For veterans that served in the Vietnam War, adjustment to civilian life in America was famously tricky. Some struggled to find themselves back in their home country, but serving soldier Leo Kuntz discovered the path to inner peace. For Kuntz, this involved nature.
Upon returning to American soil, Kuntz relocated to North Dakota and followed wild horses, observing their behavior. This kickstarted a passion for all things equine, and Kuntz became a rider – and eventually racer – of horses.
Always on the lookout for a horse that would potentially leave competitors eating dust on the track, Kuntz noticed the Nokota horses found in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Initially, Kuntz was simply drawn to the power of these horses, famed for their speed and stamina. He invested in a pair in 1978, intending to breed the ultimate racehorse. Kuntz’s instincts served him well, as his horses took to racing like ducks to water. What he did not realize, however, was the Nokota was an endangered breed of horse. Until the intervention of Leo Kuntz, just 200 of these animals were left alive.
Over time, Kuntz purchased more Nokota horses. By 1986 he owned almost 60, but he still assumed that he simply had fast runners on his hands. Intending to sell his collection of racehorses, Kuntz arranged genetic testing to ensure that he was providing accurate information to interested buyers.
The results revealed a surprising truth. The Nokota horses bred by Kuntz were direct descendants of those owned by Sitting Bull, the revolutionary Native American leader of the Lakota tribe and scourge of General Custer.
The Lakota tribe was forced to relinquish their army of war horses in 1876, following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. These horses were sold off throughout the country by American confederate soldiers, and the Lakota tribe assumed that the Nokota was forever lost.
Kuntz was initially concerned about his discovery, assuming that Theodore Roosevelt National Park would demand the return of such a historically significant breed of horse. In reality, the park intended to continue selling and crossbreeding the horses, diluting the Nokota bloodline and ending them closer to eventual extinction.
As a result, Leo Kuntz and his brother Frank took it upon themselves to save the Nokota. Continuing to breed the horses, the Kuntz’s no longer sell them as racers. Now, many of these animals live in the Nokota Horse Conservancy – formerly a family ranch.
The number of Nokota horses now tops over 1,000, and the breed became the state horse of North Dakota. While the treatment of the Lakota tribe will always remain a controversial subject, there is no denying the good that Leo and Frank Kuntz have done.
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