Make your move! Wild horses in Canada

by Maren Molthan with excerpts of the National Post

The rare breed Suffield Mustang regenerates in a small herd in the Marlboro Forest of Ontario. Meanwhile Albertans shoot the last examples of the Sundre horses with rifles. Is there a thing like “Canadian Mustangs”?!

Thump! This bunch of grass is ripped off the ground and disappears between Widowmaker’s lips. The dark brown stallion, the waves of his long mane run over his shoulder as he moves, one step, one mouthful, one step, another thump, another step, moving, always moving. The visitor’s eyes light up when Gale O’Grady explains, that this Mustang (from “mesteno”, Spanish, for “ownerless” or “stray”) has never felt anybody riding him. He must at least touch the beast now, but try to approach it. Though its muscled body never moves suddenly, the stallion seems always one step ahead of the horse lover’s careful efforts to come close enough – the horse manages to stay out of arm’s reach, but never runs away. “They are a very unexcited breed. They never run far, only far enough to be out of danger.” Gale O’Grady lays out some other characteristics of an untamed upbringing: “You can see, they move in bands, one stallion can gather up to ten mares, the foals are kept in the middle of the group as they graze, young stallions form bachelor bands, until old enough to challenge the leader or form their own band.”

The O’Gradys are the only breeders of Mustangs in Ontario and maintain what is today probably the biggest Canadian herd of Suffield Mustangs of 30 horses. Five years ago, they brought four pregnant mares, a colt and one mature stallion from out West, having foals every year and refreshing the bloodlines constantly with traded horses from other breeders. The sturdy, highly intelligent and exceptionally healthy horses came from an isolated playground for the genes to improve only under natural selection: The Suffield military base in south-western Alberta. Ever since the last roundup in 1994, most of the remaining few were sold to slaughter­houses. Only the very core found a home on the pastures of concerned horsemen. Now, 23 years and several horse generations later, there are about 300 Suffields traceable with the help of the registry of rare breeds, explains Gale O’Grady.

The Sundre area in Alberta hosts a last herd of a different breed with more curved nose back, to facilitate grazing. About 200 are left, the official government count of 2006 showing 25 less than the year before. Their life could be simple. Four strong legs, which basically solve any possible problem out on the plains. Moving, never grazing one place twice, never finishing the stock completely, leaving it much easier for the ground to recover than under cattle graze. Reforested seedlings are eaten only if the Mustangs are almost starving, and their constant pawing exposes grass for deer.

The galopping symbol of unbreakable freedom. Until a shot rings out to wipe them off their feet or a round up ends their roaming – that has been the end of many Mustangs, as the species does not qualify for federal protection and slaughterhouses pay well. The Canadian government prefers to look at them as being “feral”, meaning derived from domestic stock and not wildlife. But are they so different from wild animals?

The Suffield Mustangs have been left to themselves for about forty years. When the British expropriated local farmers in order to set up the Weapons Testing Range in the third year of the second world war, lots of them left their livestock behind. A roundup in 1945, after the war, counted about 425 horses. Only three years later, the military abandoned the base, leaving behind only a weather station. Twenty years of no military activity went by, with the neighboring farmers using the range as pasture for cattle and horse. In 1965, the military started reusing the range, fencing the land with the horse herds being a lot bigger. By 1994, the natural selection of an unmanaged group of horses had created the Suffield Mustang: an easy keeper, with height from 12 to 17 hands, all colors except grey.

Guss Cothran at the College of Veterinary Medicine of Texas’ reputed A&M University – his colleagues presented a cloned foal there, in 2005 – confirms: “Being isolated and running free for generations, the horses redevelop wildlife skills, e.g. being economic with their energy, thus not running very far from the intruder, and running away another little piece, should he, she, it come too close again. Strong herd instincts are another criteria.” The scientist is involved in research in order to manage genetic health of herds in the US, where the situation seems a little bit better, and the Bureau of Land Management propagates the Mustang as “making excellent riding stock” and organizes auctions of “Excess” – the number of wild horses, that the government researchers consider being too much pressure for the land, trying to find them private owners. But it’s been only been some weeks since the Senate passed a law to prevent them from being sold to slaughterhouses. Cothran explains that genetic tests leave no doubt about the intertwined development, the hoofed spirit has taken through the millenniums: “The vast majority of the North American Mustangs are mongrel, meaning that they are of mixed breed origins. The Przewalski is the only true wild horse remaining and it is different from the domestic in that is has an extra pair of chromosomes. Only a small number of herds, about five percent, show strong evidence of Spanish horses.” Cothran’s genetic testing proved a direct genetic link between wild horses of the BC Brittany Triangle and their Spanish ancestors, where friends of the Nemaiah Valley still fight to have the government recognize their claim on the grounds of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, who proclaimed a wild horse reserve there in 2002. The Sundre variety with its long tail, smaller and sturdier statue simply physically resembles the Caballos of the Spaniards quite obviously. The explanation, that the remaining Canadian wild horses are the great-grand-children of far bigger logging horses, can’t appeal to anyone who takes the time for a closer look.

To confuse things further: the ancestor to all of this, first appeared in North America about 50 000 years ago, gradually shaping the modern horse, equus callabus, only to fade again from this continent 10 000 years ago. However, not all of them fell victim to hunters and ice age, it is believed. Some herds migrated to Eurasia, where they diversified further, under both free and captivated conditions. The Spaniards brought them back to North America in the 1500s, and the escaping horses started to form the legendary Mustang herds that North America once was so known for. Blackfoot raiders introduced the mustangs to Alberta in the 1700s. Explorer David Thompson recorded horses in the Sundre area in 1808. Three million wild horses filled the new continent with life around the 1800s. Now researchers estimate, that there’s not even 8.000 left.

Albertan authorities also organize roundups – a permit costs $280 – but with a lot rougher consequences: a limited number of the horses are sent to slaughter or, the more fortunate ones, sold for breeding. The Wild Horses Of Alberta Association WHOAS would like to stop this drain for a while to allow the horses to expand and renew their gene pool. “WHOAS has never said that the horses should be left totally alone, but we think their numbers should be allowed to recover,” Bob Henderson says. “They are not overrunning the ecosystem.” The WHOAS president describes the unique role of the horses in the harsh conditions of the Canadian West: In winter, rival stallions will allow their herds to mingle for survival, and deer will sometimes take refuge among horse herds to escape wolves. With no new-borns to protect, the Sundre Mustangs let people approach up to 50 m at this time of year – an easy distance to practice your aim. The latest shooting hit two adults and two seven-month-old foals found on January 23rd. Having spent decades in police service in Calgary, Henderson was outraged: “There was still skin on the faces. My reaction was real hurt. Anger. Being a cop all those years, I’m able to turn it off. But my wife, she just cried for the longest time.” On a hunting trip he saw Sundre’s wild horses first in 1972. “They just awed the hell out of me. I knew then what it meant to be free.” The Sundre killings can be prosecuted under Section 444 of the Criminal Code, which carries a penalty of up to five years for anyone who willfully kills or maims an animal. But Henderson would like to see the horses protected under their own legislation. “They are perfectly adapted to fit their environment,” he says. “What we are fighting is attitudes. It’s how you perceive things. They represent part of our history and they are beautiful.”

In Ontario, Gale and Barry O’Grady agree, that the Mustang deserves to enjoy the status of an endangered species: “If some private owners, horse lovers and dedicated individuals didn’t breed it, the Suffield Mustang would be gone by now. The position of the federal government seems bureaucratic and very casual. These animals are a center piece of Canadian heritage. The people around us are fascinated with their beauty. Officials are getting very late to acknowledge, what Mustangs have done for the societies of the North American continent.”

The O’Grady’s have an open doors day in June. They sell their Suffields as friendly and reliable riding horses all year long. Please call for more information or email: 613 283 3650, and make sure to visit their web pages:

All pictures show horses of the O’Gradys stock in Ontario. They were taken by the O’Gradys, Sue Peck and Maren Molthan. We welcome publication in your medium. Please get in touch with the editor BEFORE you publish. Thank you for your consideration!

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