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.
Most of the horses were shy, certainly not spooky, which seemed to confirm my belief that many of the so-called spooky horses at our domestic barns and stables are simply overwhelmed, and their spook is a sign of their nervous system being in overdrive because they don't have enough space to release any fight/flight tendencies naturally.
Several of the horses were curious. Especially when I wasn’t looking, I suddenly felt a nose bopping me from behind or a nostril blowing air into my ear. The few times I’d reach for a mare, she often moved away. However, some of the foals were happy to get a few scratches as the fly season was in full swing.
I also observed that most foals not only had a mom but often had a second mare nearby. When I asked Jennifer, Frank’s assistant, about this, she explained that most foals have an auntie who also looks out for them.
My mare Shana had one of those aunties — our other mare Kaylaa. In domestic settings, these bonds occur when the foal is weaned and attaches him or herself to another horse.
In wild herds, foals have a built-in foal sitter from the start. More than once, I saw a mare raise her head to oversee the many bodies and call for her foal. While the foal was aware of mom’s call, the foal would stay by the auntie’s side until all were united again when the herd shuffled into a new order.
Time seemed to move at a different pace out on the prairie, and as the sun started to fall, it was time to move the horses to the new grazing ground. While Frank and Paul used their ATVs to move the herd along, I joined Jennifer in the truck as she opened and closed the gates that separated the large parcels until we arrived in the rejuvenated pasture.
Seeing the horses move across the prairie, circumventing holes left by gophers and wild hare (we saw a few of those speeding across the fields) was stunning. Not only do the Nokota horses have strong legs and extremely durable hooves, no matter if they gallop up or down the hill, they never miss a stride. What amazed me most was their natural gait. The Nokota’s seem to lift their knees just a little bit higher than your average horse, which makes them look solid and yet also elegant.
Standing in the prairie overlooking the hills, I took a lot of deep breaths, which benefited me the next day when we hung out with the Nokota stallions.
The Nokota stallions carried different energy than the mares. The herd of 29 stallions was naturally divided into a few groups, each spearheaded by one stallion. A relatively large group stood on the first jagged hillside overlooking the valley and surrounding mesa. A smaller group of horses stood on a second overlook. I decided to approach those horses taking a few deep conscious breaths to slow my nervous system as I drew closer.
Standing about 10 feet from two stunning black Nokota horses, I could sense their power and independence. Eventually, a large blue roan with a blackhead separated himself from his group and approached me. He sniffed my hand and then stepped even closer, inviting me to scratch his neck.
Just like Frank had said on the first day, these horses are so intelligent that they stop and think before they act. In this case, the stallion took me in from afar, then came over to smell me and decided it would be okay to engage with me.
In domestic settings, we often don’t give our horses a chance to come and reach out to us. Usually, we head into the pasture or stall and halter the horse, not realizing that our horses too would like a moment to take us in, then sniff us to say hello, before engaging more on their own accord. If we’d approach our own horses more like we would approach a wild horse, we would again be in awe like we were when we were younger — we’d take an extra breath and a bit more time and suddenly be more deeply connected.
On the way back to the ranch, Frank explained that the stallions always lived together, and only those who carried the strongest lineage of the original wild horses were taken out of the herd in the spring and brought together with a band of mares to create more who will carry on the legacy of these remarkable horses.
I could have listened to Frank for days on end. The passion and compassion he has for the horses, for the land, and the legacy of the Nokota horses, he expresses through his eyes and by telling their beautiful and painful stories. The horses are Frank’s life, and he honors their history.
In the last few years, Frank gave a Nokota horse to the Lakota Hunkpapa people (the Buffalo people) at Standing Rock with the intent to bring the horse back to where he belongs. Since then, the Lakota nation has added a few more Nokota horses to its herd and started a program to connect young members with the horses their ancestors raised, revered, and communed with, literally, as the horses were part of their family and often stayed with the natives in their tipi’s.
Connecting with the Nokota horses and the people who hold them in such high regard confirmed my mission to mindfully connect horses and humans in our domestic settings. As Frank says, “respect and trust are the two pillars of every relationship.”
To learn more about the Nokota Horse Conservancy and support Frank's efforts, visit nokotahorse.org
This trip was organized by my Flowtrition teacher Lance Wright. Flowtrition is a gentle touch that allows for the integration of life experiences stored in the body as tension. It is a means of finding the touch, nutrition, and thoughts that encourage growth and evolution of the individual.