Nokota® Horse History

The horses of western North Dakota were of the earliest to occupy the Northern Great Plains, that includes areas of the Little Missouri Badlands. They have a rich, colorful and often tragic history. This horse of origin from within the now enclosed boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, exemplify a broad range of breeding practices within a limited geographical area documented for well over 100 years that has resulted in a horse with tremendous "hybrid vigor". Itís desirable traits reflect the historical needs of the period and typify the Native American and turn of the century rancher needs that formed the region.


The original horses of this area were primarily of Spanish descent and were developed by the Lakota/Sioux Nations and others into the great war ponies and buffalo horses so much has been written about over the years. The Native Americanís life depended upon on their horses. They took great pride in the development of breeding practices which included the castration of stallions thought not able to pass on the hardiness, speed and endurance this horse had become known for. Throughout history these horses were referred to as and had come to be known by many names including the Montana horse, the Cayuse, Mustang, the wild bunch, the common horse and a pony of Indian type.


The horses that roamed the Northern Great Plains had a significant role in the history of the area. After the Battle of Little Big Horn, or Custerís Last Stand in 1876, Sitting Bull, a Sioux Medicine Man, and some of his chiefs fled into Canada. A short 5 years later in 1881, he and his followers returned and surrendered to the US Army at Fort Buford, North Dakota. Not only were all of Sitting Bullís weapons confiscated but also approximately 350 head of his horses so he would not be able to escape. These horses were sold to local traders who in turn sold 250 head, including all of the mares, to the French Nobleman, the Marquis DeMores. Marquis DeMores, the founder of the town of Medora, was an avid horseman. He intended to breed horses on a large scale and had planned to use the Sioux mares as foundation stock for crossing with his Thoroughbred lines. Most of the remaining horses were sold to the public and soon disappeared as they were not perceived as rare or valuable.


In the summer of 1884, A.C. Huidekoper purchased 60 of the DeMores Sioux mares. The wealthy Pennsylvania family had received 500,000 acres of land from the U. S. Government as repayment for their monetary backing during the Revolutionary War. Huidekoper was one of the earliest large-scale ranchers in North Dakota and had the largest horse breeding operation ever run in the state as well as being one of the largest in the country. His ranch was simply known as the "HT". Following the notoriously brutal and severe blizzard of 1886-87 that wiped out most cattle ranches in the area, Huidekoper switched entirely to raising horses giving testament to the hardiness of the horses of the time. Huidekoper was aware these horses formerly belonged to Sitting Bull and that many of them had been in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He is known to have written of these horses that:

" they carried scars from the rifles of Custerís troops".

Marquis DeMores, along with many of ranchers of the time and area, including Theodore Roosevelt, abandoned their cattle enterprises after the severe winter of 1886-1887. The DeMores left Medora in 1889 and returned to France. He was later killed in Africa in 1896. Upon his death, his foremen rounded up what horses they could and sold them off. Due to the open range breeding practices many horses could not be caught in the rugged terrain of the area. These horses were left and joined with other feral bands that inhabited the area. This area and these horses, in later years, would become part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


At the turn of the century to a period of time up through the 1930ís, roughly after the drought years and the Great Depression, these horses pretty much ran at will throughout the rugged terrain of the Little Missouri Badlands. Open range breeding practices were considered the norm for the times and was common well into the later nineteen hundreds. In addition, it is documented that during the period up to a million horses were driven into the area from the south and the east. Local ranchers would often chase and periodically round up what they could catch for profit or sport. Coming out of the Depression, as more and more ranching and other agricultural activities again began to flourish, this feral horse, commonly known as the Cayuse, the Montana Horse or the common Indian type, not only had a value onto themselves for the slaughter market, but also was seen as an unwanted competition to the cattle industry. As a result, various state and federal agencies along with many locals aligned and began what became a very ugly period. Throughout the 1940ís and 1950ís a cooperative effort to intentionally exterminate all of these animals was undertaken. This effort included frequent round ups for slaughter, shooting them from aircraft and ultimately open season for sport and wanton waste. In parallel with this, in the late 1940ís and early 1950ís was the formation of and fencing of areas creating Theodore Roosevelt National Park. By 1960, the only surviving feral or commonly called, wild horses, in the Badlands of North Dakota, including those horses with at least a partial possible lineage to the remnants of Sitting Bullís bands, are those inadvertently closed within this perimeter fence. This will begin a new era of controversy and hope for the future.


From the early formation of the Park to well into the Ď70ís, Theodore Roosevelt National Park administrators maintained a management philosophy to eliminate and or exterminate all the wild horses within the Park boundaries. It is thought that at some point the entire horse population may have dropped to as few as 20 individuals or less. It is so ironic that this philosophy may well have served to strengthen and improve this future breed by ensuring that only the most intelligent and hardiest survived and continued to propagate the group. Through this same period there was a growing public resentment of the management practices and cruel treatment of these herds. The adoption of the "Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act" passed in 1971 was in part a result of this growing resentment. The National Park Service resisted its inclusion under this act and to this day the management of the remaining horses within the park boundaries is under their control. However, in the late 70ís, in recognition and response to the public sentiment for these horses, Theodore Roosevelt National Park managers decided to maintain a small herd for "historical demonstration" purposes.


The early 80ís can be characterized as a period of change. Theodore Roosevelt National Park managers were beginning to implement change to its herds. Although open range breeding practices had existed since the late 1800ís, the introduction of outside blood was the first and only documented event of its nature and continues to be controversial. These domestic bloodlines, being young, for the most part could in no way could compete with the established horse bands. A series of routine and well documented roundups were held. These roundups were often executed with the use of outriders and helicopters, many times ending in cruel horrific sites.



Key points of interest and topics for future research along the historical timeline of this horse include:

1881...Sitting Bull surrenders and all his horses are confiscated. Local ranchers buy them from Post Traders and begin open range cross breeding practices

1884...AC Huiekoper buys 60 Sitting Bull mares from the Marquis De Mores for his breeding program

1884 - 1930...Cross breeding practices are the norm with preference of the Thoroughbred and Percheron being common.

1870 - 1900...Estimates of up to a million horses are said to have been brought into the area. Horses are shipped in and out by trainloads along with large drives from the south, southwest and east.

1906...AC Huiekoper himself is known to have run 4000 head of horses in the open and unfenced range

1920 - mid 1930...US Army Remount program brought in additional Thoroughbred and Morgan stallions for breeding. Open range breeding still routine and common with few if any of the resulting offspring ever claimed by the US Army as part of the program

1930 - 1940...Dustbowl and Depression Era. The practice of "turnout" of unwanted horses or those not able to be cared for due to the hard times is significant

1900 - 1940...The ranch horse or saddle horse of the period was referred to as the "common horse" of no particular breed and often described as an "Indian type"

1947...Theodore Roosevelt National Park is established and removal of free ranging horses becomes the priority. Local ranchers continue to breed horses within the Parkís unfenced boundaries.

1950...It is estimated that 2 groups of 20 horses each are within the Park. One group is shot and totally destroyed leaving the estimated population at 20 head.

1954...A round up is held that gains national attention. The population is estimated at 200-300 horses. 125 horses are captured and removed, 99% were branded.

1956...The perimeter fence around Theodore Roosevelt National Park is complete and bison are introduced. The removal of trespass horses gains importance with completion of fencing. Even though, trespass grazing and breeding practices continued into the 1980ís. Tom Tescher becomes known as the resident expert on the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and tirelessly continues to be so until approximately 2002.

1965...Considered to be a period in which there was an all time low in the number of horses in the Park with estimates as low as 16 horses

1965 - 1969...Considered to be a period of high stress and low birth rates with a total of 10 foals born over the 4 year period with 8 of them either dying or being killed

1979...Theodore Roosevelt National Park Management Staff agree to maintain a small demonstration herd within the Park for historical purposes.

1981 - 1982...Documented introduction of outside stallions. 4 of which are under 1 year old and 1 is 1 Ĺ years old

1984...The last reports of trespass grazing are noted

1985...One BLM stallion and four other domestics are removed from the Park

1986...Second BLM stallion removed from the Park.

1987...Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials commissioned then student intern, Castle McLaughlin to research the history, origins and status of the Park herd. Tom Tescher a Medora rancher and other wild and Spanish horse experts served as research advisors.

1989... "The History and Status of the Wild Horses of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park", was submitted by Castle McLaughlin and is a must read for a true appreciation of the documented history. Today, Anthropologist, Dr. Castle McLaughlin PhD., is with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

1991...The Brookman and last BLM stallions removed from the Park

1999...Henry and Marylu Weber begin working closely with Tom Tescher and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Staff to document and track the horses within the Park

2003...Tom Tescher retires and Marylu and Henry Weber assume the role of resident experts of the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and continue to assist park staff with various management needs

2009...Theodore Roosevelt National Park holds round-up and public auction. The focus of this round-up was to implement a research project on wild horse birth-control management with Colorado State University. This multi-year project's success, could be instrumental in the development of future low-stress management methods.

2013...Theodore Roosevelt National Park, holds its most recent low-stress round-up of wild horses along with the public auction to sell these horses. The birth-control study continues with Colorado State University. The public auction was a huge success, it was the first time in park history that none of the horses went to kill buyers. The sale also brought in record prices for these horses, high price paid was for a weanling at $2800.00. Wild horse advocate groups including "The Cloud Foundation", "Legacy Mustang Preservation" and "The North Dakota Badlands Horse" worked together tirelessly on behalf of these American treasures.