History & Heritage

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Hoofbeats Across the Silver Screen - As anyone who has spent real time with horses knows, they are so often the teachers in this journey through life. “As we strive to learn the best ways to motivate our horses, they motivate us to be the best that we can be,” says retired movie stunt rider and double, Martha Crawford-Cantarini.

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1930. The Great Depression. Money wasn’t flush anywhere. But savvy and successful businessman Conn Smythe had become the newly minted owner of the Toronto St. Patrick Hockey Club, or Toronto St. Pats. This hockey club was no slouch. It had won the Stanley Cup in 1922.

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Folk tales of the legendary water horses have abounded for centuries. The name “Kelpie” may have come from the Gaelic word “cailpeach” or “colpach,” meaning heifer or colt. The legends are thought to have served the practical purpose of keeping children away from dangerous rushing waters, or warning adolescent girls to be wary of attractive strangers. And maybe the stories arose from the long-ago time when horse sacrifices were practiced in ancient Scandinavia. In historical times, when superstition was at the centre of many pagan cultures, demons and water spirits were a possible way of rationalizing the drowning of young children who had accidentally slipped on dangerous riverbanks.

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The sacrifice of the ten million men who lost their lives during the conflict, which endured from 1914 to 1918, is well known. Less well known is the price paid by the estimated eight million horses that perished in the Great War, a fact lamented by Private James Robert Johnston, a horse transport driver who served with the 14th Canadian Machine Gun Company, in his memoir, Riding into War: “Very little has been said about the horses and mules that were used and what they suffered is beyond all description.”

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In the National Army Museum in London, U.K., a special exhibit features a curious box. The walls on the inside of the box are mirrors, each one reflecting another. Placed inside the box are dozens of cut-out horses. They are all white, unnamed, undefined. But as they reflect back and forth on the mirrors, the little cut-out horses are multiplied into infinity. The image, so simple, is a profound reminder that over eight million horses on all enemy sides died in the horrors of the First World War.

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In 1914, just over one hundred years ago at the start of World War I, Bunny, a strawberry roan gelding from the Toronto Police Mounted Unit, was called upon to serve his country. The Canadian military needed suitable horses to send overseas and the City of Toronto offered to donate mounts to the Canadian artillery. Major McDougall, the officer commanding the 9th Canadian Field Artillery, inspected all their horses and picked 18 of the best. Four of the unit’s officers, including Constable Thomas H. Dundas, enlisted with what became known as the Toronto Battery.

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“I had a home-bred [Morgan] gelding named Duncan,” says Tina Collins, office administrator, Canadian Morgan Horse Association. “Duncan was the type of horse that had to investigate everything. He not only had a humorous personality, but he was incredibly trustworthy and a superior trail horse.

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Riding Vactions in California with Jec Ballou