The earliest horses to occupy the Northern Plains were Indian horses that were also known as buffalo horses. The Nokota Mustang is the last remaining strain of these Northern Prairie horses and the last known strain of war horses from General Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn and once ran wild in the Little Missouri Badlands of southwestern North Dakota. These horses were also known as Montana horses, Northern Plains Ranch horses, and Cayuses.
The Dakotah and Lakota tribes of the Northern Plains of the United States traditionally believe that the North American horse did not become extinct after the last ice age but that there have always been horses (Sunkakan) here, and that they were not brought by the Spanish conquistadors. It is a controversial theory but the Dakotah Indians believe that the Nokota Horse is a descendent of the original pre-ice age Dakotah horses. In Dakotah tribal culture, lightning or "wakinyan tonwairjpi", is a very powerful, mythical and spiritual force and in their legends, the horse originated when lightning struck a large whirlpool in the Missouri River. It is said that when their horses run fast and hard in a thunderstorm, lines of sparks trace and fly off of the horses ears.
The less romantic origins of the Nokota Horse have been traced back to the horses that were confiscated in 1881 by the United States government from Chief Sitting Bull when the Sioux Indians surrendered at Fort Buford, North Dakota. Approximately 350 of their horses were sold to local trading posts who then sold 250 horses, including all the mares, to the French Marquis DeMores, founder of the town of Medora. Many of these were war horses that had been through the battle of Little Big Horn with scars from the rifles of General Custer's troops. The Marquis had intended to do large scale breeding with these Sioux mares as the foundation stock.
In 1884, A.C. Huidekoper of the HT Ranch bought 60 of the Marquis' mares and he also purchased Percheron and racing Thoroughbred stallions from Kentucky, including the famous Thoroughbred sire, Lexington. Huidekoper Ranch horses were crossed with these stallions since this was the common practice to produce larger, long-winded, fast and strong saddle horse that were preferred on the Northern Plains. They stood 15-17 hands and this mix was called the American Horse. Now they are referred to as the Ranch Type Nokota and dressage riders jokingly call them Nokota Warmbloods. They are generally larger and heavier boned than the Traditional Nokota Horse and possibly have larger Iberian strains such as Andalusian in their heritage. They share the same colors, temperament and some conformation points of the Traditional Nokota. Ranch Nokota Horses are currently being used as dressage horses, fox hunters, show jumpers, and as pack and trail horses.
When the Marquis DeMores died in 1896, some of his herd was rounded up and sold and the remaining horses were left to roam in what is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This area became known as wild horse country and these wild horses are the foundation for the Traditional Nokota Horse. Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, frontier artists of the early American West, both rode and painted many ranch and Indian horses that looked like today's Nokota Horses and Remington once noted that horses of the Northern Plains such as the Cayuse had developed a distinctive phenotype.
Frank and Leo Kuntz from Linton, North Dakota are primarily responsible for saving the Nokota when these brothers bought a few horses from a 1978 U.S. Park Service roundup in Medora and immediately recognized that the horses were a unique breed. Through their efforts and determination to preserve this historic Indian horse, including blood typing and research, the Nokota was recognized as a registered breed in 1991. In 1993, the North Dakota legislature declared the Nokota Horse as the State Honorary Equine for its role in the history of the state. The Kuntz family also privately developed a line of pony crosses for driving, riding, barrel and pole racing, and these make outstanding children's ponies. This variety ranges from 12-14 hands but the Nokota Pony Registry is inactive with less than 35 ponies registered.
In 1999, the Nokota Horse Conservancy was established as a non-profit organization to preserve the Traditional foundation-bred Nokota Mustang. Out-cross horses can be recognized in the Nokota registry but they cannot be part of the conservation effort.
In 2000, the last Traditional Nokota Mustang was removed from the National Park during a roundup, leaving what is known as the Nokota Park Cross. These Park Cross horses must be at least 50% foundation-bred and all non-Nokota influence must have come from the original Kuntz breeding stock used in the first few generations when the gene pool was small. Kuntz breeding stock horses included a Quarter Horse stallion, a champion American Paint Horse mare, and several grade mares from Standing Rock reservation. Some Park Cross horses are more than 95% foundation bred and some of the foundation Nokota lines are only represented in Park Cross descendants, but no longer found in the Traditional Nokota lines.
The traditional Nokota stands 14.2 to 15.3 hands and resembles the Andalusian. The head has a straight or slightly concave profile, large kind eyes, broad forehead, thick mane and low-set thick tails. Their ears are often slightly hooked at the tips. They are more square on the quarters than most breeds and this gives them an uncanny jumping ability. Many have feathered fetlocks. They are large boned and have feet with thick hoof walls that rarely need to be shod. The Nokota has unusual strength and endurance that makes it an ideal mountain trail horse and some individuals exhibit an ambling gait.
The most common colors of the Nokota Horses are blue roan, red roan, gray and black which are the colors originally described in the 1800's. Blue roan is a relatively rare color in most breeds, but so many Nokota Horses carry it that it has become a hallmark of the breed. Blood bay and overo are also part of the color patterns with some having blue eyes and bald faces. Some Nokota lines produce dun and gruella offspring that have pronounced tiger stripes on their legs and withers and sometimes even a dorsal stripe along their backs. Some horses change colors over their lifetimes and roans may be born dun or black and then turn gray as they age.
The Nokota Horse is extremely hardy and could starve through the winter, but as soon as the grass returned, the horse filled out and was ready for any ride, even covering great distances in a short time. The Nokota has a natural instinct when it comes to cattle and tends to remain calm, studying the cow. The breed possesses a keen intelligence and a calm, quiet but curious, disposition. They are very well behaved and tend to mature slowly.