years ago, Chatham's Hilary Goff first met wild Nokota horses from
the badlands of western North Dakota. Since then, about 70 of them
have come through her pasture on their way to adoptive homes locally
and up and down the East Coast. Some came to stay.
Goff, a nurse at University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, is now on the board of directors of the Nokota Horse Conservancy and has introduced the local and not-so-local horse community to the gentle-tempered, athletic, sound and solidly built American Indian horses. They are being used for just about all recreational equine pursuits including foxhunting, trail riding, competitive endurance riding, dressage, 4-H and as pets.
Nokotas are descendents of Sioux Indian and frontier ranch horses that were used as war horses, buffalo runners and all-purpose saddle horses. Generations after American Indians were
made to settle in reservations, the wild herds grew, living in the rugged Little Missouri Badlands from 1880 until 1950. When the area became Theodore Roosevelt National Park under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, most of the wild herds were culled. In the 1980s, brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz made it their business to save as many of the original wild horses as they could manage. Ever since, they have worked to preserve the breed that they named the Nokota.
Goff explained the Nokotas are wild, and the training process works a little differently from the way it does with typical horses. The less you know about breaking a horse, the better off you are.
"If you don't have preconceived notions of how to do things and let them train you, it works out pretty well," Goff said.
The horses are shy and inquisitive, but standoffish with a wide range of braveness when they first arrive. She said if you just leave them alone and let them settle in, mosey around and get the hang of things, they quickly come to you and that's the end of their wildness. But it has to be their idea. Forcing yourself on them doesn't work.
"But once you get to that stage with them, then you can ask them to do anything. They're super easy. They have to gain that trust in you first and then you're set. They're real straightforward. They're so solid mentally. They've got oomph, but they take care of you."
In the west, Goff said, the Nokotas are not valued or desirable for the same reason they are valued and desirable here -- they are American Indian horses.
n 1999, she began helping the Kuntz brothers found the Nokota Horse Conservancy to ensure the breed's survival into the future and to spread the word around the country. The nonprofit organization hopes to raise enough funds to purchase sanctuary land in North Dakota, where the horses can live wild with minimal management. A breed registry has been developed that tracks more than 1,000 horses and more than 100 owners.
While the typical mustangs from the southern plains are short in stature, Nokotas can be as tall as 17 hands. Goff said the Sioux were tall and bred their horses to suit them.
Visit the Nokota Horse Conservancy Web site at www.Nokotahorse.org