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Groups in N.D. court over horse breed name

BISMARCK -- Two groups that aim to preserve the Nokota, a breed of horse whose origins in the northern Great Plains are a matter of debate, are tangled in a legal dispute over the rights to the name.

BISMARCK -- Two groups that aim to preserve the Nokota, a breed of horse whose origins in the northern Great Plains are a matter of debate, are tangled in a legal dispute over the rights to the name.

The North Dakota-based Nokota Horse Conservancy filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Minnesota-based Nokota Horse Association, claiming the conservancy coined the Nokota name and has a longer history of promoting and protecting the breed.

The Nokota Horse Association contends it owns the legal trademark for the name and says it is not in competition with the conservancy.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland has granted an order temporarily blocking the association from registering or certifying horses as Nokota. A hearing is scheduled in Bismarck for arguments on a preliminary injunction.

Karen Sussman, president of the South Dakota-based International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, said she hopes the dispute can be resolved quickly. "All wild horses are fabulous, and they need to be preserved," she said. "There should be no wild horse groups fighting each other."


Hovland's restraining order came just days before about 80 wild horses from Theodore Roosevelt National Park were auctioned off in Dickinson. The horses were part of a three-day roundup aimed at controlling the size of the park's herd.

Promoters say the Nokota horse is a horse of the Northern Plains with strength, hardiness and intelligence. Some believe the horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are descended from stock of the Plains Indians and frontier ranches, bred as war horses, buffalo runners and saddle horses.

The promoters do not agree on all the details. The conservancy has published materials saying ancestors of Nokota horses include animals confiscated from the people of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, but the association says there is no evidence to support that.

The park has distanced itself from the issue.

Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor says it is impossible to prove or disprove the Nokota theory since samples of horse genetics from pre-settler days do not exist. She says the park horses come from ranch stock that was running loose in the North Dakota Badlands when the park was fenced in the 1950s. The horses are maintained as a "historic demonstration herd."

The Nokota Horse Conservancy is asking the judge to stop the association from using the name, and is seeking more than $1 million in damages. The Linton-based group says former board member David Bernhardt of Wishek, who received a federal trademark for Nokota in 2004, ignored requests to assign the trademark to the conservancy and instead assigned it to the association last April.

Bernhardt's attorney, Sidney Spaeth, said Bernhardt obtained the trademark for a personal breeding operation but later went into the thoroughbred racing horse business. He said the association approached Bernhardt about the Nokota trademark and he assigned it to them at no profit.

The conservancy says it has a "common law" right to the Nokota name -- a right set through precedent rather than through a legal process. It says its registry tracks about 1,000 Nokota horses.


"Defendants (Nokota Horse Association) admit that they did not even own a Nokota horse until 2004, and did not decide to start their own registry until 2009," the conservancy says in court documents. "By contrast, the conservancy and its predecessors have been working ... since the 1980s to save and preserve the Nokota horse."

Dave Robson, one of the association organizers, said the group questions how the conservancy is being operated -- whether it is sending Nokota horses to slaughter and accepting donations for horses the conservancy does not actually own.

"The Nokota Horse Association -- we're not interested in requesting funds, we're not asking for donations of money or equipment ... (the association) does not own any horses and we don't intend to," Robson said.

The conservancy in court documents calls the association claims "mudslinging" and "unsupported personal accusations" and says: "defendants should be restrained from their parasitic efforts to usurp and undermine the decades-long work of the conservancy and its predecessors for their own ends."

The conservancy also says people likely are confused about the two similar groups and that the Nokota Horse Association might register some horses that are not up to Nokota standards.

The association says it is "unreasonable and ridiculous" for the conservancy to assume it has the right to set the standards for Nokota registry.

"Many different breeds of horses, cows, dogs, etc. have more than one registry," it says in court documents. "The plaintiffs are well aware that many other horse organizations have multiple registries for the same breed of horse."

The association has offered to change its name to something such as "Badlands Nokotas" if the lawsuit is dropped -- an offer the conservancy says "is a tacit admission that 'Nokota Horse Association' and 'Nokota Horse Conservancy' are confusingly similar."


On the Net:

Nokota Horse Conservancy: http://nokotahorse.org/cms/

Nokota Horse Association: http://www.nokotahorseassociation.com/

Theodore Roosevelt National Park: http://www.nps.gov/thro/index.htm

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