Photographs by Jim Graham
In the vast plains of North Dakota’s Little Missouri Badlands, thousands of native horses once roamed free. They evolved into hearty stock, revered for their power, intelligence, adaptability and ability to weather the difficult northern winters. They’ve even been linked to Sitting Bull, the iconic leader of the Lakota tribe.
These undomesticated heritage horses survived climate shifts and western expansion. But with the creation of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a number of them were inadvertently fenced into federal land. Others were wiped out or sold, many for slaughter. And while their enclosure provided some protection from predators, the horses ultimately weren’t welcome in the parks. Over several decades, the National Park Service rounded up and removed many of the last remaining horses, maintaining only a small herd for demonstration purposes.
Thousands of miles from North Dakota, Chester Springs is the unlikely home to a select number of Nokotas. At any given time, anywhere from 10 to 14 horses roam on Christine McGowan’s 14-acre farm, which she’s dubbed the Preserve. Right now, McGowan has 14 Nokotas, plus a pet duck, four dogs, three goats and two cats. “We’re tiny and mighty,” McGowan says of her nonprofit, which was officially established in 2016.
Wanting to create a more aesthetically pleasing horse, the National Park Service set out to breed Nokotas with non-native horses, diluting their bloodlines. In 1986, brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz began purchasing the horses, founding the Nokota Horse Conservancy in 1999 and beginning a breed registry. Like the Kuntzs, McGowan is intent on preserving the horses and much of their intrinsic nature. Ten years ago, she’d never even heard of the breed.
Long a horse enthusiast, McGowan was introduced to the Nokotas by a neighbor who rode over on one, toddler in tow. She was immediately struck by the horse’s temperament. “[Being around the horse] gave me a different sense of calm and worth that I’d really not experienced before or after,” she recalls.
Learning about the Kuntzs, McGowan and her family traveled to one of their clinics in Ohio. A graduate of the Baldwin School and the University of Pennsylvania, she’d had a long career with Ralph Lauren and other fashion houses. But she was looking for a sense of connection and purpose. “I was particularly interested in the quality of the mind,” she says of the Nokota.
In Ohio, McGowan and her daughter, Neva, acquired Moon and Kachina, two mares. “There was a huge learning curve,” she admits. “The horses were very tolerant.”
These days, McGowan is focused on maintaining the Nokotas’ way of life, encouraging natural horsemanship and understanding and preserving their language. “Rather than trying to force-feed the horse with our information, you try
to draw out a successful behavior,” she says.
That methodology is decidedly different than what many modern trainers employ with thoroughbreds. Rather than breaking a Nokota, it’s about establishing trust and encouraging particular behaviors, often without much tack equipment. Nokotas have traditionally been considered a prey animal, so trust is crucial. “When you get next to a horse—especially a feral horse that’s worried about being eaten—their choices for forming relationships are highly acute,” says McGowan. “They become an incredibly good read on character and authenticity.”
Nokotas try to match their heart rate to anything they consider a potential predator, including people they’re unfamiliar with. “It creates this incredible response in the human,” she says.
The dean emeritus of the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and a special assistant to the president, Dr. Darlyne Bailey was at a crossroads when the Nokotas came into her life. Having recently lost her mom and weighing career options, Bailey found peace when she adopted Ana. “It was a time when all your senses are acute because you’ve been cracked wide open,” recalls Bailey of the difficult loss of her mother. “That started a whole series of questions about remembering how fragile life is, how short it can be, how precious it is, and who I wanted to be. How do I want to show up? What’s calling me into existence for this next phase of my life?”
Nokotas would provide part of the answer. Like McGowan, Bailey had loved horses but wasn’t familiar with the breed. “There’s something very magical and mystical about horses in general—and Nokotas in particular,” she says.
After visiting the preserve, Bailey soon had Ana, a once frail and sickly foal that almost didn’t survive. Thanks to plenty of nurturing from McGowan and Neva, she thrived at the preserve, where she boards. Bailey believes Ana’s early struggles helped her develop into the strong and resilient horse she is today. “She’s been given so much love,” Bailey says. “And because of the ancient wisdom that these horses carry, the combination has made her very otherworldly yet very grounded.”
A specialist in macro social work, Bailey has teamed up with McGowan and Bryn Mawr alum Ryan Bailey to write a guidebook on the relationship between herd and organizational leadership. Looking at the ways the horses communicate and relate to one another, they want to learn from and preserve their unique language. “We’re concerned about losing that dynamic,” says McGowan. “That original language is something that, once lost, will not be re-found.”
From the research, Bailey has developed seven elements of effective leadership, a model she believes is applicable in both the field and the boardroom. “Human beings tend to rush and be very impatient—not only with ourselves but also with others,” she says. “Working with Ana, I’ve learned to focus more on setting her up for success and waiting until she’s ready to do something—even something as simple as coming to me. It’s taught me much more about patience than any books or classes.”
As with the techniques applied to the Nokota, natural horsemanship is at work in their research. “There’s no breaking that goes on at all, unless it’s breaking past the stereotypical images we human beings have of these horses,” says Bailey.
McGowan notes the Nokotas’ resilience through time and trauma. “What we can learn from them is immeasurable,” she says. “Their language is so much more refined and sweet. And it’s so delicate, where our language is loud and almost overbearing. It’s actually these little tiny movements, like a flick of an ear or a gesture, that you can see when they’re with each other.”
The book is expected to be out sometime next year. McGowan hopes it will be used “almost as a manual” for people who work with horses and those in organizational leadership positions. Also expected next year: Vanishing Knowledge, a documentary film by Ejaz Kahn that shares the story of the horses, along with the story of the Kuntzs, McGowan and others working to preserve their legacy.
Meanwhile, McGowan continues to focus on the day-to-day aspects of preserving the species, both here and in North Dakota. Each fall, a trailer of 15-20 horses arrives in Chester Springs, most headed to new homes across the East Coast. Their arrival always generates excitement in the community, which turns out for the event in late October. This pandemic year, things are a bit different, but the goal remains the same. It’s a major fundraiser for the Preserve. “It’s almost an impossible task financially to do what’s being done,” McGowan says of the Kuntzs’ work in North Dakota.
At present, approximately 2,000 horses are listed on the Nokota breed registry, a vast majority existing in two managed herds in North Dakota. Others live with owners like McGowan throughout the country. Since launching, the preserve has found homes for about 40 Nokotas, and McGowan hopes her farm can serve as a model for others. “There are a number of areas in our country where a preserve like this could reach out to a whole new group of people,” she says, insisting she’s simply a bridge on the horses’ journey.
But a bridge is a key piece of infrastructure on any journey. It’s a link to hope.