Ojibwa horses are endangered, but some Canadian ranches are determined to keep them alive.

not booked50:00The Return of the Spiritual Horse Ojibwa

Darcy Whitecrow remembers when, some 50 years ago, small horses lived alongside her community of Seine River First Nation in northwest Ontario.

“We lived in a beautiful, secluded community where the horses roamed free like deer,” Whitecrow said. “Whenever you needed a horse, they would get one because he ate outside, outside the tent.”

He said animals have a natural relationship with people in his Anishinaabe community. “They just stayed close to the communities, maybe because they felt safer.”

Horses were so important to his people that the main road near the reserve is called Horse Collar Junction, he said.

But Whitecrow also remembers the disappearance of these little horses. He was about five or six years old at the time – and no one on the River Seine thought the horses would come back.

Ojibwe horses are small – between one and 1.5 meters – and robust. They usually have a dark stripe on their backs. (Laura Beaulne-Stuebing/CBC)

Called the Lac La Croix Indian pony or Ojibway horse, the small North American breed is believed to have lived primarily in the boreal forests around the Great Lakes before European contact, although evidence suggests it may have lived across the continent. .

DNA tests show it is a separate breed from the horses brought to North America by Europeans, according to the Ojibwe Horse Society.

They were traditional helpers and helped the Anishinaabe check trap lines, move goods and transport them.

But European settlers were not so fond of these little horses. Most of the animals were culled because, as wild animals that roamed free – they grazed in farmers’ fields and bred near settlements, bothering the missionaries – they were considered a “nuisance”.

Today, although their numbers remain small, Ojibway horses have a chance of survival thanks to the help they have received from people who have dedicated their lives to saving the breed.

“Useless Little Ponies”

As a young man living in Fort Frances, Ontario in the 1970s, Rhonda Snow heard elders and loggers talk about these mighty little horses. Her stories intrigued and inspired her.

“The Anishinaabe learned from these little ponies…they were their teachers,” she said. “They were selectively bred in the wild. The strong survived and the Creator somehow found out. Without any human influence, they were the strongest ponies.”

But Snow didn’t see a single Ojibwa horse until he was full grown.

On the left is a woman next to a horse and on the right is a colorful painting of two horses.
Rhonda Snow raised funds to bring three horses from the United States to Ontario. She is also an artist who paints some of the stories she has heard about the Ojibwe Spirit Horses in bright forest-style scenes. (Submitted by Rhonda Snow)

According to the Ojibwe Horse Society, a voluntary organization that promotes and protects the endangered breed, in 1977 there were only four mares left in the Lac La Croix First Nation area of ​​northwestern Utah, Ontario, near the U.S. border with Minnesota.

To save them from being slaughtered, a group of men from the United States and Canada took the mares to Minnesota, where they were mated to a Spanish Mustang.

Around 2004, when Snow learned that some of these horses were still living in Minnesota, she pooled all the funds she could find and brought three horses back to Fort Frances.

She has since dedicated her life to finding what’s left of these animals and bringing them back to the areas where they used to live. She traveled to First Nations communities in Canada and the United States, spoke with elders and scoured archives to piece together the animal’s history.

Two horses are in a paddock, grazing grass.
DNA tests show that Ojibwe spirit horses are a separate breed from the horses brought to North America by Europeans, according to the Ojibwe Horse Society. (Laura Beaulne-Stuebing/CBC)

As part of that research, Snow discovered an Indian Affairs report that called the animals “useless little ponies”.

“They were a nuisance. They weren’t worth anything. Everything is documented,” Snow said. “So the pressure was [on] to get rid of him, and many ancient chiefs fought for a long time.”

The race is still in danger; there are less than 200 Ojibway horses alive today. But since Snow brought them back from the United States, the population has slowly increased and the breed can now be found on farms in Ontario and on the prairies.

Go home

The Ojibway horse’s return to Seine River, Ontario, is down to Whitecrow, his partner Kim Campbell – and a little bit of luck.

The two were looking for a way to reduce the dropout rate in the region.

“I was a horse lover. I’ve always been. And I had some horses,” Campbell said. Watching Whitecrow’s children – her stepchildren – get involved with horses inspired the couple to start an after-school equine program for young people.

At first, they traveled from ranch to ranch to run the program. They later decided to open their own, called Gray Raven Ranch, and run the program there using Campbell’s horses.

Ojibwa horses are endangered, but some Canadian ranches are determined to keep them alive.

Once nearly extinct, Ojibwa spirit horses are making a comeback

Trina Mather-Simard, director of events company Indigenous Experiences, says the rare breed of horse was used to run wild in the region and now represents an opportunity to share indigenous culture.

Campbell, who is from northern Michigan, had never heard of the Ojibwe horse, and Whitecrow thought they were all extinct. But unexpectedly, they came across a farm that had a small population of the rare breed.

When the owner had a hard time, the couple managed to buy the horses and, after an absence of five decades, finally brought them back to the Seine.

“The elders were crying and crying a lot the day we brought the horses back to the concentration camp and said they would still be there,” Whitecrow said. “It was a very special moment.”

horses as masters

Gray Raven Ranch’s youth program isn’t just about riding or brushing horses.

“I let the horse be the teacher… It reflects everything you feel. Your nervousness, your fear, your happiness, your joy, your excitement,” Whitecrow said.

We are creating a legacy of a horse that is a critically endangered species… a horse that is from our ancestors. And it’s so important that we keep the race.-Darcy White Raven

While youngsters may be scared at first, Whitecrow assures them that horses are like big dogs. They are strong animals, but also affectionate and loyal.

“Horse really helps you open up things that you don’t normally trust or open up in, say, a high school setting,” Whitecrow added.

Currently, his focus has shifted more towards breeding to help the Ojibwe horse survive.

“What we are really doing here is creating a legacy of a horse that is a critically endangered species. The horse that would become no more; a horse that is from our ancestors. And it’s so important that we keep the race. “, said White Crow.

“I keep telling young people… for them, we’re just digging horse shit, riding horses, playing with horses,” he said. “But the reality is… long after we’re all gone, those horses will still be here because of the effort you put in.”

At home in a big city

Several Ojibwa horses also live at Madahoki Farm, an events and tourism venue that promotes and celebrates indigenous cultures in Ottawa.

“We were really inspired by their story,” said general manager Trina Mather-Simard. “And so we brought some horses back to Ottawa and started looking for an opportunity on the farm.”

Mather-Simard, who is a member of Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough, Ontario, and whose daughters are equestrians, has since known that these horses lived alongside their own ancestors.

Ojibwa horses are endangered, but some Canadian ranches are determined to keep them alive.
Trina Mather-Simard, Executive Director of Indigenous Experiences, is alongside two of the four Ojibway horses that live at Mādahòkì Farm in Ottawa’s Green Belt. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

The farm is creating forest trails to recreate the horse’s natural environment and is piloting a horse-assisted learning program this fall, with the goal of opening the program to the entire community in 2023.

But the ultimate goal of having Ojibwa horses at Madahoki Farm is to spread the word about them and how they were – and are – important to the Anishinaabe.

“I think they share such a strong history of resilience,” Mather-Simard said. “It’s so important for me to see this race continue and for as many Canadians and visitors as possible to know about them…and the fact that they are still around when we almost lost them.”

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