'It's miserable': ND rancher's Nokota horse herd to be sold
FARGO — The largest herd of Nokota horses is being dispersed.
The herd was the lifetime work of Leo Kuntz, a 69-year-old rancher near Linton, N.D., who died unexpectedly from injuries suffered in an all-terrain vehicle crash in August while checking on his horses.
His family has begun selling horses from his herd of almost 200, the largest single herd of what is known as the Nokota horse, a hybrid of the Northern Plains that traces part of its ancestry back to Sitting Bull's ponies, confiscated when the Hunkpapa Lakota leader surrendered at Fort Buford in 1881.
Kuntz' family has been listing horses for sale online, including on the Nokota Horse Preservation Ranch page on Facebook, and so far has sold 30 or 40 horses, said Felicia Rocholl, one of Kuntz' sisters.
"We've been working on it," she said. "It's miserable. I hate selling them."
Preserving the herd
The family has been forced to sell horses because Kuntz' siblings can't afford to keep such a large herd, but the sale has been orderly and a desperation sale won't be necessary, Rocholl said.
Early hopes that enough money could be raised to maintain the herd, which backers of the Nokota horse have said is important for breeding, did not materialize.
"We're kind of out of the panic stage," she said, referring to fears that a mass sale might be forced upon them. "Things are working out."
A donor has come forward to buy hay to keep much of the herd on Kuntz's ranch through the winter, and Rocholl's son is caring for the horses on the ranch.
Jodie Hysjulien, of Battleview, N.D., donated the money to buy an estimated 40 to 50 tons of hay. She declined to say how much money she was donating, but said, "It's a lot."
Hysjulien bought two Nokota horses for her granddaughters a few years ago from Kuntz, and she said she wants to help the horses find good homes by arranging for their care through the winter.
"They truly are a treasure," she said. "These horses are drawn to people."
Hysjulien said that, along with her granddaughters, she spent time at Kuntz' ranch. "We became instant friends," she said. "He's got a great heart for these horses."
A combat veteran of the Vietnam War, Kuntz began following the wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the 1970s, eventually buying horses from the park after roundups. His herd grew in time to 275 horses. His brother, Frank Kuntz, and the Nokota Horse Conservancy, a nonprofit that the Kuntz brothers and others formed, also maintain herds of Nokota horses.
Tending such a large herd was a strain financially for Leo Kuntz, who lived with chronic pain, including a hip gunshot wound suffered during the war.
"He was as poor as a church mouse," Hysjulien said. "Everything he had he put in his horses. It was Leo's dream. It was always about the horses."
So far, Rocholl said, horses have sold for between $800 and $3,500 each, and the selling continues.
Besides being sold to buyers in North Dakota, the horses have gone to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states.
"They're going all over," Rocholl said. Although the family is selling horses, Rocholl said she would prefer selling the ranch and horses to a single buyer, if possible.
"I still am hoping somebody comes up and takes it over," she said.
Over the years, Nokotas have attracted owners and supporters around the country, as well as in Europe. The horses are sturdy, intelligent and gentle, making them suitable for a variety of uses, Hysjulien said.
"There's people all over the world who are starting to learn about these horses," she said. Although Kuntz' large herd is being dispersed, she predicts the horse has a bright future. "They will continue to flourish."