LINTON, N.D. — Frank and Leo Kuntz worked together for years to help preserve a breed of horses that originated in the rugged Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The Nokota horse is descended from American Indian ponies and ranch stock that got loose — or were turned loose — and took refuge in the labyrinthine Little Missouri River Badlands.
Efforts to preserve the Nokota breed, which is the official North Dakota equine, were placed in jeopardy three years ago when Leo Kuntz died unexpectedly.
Frank Kuntz stepped in and bought many of Leo’s horses, with an eye for important breeding stock that would help keep the Nokota line going. He now owns a herd of about 220 horses. He also cares for 84 horses owned by the Nokota Horse Conservancy.
The approximately 300 horses on his ranch near the bluffs of the Missouri River represent the largest breeding repository of Nokota horses, whose owners are scattered across the United States and parts of Europe.
But a troublesome question nags those who care about the Nokota horse: What will happen to Frank Kuntz’s horses when he’s gone?
At 70 years of age, battling cancer and now without Leo, Kuntz doesn’t entertain any illusions about his mortality.
“I’m looking for another good 10 or 12 years,” he said.
'Gold on our hands'
Ejaz Khan is a fashion and wildlife photographer who heard about the Nokota horses on the North Dakota plains and came to Kuntz’s ranch to photograph the herd. He found more than he expected.
“I met with Frank and his horses and fell in love with the horses and the area and the landscape, all of it,” Khan said.
Khan, whose fashion photography studio is in New York City, kept coming back to the ranch to photograph and film the horses. Over time, he came to know Kuntz and to learn about his financial and health struggles in keeping the herd going.
“This has to be a story that needs to be told to the world,” Khan said. So he decided to make a documentary film about Kuntz and his Nokotas. “He has dedicated his entire life to this herd.”
But after repeated attempts, Khan was dissatisfied with the results. Finally, he gave up on the idea of making a documentary and decided instead to tell the story as a feature film, a familiar form. His short 2011 dramatic film, “Legacy,” was screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.
“I decided I am not a documentary filmmaker,” Khan said.
Over a period of more than two years, he extensively filmed Kuntz’s herd near Linton as well as Kuntz and family and friends who help him in his equine preservation work, an effort Khan has embraced.
The result is a 90-minute feature film, “Vanishing Knowledge,” that Khan hopes to show at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I believe we have gold on our hands,” he said.
Instead of hiring actors, Khan had Kuntz and the others portray themselves in the film. He took a few liberties with the story, but mostly adhered to the facts.
“It’s got some Hollywood in it,” Kuntz said. The film’s portrayal of his battle with cancer is more dire than what Kuntz is experiencing. The cancer appears to be in remission, but he goes in for regular treatments.
Kuntz believes the cancer resulted from his exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
“It’s not going away, but it’s somewhat under control, I think,” he said. Kuntz also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I came back with a lot of anger issues from Vietnam,” Kuntz said. His brother Leo, also a Vietnam combat vet, began following the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The brothers began buying the park horses at sales following roundups, originally because their traits made them ideally suited for endurance horse races that Leo entered.
In time, the brothers named the horses Nokota and worked to preserve the breed, with help from others through the nonprofit Nokota Horse Conservancy. “It was something that Leo and I both felt needed to be done,” Kuntz said.
He hopes awareness generated by “Vanishing Knowledge” will help to establish a sanctuary for the horses, a long-held dream. “It’ll be a great film for the horses,” Kuntz said. “It’ll show some great scenery and beautiful horses.”
Khan’s career in photography began in the world of fashion in the studios of New York City.
But a trip to Alaska, with its rugged beauty and stirring wildlife, opened a new world for his lenses to capture.
He’s photographed lots of large mammals in the wild, and photographed horses in France and Norway before focusing on the Nokotas. His approach is different from that of most wildlife photographers.
“I don’t follow the lines of wildlife,” Khan said. “I follow the lines of fashion.” He calls fashion photography his kindergarten.
He strives for realism, but the hallmark of a good photograph is the emotional power it conveys, whether the subject is a fashion model or a horse or a grizzly bear. A shoot, which can involve hours and hours, is a failure if it doesn’t capture the subject’s emotion.
“It’s there or it's not,” Khan said. “It’s very simple.”
Models are paid, but animals aren’t — a disparity that prompted Khan to seek animal subjects whose cause he can champion through his photography and filmmaking as a means of payback.
Almost half of the proceeds from the film, 49%, will be donated to help care for the horses.
'Wild but mild'
The storyline of the movie is driven by a question that has come to haunt Khan: Who will take care of the horses after Frank is gone?
“No one has an answer,” he said. “His family doesn’t have the means of taking care of 300 horses.”
Christine McGowan uses Nokota horses as therapy animals, work she’s been involved in at a preserve on her 14-acre farm in Pennsylvania for a decade.
Because they come from horses that have been feral in the park for generations, the Nokotas have retained the ability to match their heart rate with other members of their herd, including humans they have bonded with. That ability helps them to put people at ease and makes them invaluable as therapy horses, McGowan said. She considers the horses “wild but mild.”
“It’s because of the original language they have that hasn’t been diluted by human interaction and domestication,” she added. “Beyond the historical value there’s what I would call a functional value of the horses in the therapeutic world.”
She recently became president of the Nokota Horse Conservancy with the aim of finding a way to sustain the herd in Kuntz’s care.
“We have to create resources in order to support the herd long-term,” including land for a sanctuary, she said. “That’s what I work on every single day.”
The Nokota foundation herd should remain in North Dakota, where they have adapted to harsh elements that make them unique. “The horses need to stay where they naturally thrive,” McGowan said.
Also, someone with a deep understanding of horses and breeding will be required, ideally someone Kuntz can mentor. “It’s unimaginable to me not to have Frank.”