The commonly accepted story of horses in North America is that colonisers introduced them to the continent. But there was a surviving native breed of horse when the Spanish arrived.
It was a bright day in December 2021 and snow was lightly falling over Mādahòki Farm, an Indigenous visitor attraction and event space just outside Ottawa, Canada. I was at the Pibón (winter) festival, and the Anishinaabe artist Rhonda Snow stepped on a small stage that still seemed to tremble from the exuberant footsteps of just-departed pow wow dancers. Nationally renowned for her vivid Woodlands-style paintings, Snow was here to talk about her lifelong work preserving the endangered Ojibwe spirit horse; the breed, also known as the Lac La Croix Indian pony, is the only known indigenous horse breed in Canada.
Snow explained that she was a young girl living in north-western Ontario when she overheard some elders talking about these small, hardy horses that lived free in the boreal forest. She was captivated.
"I thought to myself, someday I'm going to find them," she said.
She travelled around Indigenous communities and heard many stories of Indigenous peoples' reciprocal relationship with the Ojibwe spirit horse, seeing the animals as guides and teachers. Such as the Métis fishermen who partnered with the horses each winter to haul fish off frozen lakes – although the horses were never domesticated back then, they would use their hooves to create ice fishing holes in return for food and shelter from the fishermen. But, having been culled to near-extinction by European settlers who considered the wild animals a nuisance, the horses themselves were few and far between.
Rhonda Snow's artwork is on display at Mādahòkì Farm (Credit: Karen Gardiner)
That the breed has survived is due to an event Snow depicts in her painting titled The Heist Across the Ice by the Light of the Moon. It's a story that could have been written in Hollywood.
In 1977, only four mares remained on an island in Lac La Croix, north-western Ontario. Having deemed the wild animals a health risk, Canadian health officials made plans to slaughter them. But, before they could do so, four Ojibwe men staged a daring rescue. They rounded up the mares, put them on a trailer and spirited them across the frozen lake and over the border to Minnesota, where they were bred with a Spanish Mustang. Careful management and selective breeding has since revived the Ojibwe spirit horse, which now numbers around 180 and is back in Canada.
The stories Snow heard of the Ojibwe spirit horse's long and close relationship with Indigenous people counter the commonly accepted history of horses in North America. That story goes that horses once ran freely across the continent before going extinct during the last ice age thousands of years ago, and that they remained absent until Europeans arrived. According to Indigenous oral histories and spiritual beliefs, however, horses have always been on the continent they know as Turtle Island, and recent research backs them up.
The Ojibwe spirit horse is the only known indigenous horse breed in Canada (Credit: Karen Gardiner)
The Spanish did bring horses to what is now Mexico in 1519, but research by Dr Yvette Running Horse Collin cites written Spanish accounts that place herds in what is now Georgia and the Carolinas in 1521. Proof, she argues, that horses were here before the Europeans: as Collin notes, it would have been impossible for those Spanish horses to have multiplied and travelled so far in just two years. When it comes to the Ojibwe spirit horse, according to the Ojibwe Horse Society, DNA testing shows they are a separate breed from the horses introduced to North America by Europeans.
When I returned to Mādahòki Farm in November 2022, I saw more evidence that Ojibwe spirit horses have long walked this land. Cultural ambassador Maggie Downer, who is Mohawk, introduced me to the farm's herd – there are no wild herds left – who were fuzzy in their winter coats and clearly built for harsh, northern environments. They had compact, powerful bodies, thick manes, small, hairy ears and extra nose flaps to protect them from the cold.
Mukaday-Wagoosh (Black Fox in Ojibwe), Gwiingwiishi (Grey Jay) and Migzi (Eagle) came rushing over and pushed their muzzles through the fence to be petted. Downer pointed to two-year-old Migzi's distinctively Ojibwe markings – the tiger stripes on his legs and well-pronounced dorsal stripe running down his spine – that the farm hopes will make a prized stud out of him.
This breed faced a lot of the [same] challenges that we did as Indigenous people. They faced eradication
As an ambassador, Downer says her job is to connect with the Indigenous community and the non-Indigenous community alike "to [promote] awareness around Indigenous cultures and that we're still here".
The horses are "four-legged ambassadors", she said. "This breed faced a lot of the [same] challenges that we did as Indigenous people. They faced eradication. But horses are so resilient and have so much to teach us."
The horses are incorporated into the farm's cultural sharing and education programmes (Credit: Karen Gardiner)
The horses are an attraction, but also represent the farm's broader work to reclaim and celebrate Indigenous culture. "Our histories are just so similar," Downer said. As a young Indigenous woman, she sees a symmetry in reclaiming what was lost. "Because it was outlawed by the Canadian government, our young people don't know their histories. It's the same with these horses. There's that connection between us."
In the farm's event space, which was set up to welcome a class participating in one of its Indigenous culture school programmes, Trina Mather-Simard, founder of Indigenous Experiences, which operates the farm, told me that the idea to establish the farm was sparked when she heard Rhonda Snow on a podcast about Ojibwe spirit horses in 2020. "I was just so inspired," she said. "My daughters are long-time equestrians; we've had horses for years. I'm Ojibwe myself and I just couldn't believe I had never heard of [them]."
"I saw a lot of [similarities] to our own story," she continued, "in a way that we can share easily, about their connection to the land, the displacement and the resilience: that they went down to only four of them and yet they're still here."
Cultural ambassador Maggie Downer sees the horses as "four-legged ambassadors" (Credit: Karen Gardiner)
Mather-Simard and her daughters bought four horses from a farm in Alberta and looked for someplace to keep them. At the same time, Indigenous Experiences was searching for a permanent venue as it had been operating from a temporary space outside the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, just across the river from Ottawa. In the 164-acre farm, the company found the perfect solution: with so much land, they could incorporate the horses into their cultural sharing and expand to offer land-based education.
Our community viewed our relationship with the horses as a reciprocal relationship: where our ancestors provided food and protection in harsh winters and the ponies helped the community to survive
And the horses have plenty to teach, said Mather-Simard. "Similar to the [traditional Indigenous culture of giving] thanks for the animals that would give their life to provide food and what was needed for survival," she said, "our community viewed our relationship with the horses as a reciprocalrelationship: where our ancestors provided food and protection in harsh winters and the ponies helped the community to survive, [by helping with] ice fishing or helping to transport goods and people."
Because the Ojibwe regard the horses as kindred spirits – "as equals that are giving back," she added – they callthemselves "caretakers" of the horses, rather than owners.
As well as welcoming visitors to meet the horses, the farm hosts a series of free festivals celebrating the seasons (Credit: Mādahòkì Farm)
Since opening in late 2021, the farm's herd has grown to nine – the most recent addition is a foal named Giizhik (Cedar), born in a snowstorm in April to Wishkossiwika (Sweetgrass). As well as welcoming visitors to meet the horses and visit its market stocked with Indigenous-made art and crafts, the farm hosts a series of free festivals celebrating the seasons.
When I attended the winter festival, I watched Inuit throat singers, feasted on bison stew and bannock (the bread associated with the Indigenous people of Canada), then walked through the forest along the farm's Legacy Trail, which was lined with interpretive signage describing traditional medicinal uses of the plants growing there. Other cultural offerings have included Haudenosaunee corn husk doll-making, a painting class led by Snow and dreamcatcher and moccasin workshops.
The farm sits on traditional Algonquin territory, but it is intentionally inclusive of many different Indigenous cultures. "Because we're in the nation's capital, we're able to, in a small way, introduce that diversity," said Mather-Simard, referring to the fact that Canada is home to hundreds of First Nations as well as Inuit and Métis people.
The farm also operates a culinary training programme, which teaches youth about traditional food production; has an equine assisted learning scheme, which is led by Downer and incorporates the spirit horses; and runs arts and crafts workshops and business development classes for Indigenous artisans.
I asked Mather-Simard about future plans for the farm and she took a deep breath before reeling off a list of ambitious projects, including the arrival of bison to provide traditional food and new forest trails for the spirit horses that more closely resemble their traditional wild habitats.
"Reconciliation rocks" are placed around the farm's Legacy Trail (Credit: Karen Gardiner)
I thought about how close these horses came to disappearing and was touched by the thought of being able to watch them grow and thrive over the coming years. Through sharing Indigenous perspectives, Mather-Simard hopes that Mādahòkì (which means "sharing the land" in Anishnaabe) can serve both as a space where Indigenous communities can reconnect with the land and a site of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Tourism has "really shifted in the last few years as people are searching out their path of reconciliation", she said. "Our industry likes to say that Indigenous tourism is really reconciliation in action because it gives you a tangible way to connect with the community and learn."
At the centre of it all are the Ojibwe spirit horses, themselves living representations of reconciliation. The horses are teachers, said Downer. "They instinctively have compassion for each other in their herd. We need to start translating [their teachings] into our society, as a blended community of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people."
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