FARGO - The family of Leo Kuntz has launched an online fundraiser with the goal of collecting $50,000 to maintain the herd of almost 200 Nokota horses the Linton, N.D., rancher tended.
The horses are descended from horses that came from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Kuntz coined the term Nokota horse, which was named the honorary state horse in 1993.
The family's goal is to be able to take care of the horses for up to a year, allowing time to make long-term arrangements.
The immediate priority is to come up with the money to buy hay to get the horses through winter. The horses need at least six round bales of hay per day in winter, or 180 bales per month, at a cost of $40 to $50 or more per bale, said Felicia Rocholl, one of Kuntz' sisters.
"The horses are actually doing very well right now," she said. Family and friends are taking care of the horses, which also are receiving veterinary care if needed, she said.
To make it easier for supporters to donate money, family and friends have established a fundraiser on gofundme.com, "Save Leo Kuntz' Nokota Horses." As of Friday afternoon, donors had pledged $1,755 toward the $50,000 goal.
Donors also can contribute to Leo Kuntz Benefit, The First State Bank, P.O. Box 129, Beach, N.D., 58621.
Kuntz started buying horses that were removed from the park in the late 1970s. At one point, he had 280 horses, and he struggled financially for years to maintain the herd, important breeding stock for the Nokota horse.
"Leo lived day by day and put all of his money in his horses," Rocholl said. His family has been unable to locate a savings account, and he had only a small balance in his checking account, she said.
The Kuntz family, with nine siblings, has not yet been able to meet as a group to make important decisions about the horses, Rocholl said.
"When we do get organized, we do plan on selling some horses," she said, including the possibility of sales over the internet.
"We're hoping maybe for a miracle," Rocholl said, repeating that the family hopes to keep the herd largely intact. "We're trying to get ready for what comes next, and I'm not sure what that's going to be."
Family and friends have been photographing and videoing the horses and compiling information on the herd. The Kuntz family is grateful to people who have helped or contributed money, Rocholl said.
"Our dream is to somehow keep it going. We're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."
In recent years, Kuntz had focused much of his breeding efforts on lines that produce good therapy horses, an emerging area of demand.
"They're like the Labrador retriever of the horse world," said Christine McGowan, a friend of Kuntz who runs the Nokota Horse Preserve in Chester Springs, Penn. "A lot of that has to do with the selection by the Native Americans."
She added: "There's a reason these horses have adapted for so long, and I'm telling you it has to do with their emotional intelligence."
In partnership with a certified counselor, McGowan uses Nokota horses as therapy animals. In fact, she was first drawn to the breed because of its gentle nature, noticing that a neighbor with one of the horses allowed her young child to ride it.
McGowan said she will be joining others to help preserve the breed, now in jeopardy because of Kuntz' unexpected death. Kuntz had by far the largest herd of Nokotas, which advocates estimate numbers 750 in the United States and Canada.
"The herd now is dangerously, dangerously small," McGowan said. The preservation campaign, she said, "needs a miracle."
Kathryn King Raedeke, a Nokota horse advocate in Ohio and another friend of Kuntz, said Kuntz hated to sell horses because he was trying to maintain diverse bloodlines.
"These horses need an inheritance," she said. "They need a legacy. "It is sort of a dire, sad thing."