Do Sitting Bull’s horses live wild in the Badlands?

Sitting Bull’s sacred horse descendants – are they at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park?  There’s good reason to think so.
A pair of the wild horses in the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park graze near by me

A pair of the wild horses in the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park graze nearby me


How to meet the Park residents

This one kept getting closer and I kept getting more nervous, so I backed up the hill behind me to watch it wander down the trail

This one kept getting closer and I kept getting more nervous, so I backed up the hill behind me to watch it wander down the trail

Many/some/a few years back, I hiked the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park two or three times a week. It was good healing at a time when I needed it.  Eventually, it led to close encounters with the residents of the Park: elk, bison and the wild horses.

Over the course of that year, I learned where to sit and how to remain patient enough to become part of the environment.  I’ve had a herd of elk run past me, about 10 to 12 feet away.  I’ve had bison graze their way up to near where I sat.

One of a herd of bison contined to graze toward me as I sat cautiously. He got about 8 feet from me until I chickened out.

One of a herd of bison continued to graze toward me as I sat cautiously. He got about 8 feet from me until I chickened out.

Sitting Bull’s spiritual horses

One of my favorite moments of quietness was with the wild horses of the South Unit.  I was not only alone but also lonely.  That may have been what they sensed as they grazed up to me.


This one caught my eye and over time that afternoon, I got close enough to get startling photos of what I later learned was a sacred Medicine Hat horse. There is no single definition of what exactly marks a Medicine Hat horse, and I do not claim to provide the definitive answer.  I’ve read what I could find.

Equine enthusiasts and historians differ, but they seem to agree that a War Bonnet Horse or Medicine Hat horse has distinctive facial or head coloring, usually a “cap” or bonnet that is different from the face.  Others say that the sides of the horse’s face are opposite colors.  Others say that the eyes have to be “painted” or “circled.”  Still, others say at least one eye must be blue, a “heaven eye.”

The blue eye or heaven eye on one side, and brown on the other sets this medicine hat horse apart from the others.

The blue eye or heaven eye on one side, and brown on the other sets this medicine hat horse apart from the others.

The Debate over the horses

The wild horse herd in the South Unit of the TRNP has been the meeting place of years of emotional arguments. Many on one side of the argument say that the core of the herd has a historical lineage that goes through the Marquis D’More to Sitting Bull. I tend to agree with them.

A blue eye was considered a heaven eye. The other eye on this horse is brown.

A blue eye was considered a heaven eye. The other eye on this horse is brown.


Historical documents show that Sitting Bull’s ponies were taken from him and moved around the territory in a series of transactions, beginning with the taking or surrender of about 350 of his people’s horses at Fort Buford.


Some say that the black cap and ears make this a “war bonnet” paint horse and the blue eye gives it special spiritual significance as having a “heaven eye”

The National Park Service does not recognize the research or claims to the historicity of the horses at the South Unit of TRNP.

Tied to Sitting Bull

One of the most outspoken proponents of the idea the wild horses are from Sitting Bull is an authority on the Sioux Chief.  Historian and biographer Robert Utley is known as a top biographer of Sitting Bull and is the former chief historian for the park service. He said historic evidence amassed by Castle McLaughlin, a Harvard anthropologist hired years ago to study the horses at the park, is convincing.

Castle McLaughlin, at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, has linked some of the park’s horses as descendants of ponies surrendered by Sitting Bull and his supporters at Fort Buford in 1881.

Here is the transcript of an interview with McLaughlin

In 1993, the North Dakota Legislature designated the Nokota horse as the official state equine, declaring: “The Nokota breed may well be those distinct horses descended from Sioux Chief Sitting Bull’s war ponies.”

The issue will likely never be settled to everyone’s agreement.  That does not take away the romantic and inspiring impression created by the horses at the South Unit.  Most people will be content to spot the horses from the car as they drive through their park.

But if you want to get to know them, I recommend frequent visits to learn their favorite neighborhoods and spend time nearby. They are smart critters. They will know you are there. You will not sneak up on them. If you have the right spirit about you, they will know that about you, and so will you.

More Information

Here are links to learn more about the Nokota and Medicine Hat horses.

Want more stories like this? Be sure to subscribe!  Wait til you see what’s coming next week!

THE SPIRIT OR MEDICINE HORSE By Nanci Falley of Lockart, Texas[reproduced from Spring 2003 issue of Caution:Horses]

Patrick Springer’s excellent overview of the history as of 2007


A Sunday stroll up Chimney Butte

It doesn't look like a chimney, but that's what it is called, "Chimney Butte."

It doesn’t look like a chimney, but that’s what it is called: “Chimney Butte.”

It’s been called “Chimney Butte” for more than 200 years, but I’m not sure why; it doesn’t look like a smokestack.  Lewis and Clark used it as one of their markers when they trekked the Missouri River a few miles north.  You can find it between Mandaree and Keane between Highways 22 and 23 in McKenzie County.

The McKenzie County road past Chimney Butte is well-maintained and an easy drive.

The McKenzie County road past Chimney Butte is well-maintained and an easy drive.

It was our target for the Sunday hike because for one reason, it’s public-access land.  We didn’t have much time because the sunshine we’d enjoyed all day disappeared; rain clouds moved in at the same time we parked along the road on the south side of the butte — a well-maintained road.

We’ve been adding to our Beautiful Bakken Facebook page and thought this Sunday photo hike would help add to the collection of images displaying the beauty of the Badlands, the Bakken oil field.


Here’s the address –

and our gallery of Beautiful Bakken photos on our website at this address —

Rain approaching from the southwest gave us a sense of urgency.

Rain approaching from the southwest gave us a sense of urgency.

We packed only our cameras and something to drink, then crossed the prairie and up the slope toward the base of the rocks. There, we stopped long enough to survey the incoming rain behind us to the south.

Chimney butte wildflowersOur mission was to photograph a seasonal transition,  capturing the change from early spring’s dormant brown to the more lively green.  A few hints of spring met us along the slope such as the wildflowers sprouting ahead of the green grass.

Once at the base of the rocks, we followed the grass line around to the opposite side where we could more easily follow a switchback to the top.

At our destination, the top, we could survey the entire region of the heart of the Bakken Oil Field, eastern McKenzie County and western Mountrail County.  To the east Chimney Butte’s partner, Table Butte invited us to hike and climb to the top, but we declined. It’s private property and we thought we’d first get the rancher’s permission to climb Table Butte.

Table Butte looks more like a table than Chimney Butte looks like a chimney.

Table Butte to the east looks more like a table than Chimney Butte looks like a chimney.

While at the top, we could see where we’d started and there, a mile or so away, was whatMike shoots from Chimney Butte copy Chimney butte mare and coltlooked like dogs running across the region.  I used my telephoto (as low-power as it is) to try to get a better glimpse. It wasn’t dogs, it was a pair of colts.  I zoomed in on one when it ran back to its mother at water’s edge.

After resting a bit, we hiked back down the easy side.  It would have been faster to go down the rock side, but that would mean a jump of 70 or 80 feet.

At the bottom, we hiked back across the grassland base.  Over the hill, a different sign of spring watched us — a mare and her colt. This was not the same ones we had watched when we were up on top.white mare black colt appear over the hill

white mare black colt walk by in the trees sigWe stopped to see if the white mare and black cold would get closer. We were between them and the water — their apparent goal.  Mom chimney butte white mare black coltprotected her babe, so they skirted around us. We stopped, watched and photographed their patient easy stroll past us.   They disappeared over the hill.




Oh, and those first two colts we spotted?  They had moved on, but not far. We looked around for them, but they were safely out of sight. We got back in to our pickup and drove around Chimney Butte to the east side.  There they were! The mares and their colts didn’t mind us driving by. We stopped long enough to grab a shot or two of spring’s new life.two colts and a mare on a hillside

two colts








two mares two coltsWe’d met our goal. We’d captured signs of spring in the beautiful Bakken region of North Dakota where nature underground is yielding a harvest of plenty and where nature above the ground displays the beauty we’ve come to see.

Horse Play

Eye contact!

Eye contact!

Be observant.

Be ready.

I was halfway there.  I was observant, but not necessarily ready.

One afternoon, I’d gone out to shoot stock photos of the energy industry activity in western North Dakota.  I was west of Dickinson shooting long shots of an oil refinery under construction.  It was a grey sunless day. The diffused light dampened the contrast and color.  So, I didn’t waste much time or effort to shoot grey, lifeless photos of a construction project.  I turned around on the gravel road and headed back to Highway 10.  Then I saw it: life!

An appaloosa dances while the rest of the herd watches

An appaloosa dances while the rest of the herd watches

Across the road, a herd of horses horsed around. Horse play!  And wow, they were playing!

App dances, white walks away wtrmrkScampering!


Two appaloosas and a white or albino took turns dancing, jumping, running.  It was like watching kittens or puppies play. Entertaining and joyful.  Their antics were captivating; I forgot  camera settings.

three horses play wtrmrkObservant, I’d caught the action before I drove past, but I wasn’t quite ready.  My camera was still set for the dark images of the construction site.  I stepped outside my pickup and shot. Adjusting the camera between shots just a bit at a time, I monitored the playground to see how these playful critters scooted about.

White and App kick and run

I’m sure the gaiety lasted longer than my short time allowed.  I could have sat for hours to watch the merriment – but alas, I was supposed to be “on the job.”  I had appointments to keep. So, discipline topped enjoyment.  I left the herd in revelry while I headed off to responsibility.  Now, I’m home, I see that why I was mesmerized by the play.  So, I posted the set of images on my website.

How long would you have stayed to watch?

Ride for St. Judes at Ft Lincoln

Custer's home hosts riders again -- a reminder of 1875.

Custer’s home hosts riders again — a reminder of 1875.

Shades of history were repeated for children at St. Jude’s hospital.  A century ago, riders here were in a protective mode. This time, they’re in a supportive role.

Riders organize before the start of the trail ride fund raiser

Riders organize before the start of the trail ride fund-raiser

It was more than 130 years ago when blue-coated riders rode the hills along the west side of the Missouri River at Fort Abraham Lincoln.  Soldiers were posted there to protect railroad workers building the Northern Pacific Railroad, but their mission changed in the ill-begotten battle at Little Big Horn.

This summer, nearly 100 riders covered the hills above the Missouri at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park to raise thousands of dollars for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.  It was one of the best shoots I’ve ever been on. All the photos are here

Riders at the block houses

Riders at the block houses

I got a copy of the map where they’d ride and I intercepted them at various points such as at the blockhouses on a hill overlooking the valley.

A gorgeous day for weather, not too hot, not at all chilly, a good day for soaking up sun and riding without stressing the horses.

Past the blockhouses, the ride went past the original cemetery at the fort — an eerie reminder of life a century ago when people were considered “old” at 45.

Riding past the Ft. Lincoln cemetery

Riding past the Ft. Lincoln cemetery

Riders on hill

Riders in a line come up the hill

The ride started in the valley and went up the hill across the prairie and through the trees.  It was an easy pace — thankfully so that I could catch them at various points.

A family-centered kind of ride where children were more than welcomed — they were encouraged to get on board the powerful horses who gently submitted to the young hands.

Boy gets up Little girl rider

Then, it went back down to the river, and along the trees, out of the sun and in to the cooling shade.

Riding through the trees

Riding through the trees

Once back at the start, later that afternoon, a pot luck feed gave riders a feast that matched the greatness of the ride they just completed.  Grilled burgers, hot dogs and all the other kind of summer picnic food we love.

Good food, good chow line

Good food, good chow line

In the end, the ride raised several thousand dollars for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital — one of several rides in the nation to support the hospital.  Plans are already underway for next year’s ride.  Until then, here is where this year’s photographs are stored

Enjoying the summer rodeo tradition

It’s a local tradition and I’m fortunate enough to have caught it every year for some time now.

Hope Peterson

Hope 2010

Every year, I look for one strikingly good-looking cowgirl. I first shot her in 2010.

Hope 2013

Hope 2013

Now she’s in college, but still riding Ladies Breakaway.

The annual Wing Rodeo draws a good bunch of area cowboys, rodeo fans and some fairly rank stock.

Cowboy loses to the horse

Cowboy loses to the horse

Most of the time in the cowboy vs stock competition, the stock wins.  This year, the stock was erratic. Some didn’t buck or try to dismount the cowboy. When the gate opened, the horse just stood still.

But when the stock fought fiercely, the cowboy lost. Take a look at this series that put the cowboy and bronc both on the ground.  Look at this series of images to see how tough it is to stay seated…

Saddlebronc 1 wtrmrk Saddlebronc 2 wtrmrk Saddlebronc 3 wtrmrk Saddlebronc 4 wtrmrk

Wing is nGrandpa and little cowpokeot a very big town, only about 200 people, but come rodeo day, the town grows to a couple thousand.    Neighbors and families relax.  Patriotism abounds.

Cowboy salute to the flag

Cowboy salute to the flag

Rodeo quees and flagsCrowd and Nat Anthem wtrmrk

Cowboys and cowgirls socialize.Cowgirls at the fence

orange cowboy hits the groundAnd I get a few good pics,

This year, just before the bulls, storms moved in and I moved out.  But for the money, it was a great night of entertainment.Cowgirl preps for breakaway

Wing Rodeo

Hit the dust!

I love the Wing Rodeo — named after the little burg where the event has been held for decades.  It’s as down-home Americana as you can get.  Cowboys and cowgirls from around the region gather to compete not only against each other but against the critters they ride and rope.

Ride 'em cowboy

This year, the weather was better than some years when snow and rain made a mess of things.  This year, warm sunny weather gave competitors a brilliant day.  Even the broncs felt invigorated.  Not one of the cowboys beat the broncs to stay in the saddle til the buzzer.

I and may camera spent a couple hours at the rodeo until the clouds moved in and I lost my natural light.   The natural light of the golden hour was awesome, but those dang clouds turn even the nicest golds in to blues.

Keeping in mind the contest of the down home old fashioned event, in post processing I turned a few of the images into something more appropriate for the event.






















June 27

As further testimony to what I wrote a couple of days ago, North Dakota’s beauty is captured easily if you look for it.

I returned a mile or two from where I was two days ago to once again capture North Dakota’s beauty, but this time instead of landscape, I sought out life on the prairie.  This herd of  horses caught my eye, especially the colts laying in the grass, guarded by their mothers.  It’s a pastoral ranch scene if I ever saw one.

The weather conditions were perfect for such peaceful imagery.  Skies were mostly blue with a few white puffy cumulus clouds.  The winds were light and the herd of horses was at peace.

There aren’t very many herds like this here, where mares and colts are in abundance. Most farms and ranches have one or two horses, of a small herd, but none quite with this number.  It’s a rather large remuda, or ramada as it may have been called if it were on a Texas cattle drive.

Not far from the horse herd was a good size herd of Angus grazing on the hillside.  I’m not sure if they were part of the same operation, but either way, the hills and herds produced a romantic kind of imagery for an early summer afternoon.  This was one of my favorite shoots so far this year, and it was just 20 miles or so east of where I live.  How far do you have to travel to find life in the landscapes near you?

June 12

Big hat for a little guy

Grassroots family fun. The ranch families from around the Northern Plains gather in their small towns for a little friendly competition — rodeo.  And as much as it’s about horses and

Game face

Ride 'em cowgirl

roping, it’s about families and kids.  Like this little guy. He’ll grow in to and eventually out of that straw hat he’s wearing.  Or the little fella riding a hobby-horse around the bales, trying to beat the clock.  He’s trying as hard to win as his older kin are trying to win the events in the big arena.

It’s not a men-only sport, or even women-only. Girls and boys both get in to the Wing Rodeo action.  And no matter the age, they give it their best shot.

Cowboy snags the calf, now to tie it

Something tells me, however, that the older you get, the more pain in involved.  I have a feeling that these young cowboys have to work their way up from a hobby-horse to riding a mad bronc, and pain tolerance is probably a big factor.

Riding a bronc

Outta the saddle

ready to bite the dust

May 21

Green grass red barn

Man it’s green!

I don’t know what these horses were looking at, but I was looking at their pen and all the green grass there.  I wonder if during the winter when their diet is mostly hay, if they long for the taste of soft chewy grass.

It was late afternoon when I drove down a gravel road west of Wilton toward the river. There wasn’t much light left as clouds were moving in. So, once I got an image of these horses turned out to spring grass, I had my one-a-day.

Lazy, I know.

April 11

It’s not easy to find good grazing this time of year, but like these horses east of Wilton, a little bit of green can be found close to the ground.

I found these horses where they live year-round on the edge of the Wilton Mine slag piles,  a ranch/farm that has turned the unusable ground in to pasture.  The slag piles are all that remain of the underground lignite coal mines that once flourished on the east edge of town.  Now the region is agriculture based, farming.  Much of the ground where these horses feed is pasture ground.  Not only are the hilly slag piles impossible to farm, the region is a bit dangerous.  Sometimes a mine shaft will open up and swallow the tractor trying to work the region.  Well, at least it used to be like that.  No tractors have been swallowed that I know of for 20 years or so.  Still, when a pit opens up while a farmer is trying to till the soil, it can cause his tractor or other equipment to fall in to the pit and break an axle.

So, eat on, horses.  The slag piles are good food for you.