic accident the week before, devoted their lives to preserving the bloodline from Sitting Bull’s and sub-chiefs horses, now known as the Nokota.

Frank shared that the descendants of Sitting Bull’s horses had originally lived wild in the Theodore Roosevelt Park. In 1980, the park administration decided to change the appearance of the wild horses by introducing outside bloodlines. The park organized several large roundups to capture and sell some of the horses. The main goal was to remove or kill the dominant native stallions in the park and replace them with an Arabian, a Quarter Horse, two feral Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stallions, and a part Shire bucking horse.

At that point, Frank and his brother Leo began buying as many of the original park horses as they could to save them from slaughter and to preserve the ancient bloodlines of these robust and curious horses. Frank, a great storyteller, says, “[these horses] are intelligent. They stop and think before they act.” His description stuck with me and was later confirmed when I met some of the horses.

The horses of the NHC, and a few of Frank’s personal horses live on a 6,000-plus acre property owned by Paul Silbernagel. Paul, who leases his land to Frank, who cares for the NHC horses, has divided his grassy prairie land into large sections — each hundred and even thousands of acres in size — to preserve the land and to offer the horses a variety of vegetation.

As luck would have it, the downpour from the night before was a blessing. The watering hole in one of the large pastures, which had been dry for two years, was filled again, and Paul decided it was time to move a large band of mares and foals into this newly rejuvenated part of the land.

Watching the two men on their ATVs bringing the horses from one end of the property to another was fascinating. They went slow and steady to move the horses forward without scaring them. Later, I asked why they didn’t do this type of work on horseback, and Paul explained that carrying a solid guy over such terrain while trying to stay on top of a large herd was too tiring for the riding horse. I gave him a brownie point for that compassionate answer.

To get the horses to the designated parcel, the herd had to cross the swollen Beaver Creek and move through a big barnyard. I hung out on the river’s edge, eagerly watching as the horses, depending on their size, waded or swam across the churning water. Some of the smaller horses found themselves upstream in, the quieter current, yet a few of the foals were pulled downstream for a few feet and worked hard swimming against the current to stay with the herd.

Once the entire herd arrived in the barnyard, they stayed together as one large amoeba, expanding and contracting in various ways without ever losing their connection to each other. Frank offered to leave the herd in the barnyard for a while. What a treat!

I loved watching these beautiful animals mingle amongst themselves. The diversity in color was unlike anything I’d ever seen before — there were grays and blacks, a few bay horses, and some palominos. But, most of the horses were a variation of blue and red roans. They came in light and dark, with patches and without. Some with large blazes, others with no marking but a few old scars. The manes were long or short, the tails had burrs or not, and all the hoofs were remarkably well balanced for horses who had never seen a file or nippers.

The other thing that struck me was that this group of 120 wild to semi-feral horses was hanging out in a barnyard no larger than an acre. There were a few squabbles among the horses that caused the herd to move from one area to another, but, in general, these horses were very calm. When there was a situation where a dominant mare moved a few other mares toward where I stood, the horse coming closest to me would eventually stop on a dime or swerve to the side to keep me, the human, safe.

Taking deep conscious breaths all the way into my abdomen to release any tension I was holding in my body while standing amid this wild band of horses made us both feel more comfortable with one another. Occasionally a few horses lined up behind my back or around me, just standing quietly, seemingly enjoying the new company just as much as I did.