A racehorse breeder gave up everything to single-handedly repopulate an iconic Native American horse breed called the “Nokota”
When he got back from the Vietnam war, Leo Kuntz found peace “following wild horses around” North Dakota.
Eventually he became a competitive horseback rider and racehorse breeder.
On his quest for a “horse that would last,” he stumbled upon the wild “Nokota” horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1978. There were only about 200 of the horses left on the planet at the time.
Impressed by their speed and stamina, he purchased a pair and began breeding them.
“They took to cross-country racing like second nature,” Kuntz told Medium.com.
In 1986, when the park announced another roundup and auction, Leo and his brother Frank took out a bank loan and bought 54 more of the horses.
They planned to breed and sell the Nokota as race horses, but in an attempt to determine their genetics, they learned the horses were more special than they thought.
DNA tests and a historical study by Harvard University determined they horses are most likely direct descendants of Sitting Bull’s personal herd of war horses, which his people were forced to surrender.
The Lakota people remember the year 1876 as “The Year We Lost Our Horses.”
After they won the Battle of Little Bighorn, the U.S. Army retaliated by slaughtering millions of buffalo and forcing all Native Americans to surrender their horses.
From Oklahoma to Montana, native horses were rounded up, sold off and slaughtered.
At first, Kuntz was afraid the National Park would want the horses back if they found out they belonged to the most famous Native American in U.S. history.
But over time it became clear the park had no more interest in preserving the Nokota than the US Army had 100 years earlier, as they continued to sell them off for slaughter and cross-breed the remainder with domestic horses to “improve” their genetics.
Today, there are almost 1000 Nokota horses in the world thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Leo Kuntz and his brother Frank. As of 2006, more than half of the those lived on the Kuntz’ ranch, now known as the Nokota Horse Conservancy.
“They’re some of the smartest, kindest, trusting horses I’ve ever been around,” Frank Kuntz said in a video.
The horses cost the brothers their careers as race-horse breeders, their family farm, and Frank his first marriage, but the brothers never gave up their mission.
Though they’ve suffered a great deal financially, feeding and “housing” their 700 beloved horses for 30 years, they both believed preserving the historic animals was a higher calling than monetary wealth.
In 1993, the Nokota became North Dakota’s state horse thanks to the brothers’ efforts.