A Country Built by Horse Power
By Margaret Evans
The relationship between horses and people in Canada is rich, deep, and ancient. And the story of horses in our country is as old as time itself. To understand the horse’s place in our lives today, we need to look back through the pages of history.
Why Did Horses Die Out in North America?
Horses evolved in North America some 55 million years ago when they were just the size of beagle dogs with several toes on each foot. They scuttled about in the undergrowth, lunching on ferns and fruit while dodging the danger of being someone else’s lunch. But as climates changed, those early species either adapted or died out. As the more successful horse species co-evolved with their habitat, they went on to develop into the fleet-footed, grassland, socially dependent, successful herd animal we love today.
Skull of 700,000-year-old horse found in permafrost in Thistle Creek Gold Mine in Yukon in 2003. Photo: Duane Froese, University of Alberta, Edmonton
The ancestor that gave rise to the modern genus Equus appeared about 4.5 million years ago, and 2.5 million years ago some of them migrated across the Bering Land Bridge linking Siberia and Alaska. The bridge named Beringia – actually a huge expanse of land about the size of British Columbia and Yukon combined - was exposed at the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch 2.5 million years ago as the climate cooled, sea levels dropped, and the Ice Age began.
But Beringia remained ice free and the climate generated a cold steppe tundra that supported large grazing animals on which the very first people drifting into Beringia depended 24,000 years ago.
The climate, forever changing, changed again. The world warmed, glaciers retreated releasing billions of litres of fresh water, and sea levels rose and began to swallow Beringia. The shrinking region grew more warm and moist, and shrub tundra incapable of supporting large grazing animals replaced the grassland steppe. This time, the horses along with other large mammals were unable to adapt. After 55 million years, the chapter closed on horses in North America as, some 10,000 years ago, they disappeared.
Horses Return, Exploration and Settlement Follow
Horses would return to North America with the Spanish. Italian voyager Christopher Columbus, under the auspices of the Catholic monarch of Spain, sailed to Central America and imported horses to the West Indies on his second voyage in 1493. Horses came to the mainland in 1519 with Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés who sailed to Yucatan with 11 ships, 508 men, and 16 horses. More Spanish explorers with soldiers and horses arrived in the 1520s and in the 1530s, supply centres for horses were set up in Mexico and Central America. Some horses were let loose and some likely escaped. Horses used by explorers such as De Soto and Coronado in 1541 likely resulted in more strays. But there were enough free horses to band together, breed, and spread. As a grassland animal, they instantly occupied their ancestral niche and population numbers grew rapidly as the horses ranged through the southern states and into the prairies and the high plains north to Canada.
It was just a matter of time before indigenous peoples made the connection that horses would enhance their culture in multiple ways. According to John C. Ewers’ classic book The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture, the Plains Indians began acquiring horses sometime after 1600, the centre of distribution being Santa Fe where the Spanish had set up stock-raising settlements.
While many tribes obtained their first horses from others they traded with, stealing horses was just as efficient. The first mounted natives were Pueblo men working for, or allied with, the Spanish. The Apache and Navajo stole horses from the Pueblo horsemen and the concept of being mounted spread.
Horses were ridden for raids on rival tribes, in tribal wars and skirmishes, and for hunting buffalo. They were used for moving camp, hauling gear, travel, and recreation and sport. And they were valued as an expression of social status, in horse medicine cults, and in spiritual beliefs and folklore. From the Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Ute, and Kiowa nations in the south to the Blackfoot nation in Alberta and Montana, the horse exploded as an animal of immense value in native cultures.
One of the first Europeans to explore the Canadian west was fur trader Anthony Henday working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He arrived in Alberta in September 1754. On October 14, 1754, to his surprise he encountered two Blackfoot on horseback. The date was significant in both cultural directions since the Blackfoot hunters had never seen a white man before.
The brave horses used to hunt buffalo, as depicted in this painting by Karl Bodmer circa 1839, were prized by indigenous peoples. Photo: Library and Archives Canada
Horses were arriving in Canada from all directions. New France (the future Quebec) was getting out front on the fur trade business but traders were either under siege from the native Iroquois, pushing back on turf wars with the British, or scrapping with other New France settlers when issues of trade monopolies arose.
King Louis XIV fixed that. He made New France a royal province and ordered the creation of a royal horse stud. But New France had no horses so he fixed that too by shipping two stallions and twenty mares from his own stables. As an avid rider, he was no slouch when it came to fine horses. But the rough voyage took its toll and eight mares perished. However, on July 16, 1665, the stallions and the twelve remaining mares stepped onto Canadian soil to begin a legacy that, through consistent breeding, would lead to the creation of the unique Canadian horse.
Shipments continued and between 1665 and 1671, some 82 horses arrived in New France from the royal stables. Those horses likely originated from native herds in France (Normandy, Brittany and the historical province of Poitou) and Spain (Andalusia), regions renowned for the quality of their horses since before the Middle Ages.
The first horses were allocated to religious communities and farming settlers. One of those communities was the Congregation de Notre-Dame on the present-day site of Maison Saint-Gabriel. The stone house was built around 1661 and was bought by Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1668. Bourgeoys and her colleagues used horses on the farm to grow food for the people in Montreal during the 1670s.
Horses transformed almost every dimension of life on the plains for indigenous peoples, who used them for hunting, travel, trading, warfare, and more. Shown is Mrs. Tom Turned Up Nose with horse travois near Gleichen, Alberta, in the 1880s. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-403-2
Under contract, individual farmers and religious communities were to care for the horses, breed them and donate a foal to the administration under Intendant Jean Talon within three years. During that time, the King continued to own the horses. Foals were then redistributed under the same conditions. The breeding system worked and the population rapidly grew to over 13,000 in the 18th century.
In the Maritime region, the horse’s story is tangled in the conflicts and tensions between the Acadians and the British during the first half of the 18th century that finally saw the Acadians stripped of their land and livestock and deported. But the horses of the Acadians were to become the foundation stock of today’s Sable Island horses.
During the Expulsion of the Acadians from 1755 to 1764, the people were deported to the 13 colonies in what is today the United States, and some of their livestock was transported to Sable Island, a remote sandbar off the coast of Nova Scotia, where they were used to haul lifeboats and other equipment to save shipwrecked mariners. Despite the harsh conditions, the horses adapted and thrived in the maritime environment where they grazed on grassland plants in the interior of the island, marram grass growing in the sand dunes, and found fresh water in the meadows.
In the early days horses were routinely rounded up and sold in Halifax, but in 1960 Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government ruled that the horses must be left on the island to live untouched. Since then, the horses have been managed on a hands-off basis, and in 2013 Sable Island became Sable Island National Park Reserve. Today, the horse’s numbers are at a record high, ranging from 450 to 550.
Horses in an Era of Growth and Change
Across Canada from the prairies to the Pacific coast, a way of life was rapidly being transformed not only by explorers and fur traders but pioneers, settlers, ranchers, and farmers during the 1800s.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was expanding from the shores of James and Hudson bays into central and western Canada. The company became dominant in the Pacific Northwest and had forts at Kamloops, Alexandria (near Quesnel), Langley, and Victoria. In 1825, they established Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and appointed John McLoughlin as their Chief Factor. He promoted peace with native tribes, fair trade for furs, and self-sufficiency for workers. And he kick-started the cattle industry in British Columbia.
Related: Reviving Ancient Horse Riding Skills
Horses hauled loaded coal wagons in mines from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6152
The Hudson’s Bay trading posts were so remote that workers needed to grow their own fruits and vegetables and raise their own livestock. Since the company owned cattle in Oregon, McLoughlin orchestrated the first cattle drive into the future British Columbia. According to Alastair McLean’s article in Rangelands (4)3 in 1846, the year the 49th Parallel became the Canada/US international border, McLoughlin’s crew headed north, herding a supply of cattle and horses to forts Kamloops and Alexandria.
In Manitoba, the Selkirk Settlers in the Red River area had already tooled up to convert prairie land into agricultural fields. But they were in short supply of strong working horses.
Klondikers with pack horses outside the Dawson Market, Front Street, Dawson, Yukon Territory, in June 1898, during the Yukon Gold Rush. Photo: Wikimedia
Range riders of the North West Mounted Police are depicted on patrol in winter, and trailing cattle thieves, the late 1800s. Photos: Wikimedia
To improve local horse bloodlines, Governor George Simpson decided to import from England a superior stallion named Fireaway. He would be used to breed heavier horses for farming and faster horses for buffalo hunting. In 1831, Fireaway was put on board a ship bound for York Factory, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay. From there he was transported precariously by an oar-propelled freight (York) boat and rowed along the rivers south to Fort Garry (now a district of Winnipeg). Along the way there were many portages with the challenges of unloading and re-loading him and keeping him steady. Once in Fort Garry, Fireaway became the breeding stallion for many mares. In his first season, he bred 25 mares and his descendants maintained his working qualities.
A Royal North West Mounted Police trooper, circa 1900. Photo: Wikimedia
Life became busier with each passing decade. From 1860 to 1863 the Cariboo gold rush saw hundreds of prospectors with horses and mules trekking to the Fraser River and Cariboo region for rich payloads of gold.
According to the Toronto Star archives, on Confederation Day July 1, 1867, horses and pedestrians ruled the streets. The Toronto Street Railway Co., ferried passengers around with their horse-car mass transit service.
The carillon bells being delivered to The Cathedral Church of St. James by horse-drawn wagons. The photo was taken in 1866 on Church Street at the SE corner of King outside the Cathedral. The Cathedral tower was partially built up to accommodate the bells but it was not completed until 1874. The tower was raised to house the carillon bells. Outside the Cathedral along Church Street was an official cab stand and horses had to line up facing the lake. Photo: Nancy Mallett, Archivist and Museum Curator for St. James Cathedral.
In 1865, horse-drawn carriages pulled a set of nine bells collectively weighing 8,000 kilograms to the corner of King and Church Streets, Toronto, to be installed in the Cathedral Church of St. James. The bells are still in place and used today.
Nancy Mallett, archivist and museum curator with St. James Cathedral, remembers horses still being used for pulling milk and bread wagons when she was growing up in the 1930s. It was the biggest thrill for children to be allowed a ride around the block in one of the wagons.
On November 7, 1885, CPR director Sir Donald Smith drove the final ceremonial spike at Craigellachie, BC. Edward Mallandaine, who ran a pony express delivery service to the railroad construction workers in BC, was just behind him. Photo: Wikimedia
“During World War II, Simpsons Department Store brought back horse drawn delivery wagons to save on rationed gas,” says Mallett. “In 1944, during a heavy snowfall, milk was delivered in horse-drawn sleighs.”
In 1873, the federal government established a central police force and sent 150 recruits to Manitoba. They became the North West Mounted Police. In July 1874, the Mounted Police, with 275 members, went to southern Alberta where American whiskey traders were operating among the native tribes. They set up a permanent post at Fort Macleod where half the force was posted. Other forts were set up at Edmonton and Calgary as well as Fort Pelly and Fort Walsh in Saskatchewan.
A single horse and teamster work at a CPR snowshed under construction east of Selkirk Summit, BC, circa 1886 – 1888. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-4428-19
Horses answered the fire alarms from around 1840 to 1920, dashing along city streets pulling the steam pumper engines used to fight city fires. This horse-drawn fire engine was used in Calgary, Alberta, circa 1905. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-3220-3
The horse still ruled 19th century life, but the end of the horse-drawn era is foreshadowed in these images of a horse-drawn Imperial Oil Company delivery wagon at Winnipeg, Manitoba, and an Imperial Oil Company warehouse, circa 1875 – 1898. Photos: Glenbow Archives IP-lA-100a and Glenbow Archives IP-1a-120
The detachments became a boost for ranching, providing security and a local market. Soon, great cattle ranges were dominating western Canada including the Gang, Douglas Lake and Empire Valley ranches in BC, the Cochrane, Bar U, Oxley, and Walrond ranches in Alberta, and the “76,” Hitchcock and Matador ranches in Saskatchewan.
According to Alastair McIntyre, who hosts the highly informative website Electric Scotland, “In 1886 the officers of the Department of the Interior estimated the number of horses in southern Alberta to be about 10,000. These were mostly found in the Calgary and Macleod districts. From that date, horse ranching developed into a separate and profitable industry in southern and central Alberta. [Some] 3,500 animals, most of whom were mares, were imported that year  from Oregon, British Columbia, and Ontario. Breeders began importing sires from England and Kentucky and an attempt was made to place the industry on a sound basis and to breed the type of horse suitable for draught and agricultural work. The climate, grass, and other conditions of the country were found to be ideally adapted for raising superior animals. Dr. McEachren, the chief veterinary inspector of the Dominion, reported to the Government in 1887 as follows: ‘Probably no better horse breeding country exists in the British Empire than the district of Alberta.’”
Horse-drawn tank wagons at Imperial Oil Company yard, Quebec City, Quebec, circa 1917-1918. Photo: Glenbow Archives IP-2b-2
McIntyre adds that several significant ranches such as the Stimson Ranch at High River and the Cochrane Ranch on the Bow River were established in 1887. The ranges began to flourish with important horse breeds such as Irish Hunters, Clydesdales, Hackneys, and Thoroughbreds. The day of the Indian cayuse was past, and better care in selection, feeding, and handling was recognized to develop quality horses. Dr. McEachren echoed that belief. “The days of breaking young horses as done by the bronco rider are over, viz., catching him with the lasso, blindfolding him, saddling and mounting him, and with whips and spurs making the poor, frightened creature buck, rear, plunge and gallop over the prairie until horse and rider are exhausted, and broken in spirit and subdued by fatigue the horse yields a sullen obedience, but is utterly untaught, unmannered, and devoid of ‘mouth.’”
As much as ranch and farm horses became the backbone of agriculture, the 1800s were truly the golden age of the horse-drawn vehicle. In 1850, 33 of Canada’s 58 carriage-making facilities were located in Quebec. By 1901, that number had grown to 1,260 carriage-producing companies and every village had a repair shop or workshop.
John Ware with his family, circa 1897. John Ware was born into slavery on a plantation near Georgetown, SC. After the American Civil War he learned ranching and cowboy skills in Texas and became a master horseman, then made his way to Canada. He is best remembered for bringing the first cattle to southern Alberta in 1882, helping to create that province’s ranching industry. Photo: Wikimedia
In Alberta, one of the most noted horse breeding ranches producing carriage horses was the Rawlinson’s Hackney Horse Ranch. According to archival Rawlinson Ranch fonds (collection of historic documents) held with Glenbow Museum, Calgary, brothers Christopher and Arthur Rawlinson came to Alberta from Bath, England, in 1884. After purchasing land some 18 kilometres northwest of Calgary and building a homestead, they started Rawlinson’s Hackney Horse Ranch in 1888 with stock provided by another brother, Robert Rawlinson, who ranched nearby. Over the years they produced outstanding Hackney horses. The champion Hackney at the Pan-American Exhibition in 1901 and the New York Horse Show that same year came from the Rawlinson Ranch. Their stallion “Saxon” and their mare “Priscilla” both become Grand Champions at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. The brothers, who did a great deal to popularize the Hackney breed in the early years, maintained the ranch and the breeding program until it was sold in 1907.
Branding cattle on Sandy McCarthy’s ranch on Bear Creek, east of Maple Creek Saskatchewan, in 1897. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-44-47
With the steady influx of settlers to Canada, the need for good harness horses and carriages was in constant demand. And there was something about the beauty and grace of carriage designs that caught Robert McLaughlin’s eye. Born in 1836 in Cavan Township, Upper Canada, McLaughlin would go on to launch the McLaughlin Motor Car Company that would one day become part of General Motors Canada. But it all began with an axe handle.
McLaughlin loved everything about wood, and in his spare time from logging, he crafted axe handles fashioned with such skill that local merchants said they were the best they had ever seen. Given the demand, before long he turned to crafting horse-drawn carriages.
Lord Stanley’s horse and sleigh in 1893. The sixth Governor General of Canada (from 1888 to 1893), Frederick Arthur Stanley is famous for presenting Canada with the Stanley Cup. Vancouver’s Stanley Park is named after him. Photo: Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada/PA-033954
In Confederation year, 1867, McLaughlin built two cutters. One for himself and the other for a neighbour who saw the quality workmanship McLaughlin was putting into the cutter, and asked his friend to build one for him, too. With that, the McLaughlin Carriage Company was born and its carriages became legendary.
The original 1867 cutter and other McLaughlin carriages are currently on display at the Remington Carriage Museum in Cardston, Alberta, until October 9, 2018.
In the early 1900s, wood was in huge demand to feed the construction industry. A horse-drawn sleigh hauls logs at the north end of Pigeon Lake, Alberta, in 1913. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2649-2
Horses were the heartbeat of Alberta and, at Fort Edmonton in 1879, the Hudson’s Bay Company hosted the community’s first agricultural fair with horses being judged in the fort’s yard. Three years later, the fair added horse racing which continued until a permanent racetrack was built north of the North Saskatchewan River valley.
The need for horses grew as innovations in farm machinery came on the market. Gone were the days of hand-flailing straw to remove the grain and cutting crops with scythes. Entering the market were double-width harrows, steel plows on wheels, mowers, binders, threshers and combines, all of which needed horses to operate them.
A wagon laden with homestead supplies is pulled by a horse-and-cow team at Biggar, Saskatchewan, in 1913. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2870-10
If life on the farm was getting mechanized, so was life in every city. A railway was needed to unite the nation and physically link the west to the east. When the Colony of British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871, it did so on the promise by the Canadian government that a transcontinental railway would be built within ten years. The Canadian Pacific Railway was launched and construction of the railway started in earnest in 1878.
Fifteen thousand men, including many Chinese labourers, were hired in British Columbia to build the track through some of the most dangerous terrain in the country. But excitement was building as the transcontinental railway became a reality.
Horse-drawn wagons negotiate a narrow track in central British Columbia, early 1900s. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2937-7
Riding that wave of anticipation was Edward Mallandaine who was born in Victoria on July 1, 1867, Confederation Day. He left school at 14 and began a pony express delivery service to the railroad construction workers in BC. As the two ends of the track from east to west closed, Edward was determined to be part of the “Last Spike” ceremony when CPR director Sir Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, would drive the last spike home on November 7, 1885 at Craigellachie, BC. The pony express rider wormed his way through the crowd and poked his face around Smith’s shoulder just as the famous picture was taken.
Horses of all kinds were everywhere. Clydesdales and Percherons were favourite heavy breeds in Alberta along with Shires and Suffolks. According to McIntyre, the largest and finest herd of Percherons in North America was owned by George Lane.
Before the age of huge farm tractors, horsepower is supplied by multiple teams ploughing and harrowing on Ben Macleod’s ranch at High River, Alberta, circa 1900-1903. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2547-17
Born in the US in 1856, Lane came to Canada to take over as foreman of the Bar U Ranch just south of Longview, Alberta. In 1902 he purchased the ranch with financial partners, the purchase including 3,000 cattle and 500 horses. Lane was devoted to producing excellent draft horses for the increasing number of farmers in the neighbourhood. He purchased three purebred Percheron stallions and 72 mares from Le Perche, France, at a cost of $75,000. At the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle the Bar U Percheron’s won most of the awards. Lane eventually became the largest purebred Percheron breeder.
An article titled History of the Draft Horse: The Muscle-Men of the Horse World by Soul of Canada, published in Canadian Horse Journal, describes the breeding program: “Horse breeding programs flourished in the late 1800s and in the early part of the 1900s. During this time, many grain farms had more horses (as many as 10 or more) than people, with each horse working an average of 600 hours per year. According to Wetherell and Corbet’s Breaking New Ground: A Century of Farm Equipment Manufacturing on the Canadian Prairies, there were 55,593 farms harvesting over 43 million bushels of wheat, oats and barley in the Canadian Prairie provinces in 1901.”
In 1916, the Bar U Ranch in southern Alberta, owned by George Lane, was home to 700 registered Percherons, the largest and finest herd in North America, among them this six-horse team, and 400 broodmares. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada
Around the same time, better-educated farmers were graduating from agricultural and veterinary colleges and they were able to apply their knowledge in feeding, breeding, and management to successfully produce better quality horses. According to the article, by 1911 Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba had a combined total of 1,194,927 horses which is an average of six horses for every one of the 204,214 farms in the three provinces.
Horses not only worked on ranches and farms and as carriage horses in towns, they were a vital part of every key industry in Canada, especially resource industries.
A horse-drawn grader smooths the streets of Calgary, Alberta, circa 1910. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-4462-47
From Nova Scotia to British Columbia, horses and ponies worked in the coal mines where they pulled coal tubs on rails. Coal was in constant demand and many coal mines contained several miles of underground railway. The work was dirty and hazardous, and many horses suffered injuries from serious scrapes that led to bacterial infections. But the coal miners developed a fondness and close relationship with their ponies, often bragging about how smart and strong they were.
Horses were equally valuable in the early days of the oil and gas industry. According to the Soul of Canada website, they participated in oil discovery, equipment and petroleum hauling, surveying, drilling, well site construction, oil pumping, and pipeline and refinery construction. And all that started one day when a discerning horse took offence at something in the water when he lowered his head to drink.
Several horse teams are used in dam construction on the Bow River near Bassano, Alberta, circa 1909-1914. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-407-8
John Ware was an African-American cowboy with a gifted ability to ride and train horses. In 1882, his horse smelled oil and refused to drink from Sheep Creek. Apparently, John looked hard at the scum on the water, dismounted, and cautiously tasted it. He definitely agreed with his horse. That scum was oil. Thirty-two years later in 1914, Dingman No. 1 well produced the first oil in Turner Valley.
As early as 1893, the Dominion government was doing experimental drilling for oil in the Athabasca tar sands region. To construct an oil rig, teams of horses hitched to wagons moved everything 130 kilometres from Edmonton to Athabasca Landing.
Horses pull fresnos (scrapers used for constructing canals and ditches) excavating a deep irrigation cut in the Magrath area of Alberta. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-5200-88
In the Waterton Lakes area, the Rocky Mountain Development Company used horse power to build a road into the mountains to use to transport tools, cable, pumps, barrels, bits, pipe, and building supplies. In 1902, the first wagonload of oil was transported out of the site, the west’s first producing oil well.
At the turn of the 20th century, the big demand for horses resulted in many poor quality animals being brought in from the US. They glutted the market, driving prices down. In 1902, horse breeders, through the Horse Breeders' Association, petitioned the Dominion Government to impose a minimum value on all horses imported into Canada. Over 21,000 horses had been imported at an average value of $25/head. Of this number, at least half were imported for breeding. The Dominion Government set minimum values at $50, and stallions and mares valued under that were prohibited from being brought in.
The original 1867 McLaughlin cutter, crafted by Robert McLaughlin who launched the McLaughlin Motor Car Company that would later become part of General Motors Canada, and advertisement for the McLaughlin Carriage Co. of Oshawa, Ontario, showing a McLaughlin Model A automobile and a McLaughlin carriage, circa 1910. Photo (cutter): Remington Carriage Museum; Photo (advertisement): National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-176735
In towns and villages everywhere, construction was among the leading industries and wood was in huge demand. Every lumber camp had its own horse barn and barn boss to whom all the teamsters were answerable. Twenty teams of horses, each consisting of eight animals, might be working each day and they would drag sleds loaded with logs to sawmills or the nearest waterway. It was tough, grueling work but on a good ice road in winter an experienced horse team with a skilled teamster could haul loads up to six tonnes a distance of 19 kilometres.
In Surrey, BC, teams of ten horses would move logs to the water’s edge at Semiahmoo Bay. Three to six logs at a time were towed, one behind the other, each linked by 1.5 metre chains. At tidewater, smaller teams of horses formed them into booms and they were sent to New Westminster for milling.
A 1870-era horse-drawn street car, owned by Ottawa City Passenger Railway Co. Photo: Ottawa photographs/Library and Archives Canada/C-002457
The demand for horses was constant. Mining and lumber camps needed the best heavy draught teams and horses of good weight sold at prices varying from $500 to $700 a team in British Columbia.
At the same time, the big horse ranches began to disappear. Railway contractors were forced to import mules, and tractors began to take the place of horses on the large farms. In 1909 and 1910, it was estimated the railway contractors imported 2,500 teams of mules.
Related: In Memory of a War Horse
A Canadian National Railways Express Horse Wagon in 1925. Photo: Library and Archives Canada
Canada’s Horses Go To War
In 1899, Canada became involved in its first overseas conflict – the Boer War (1899-1902), sending volunteers and troops to South Africa in support of Great Britain. CPR director Donald Smith felt that the Canadian government’s commitment was lacking. He used his own considerable resources to equip and fund a mounted cavalry. Some 537 officers and men, as well as 599 horses, arrived in Cape Town, South Africa on April 10, 1900. The men and horses, called Strathcona’s Horse, fought with distinction and returned home highly decorated.
Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) at Winnipeg, Manitoba, January 19, 1917. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2589-3
During World War I, Lord Strathcona’s Horse saw action as cavalry during the defence of the Somme front in March 1917, and again in March 1918 in what is known as “the last great cavalry charge” at the Battle of Moreuil Wood, when nearly three-quarters of the Canadian cavalry involved in the attack against German machine-gun positions were killed or wounded.
Today, the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) is based in Edmonton, Alberta. It is the last Canadian military mounted troop. It receives no funding from the federal government and relies heavily on donations and honorariums. Each year, the Strathcona Mounted Troop performs mounted rides and demonstrations across Western Canada.
Nearly three-quarters of the Canadian cavalry involved in this attack against German machine-gun positions at Moreuil Wood on March 30, 1918 were killed or wounded. This included Lieutenant G.M. Flowerdew, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the charge. During the German offensives of March and April 1918, the cavalry played an essential role in the open warfare that temporarily confronted the retreating British forces. The painting is Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, by Alfred Munnings. Photo: Wikimedia
A few years later, war clouds were gathering over Europe. War was pending and with it came the need for horses. In 1914, the British government procured 100,000 to 150,000 horses but, as the war continued, it appealed to allied countries for remounts and thousands of horses from the US, Australia, Canada, and Argentina were shipped.
Heavy draft horses were used to transport the larger guns and heaviest wagons; light drafts and mules supplied the front lines with lighter guns, ammunition, and supplies; and riding horses were reserved for the cavalry and officers. Upon completing their training, the horses were transported to the field where they began active service.
The Canadian Light Horse going into action at Vimy Ridge, April 1917. Photo: W.I. Castle/Canada. Ministère de la défense nationale/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/PA-001111
Canada pledged about 200,000 horses to serve in the war and by the war’s end, Canada had supplied over ten percent of the horses used on the Western Front. On all fronts and in all theatres, over a million horses and mules were listed in service with British and Commonwealth forces by the close of the war, and it is estimated that some eight million horses plus countless mules and donkeys among all fighting countries died. Not only did horses die in the trenches and from shellfire, they died from disease, injuries, terrible weather, appalling conditions, and starvation since finding sufficient fodder became increasingly challenging. They also died during shipment.
The colt “Vimy,” born at Vimy Ridge, with his dam in July 1917. Photo: Canada Dept of Natonal Defence/Library and Archives Canada
The Royal Montreal Regiment website explains that when Canada’s 31-ship troop convoy sailed from Quebec to England in October 1914, 7,636 horses were literally packed onto 14 of the ships. Of the 973 equines on the SS Montezuma alone, 86 died in the 11-day crossing. This was, in fact, considered a low number thanks to the supervision of the newly formed Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. Regiments no longer depended on local vets but on a veterinary corps. But only one of the new veterinary sections (two officers and 26 other ranks from Winnipeg) was ready to sail with that first Canadian convoy in 1914.
Pack horses transporting ammunition to the 20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, April 1917. Photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA a001231
According to the Royal Montreal Regiment website, “Two Canadian veterinary hospitals were eventually set up – one in Le Havre, France, the other in Shorncliffe, England – and another 221 veterinarians moved about the front and elsewhere in the field, providing first aid and working to improve the fitness of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s almost 23,500 transport and cavalry horses, as well as others of the Commonwealth forces.”
Canada’s army veterinarians worked endlessly to save animals and, for their dedication, they were named the “Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps.”
A squadron of Fort Garry horses passing through a village on the Cambrai front, northern France, December 1917. Photo: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada
In the urgent need for horses, every kind of horse was shipped including even pregnant mares. Foals were born on the battlefield and one foal was born at Vimy Ridge. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought and won by the Canadian Corps 100 years ago in April 1917, but it came with a terrible price with 10,600 casualties. Yet in the midst of shellfire and deafening explosions, the colt they called “Vimy” was born into a conflict world where soldiers, many of whom came from a farming background, found some momentary respite from the war by caring for him and his dam.
The Horse’s Role Keeps Changing
The Great War was the last war to see horses used in such numbers. The world was becoming mechanized and horses, while still essential on farms and ranches and in to some degree in various industries, were also being appreciated in the world of sport, recreation, and therapy.
After a few false starts, the Calgary Stampede was up and running by 1923. The Calgary and District Agricultural Society was formed in 1884 and held its first fair two years later. But it folded in 1895 and was replaced by the Western Pacific Exhibition Company that held its first agricultural and industrial fair in 1899. In 1912, American promoter Guy Weadick organized his first rodeo and festival known as the Stampede. He returned in 1919 to organize the Victory Stampede in honour of soldiers returning from the First World War. The Stampede finally became an annual event in 1923 when it merged with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition to become the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.
Montreal was out front with the establishment of fox hunting in the late 1820s and the first steeplechase was held in Montreal in 1840. The first Dominion equestrian championships were held in Toronto in 1895 with events for both men and women. In 1922, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair was launched in Toronto and, with it, the Royal Horse Show.
Chief Duck of the Blackfoot tribe, carrying the head chief staff which is topped with a gold crown, during the opening parade of the Calgary Stampede, July 1945. Chief Duck leads a mounted procession of Sarcee, Blood and Blackfoot chiefs. Photo: Jack Long/Library and Archives Canada/PA-188605
Horse racing is in the collective Canadian DNA. It all began on September 16, 1793, on Toronto Island where a sandy strip of land connected the central portion of the peninsula with the main shoreline to the east. On that date, Mrs. Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, together with Lieutenant Thomas Talbot, inaugurated horse racing on the peninsula. The informal races were held on a straight, level track and competitors were military officers and local people.
According to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, “The Upper Canada Turf Club (organized in 1837) grew out of a series of military races under the patronage of officers stationed at Fort York on a course laid out in 1835 on Garrison Common between the new and old forts. There was also an informal course on Front Street between Small’s Corners (east of the Don River) to Market Place during the early 1800s. Placards posted throughout the town heralded the matches.”
Racing became a royal affair. In 1859, the Toronto Turf Club petitioned Queen Victoria to grant a Plate for a horse race in Ontario. She offered as an annual prize a plate to the value of 50 guineas (a guinea coin was worth one pound and one shilling). Today the Queen’s Plate is actually a gold cup. The first Queen’s Plate race was held at Carlton Race Track in Toronto on June 27, 1860. It wasn’t until 1939 when King George V1 became the first reigning monarch to witness the running of the King’s Plate at Woodbine Park, later named “Old Woodbine” and the Greenwood. Old Woodbine opened for Standardbred racing in 1954.
A cowboy riding a bucking bronco at the Calgary Stampede, 1940. Photo: Library and Archives Canada/Ronny Jaques
Today the Queen’s Plate is Canada’s oldest Thoroughbred race and the oldest continuously run race in North America. It is run at a distance of 1-1/4 miles (2.01 km) for three-year-old Thoroughbreds born in Canada and takes place every year at Woodbine Racetrack. It is the first race in the celebrated Canadian Triple Crown, the other two being the Prince of Wales Stakes and the Breeders’ Stakes. In 1964 legendary Northern Dancer, the first Canadian-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, also won the Queen’s Plate in his final race before retiring to an even greater legendary career at stud.
Racetracks were springing up across the country. Horse racing in Vancouver originally took place along Howe Street during the 1880s when a temporary grandstand provided seating before the Vancouver Hotel. In 1889, the City received a 160-acre land grant in the Hastings Township from the provincial government for the “use, recreation and enjoyment of the public,” and, in 1892, the city leased 15 acres of land for a racetrack. First known as East Park, the newly formed BC Jockey Club (created in the 1890s) cleared the half-mile oval by stacking stumps and boulders in the middle of what would be known as Hastings Racecourse, a premier Thoroughbred racetrack.
Trotting horses were already high-profile racing horses in Canada’s confederation year. According to the Standardbred Canada’s website, the Trotting Register was started in 1867 in the US to record the pedigrees of trotting horses. In 1879 rules, or standards, were agreed as to what would make a horse eligible for the registry. One of the rules was that a stallion was required to trot a mile in 2:30 minutes or better. This high standard of trotting qualities required for registry eligibility led to the name “Standardbred.”
A four-horse team pulls a binder on the Canadian prairies, circa 1938. Quality horses were a vital part of every key industry in Canada. Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-3843-5
Standardbred racing became immensely popular and among the greats was Grattan Bars. The bay trotter foaled in 1923 became the undisputed king of the harness racing world in 1928. His owner, Fred Thrower of Kerwood, Ontario, couldn’t have been happier given that he had traded 13 calves for the horse with breeder Archie Pedden of nearby Strathroy. Since Pedden had given Thrower $200 along with the horse, and the calves had cost Thrower $210, the net cost for acquiring Grattan Bars was a mere $10. According to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, for two unbelievable months, Grattan Bars was almost unbeatable and in a 13-day stretch he pulled off victories in three $25,000 races. Those were unbelievable purses in those days. Horsemen, especially American horsemen, were stunned as the Canadian horse left all others in the dust.
Grattan Bars was retired with a record $46,915 on his card for a single season, not bad for an investment of ten bucks. Even more remarkable was that he bred some 40 mares during his racing career and in the 1928 racing season was the sire of 36 colts and fillies.
At the same time in Great Britain, an organization was forming that would change the lives of children learning to ride, and care for horses around the world and especially Canadian children. In 1929, Britain’s Institute of the Horse formed a youth branch called “The Pony Club.” It grew rapidly with membership exploding from 700 in 1930 to over 10,000 in 1935. The phenomenon of The Pony Club echoed in Canada, especially among members of the Eglinton Hunt Club in Toronto, who heard about it from their British military associates. According to the Canadian Pony Club website, Col. Timmis, Brigadier McKee and others applied for permission to form the Eglinton Hunt Branch of The Pony Club. They were successful and, in 1934, the first Pony Club in North America was launched with a membership of about 200 young riders. Today there are 150 branches across Canada with a membership of some 3,500. The Pony Club expanded worldwide and is now represented in 20 countries with a membership of over 100,000.
Woodbine Race Course, Toronto in 1909. Photo: Wikimedia
The Canadian Pony Club emphasized horsemanship and stable management through education and training in English disciplines, with riders progressing through levels of proficiency while competing in dressage, show jumping, rallies, quiz, Prince Philip Games, and tetrathlon. The organization has been responsible for many riders going on to the highest levels of excellence including Olympic show jumpers Ian Millar and Beth Underhill, Paralympic champion Lauren Barwick, dressage rider Joni Lynn Peters, and three-day event riders Jim Henry and Karen Brain prior to her accident then continuing in para-equestrian competition, to name just a few from the CPC Wall of Fame and Alumni Achievement.
Throughout the 20th century, the spotlight shone on all equestrian sports. The Canadian Encyclopaedia states that “Canadian equestrians have garnered their highest honours in show jumping. They began making international appearances as early as 1909 when a team of jumpers entered the Military Tournament in the International Horse Show at Olympia, London, UK. Canadian Army teams continued to compete abroad after the First World War [and] Major R.S. Timmis became the first Canadian to win an international contest at the Toronto Coliseum (1923).”
Dressage, horse trials and three-day eventing, endurance, competitive trail, combined driving, barrel racing, cutting, and recreational riding all grew. Overseeing competition and equine issues led to the formation of provincial organizations. At the national level Equestrian Canada, formerly Equine Canada, was founded in 1976 when the National Equestrian Federation of Canada and the Canadian Horse Council merged. With that merger, George Jacobson founded the Canadian Equestrian Federation (CEF), the first national governing body for equestrian activities and sport. CEF became Equine Canada Hippique then, in 2015, Equestrian Canada Equestre, continuing its mandate as the national governing body for equestrian sport and industry. The organization today represents over 18,000 sport license holders, some 90,000 registered participants, 12 provincial/territorial sport organization partners, and over 10 national equine affiliate organizations.
Horse racing has always been hugely popular with Canadians. Clockwise from top-left: Horse racing on the Ottawa River, March 1902; Harry Watts astride Tartarean after winning the King’s Plate in Toronto, 1915; and harness racing in New Brunswick 1958. Photos: Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada/PA-028209; Wikimedia; Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/e011176843
But as much as riders loved competition, many others enjoyed horses for the sheer recreational opportunities they offered. They yearned for the open trail, a day’s ride away from the noise of the city, a chance to be alone in the saddle.
The realization of the need for safe trails grew and was apparent even in 1967, Canada’s Centennial year, when a remarkable cross-country ride was organized to deliver a scroll to Queen Elizabeth when she visited Expo 67 in Montreal on July 3. According to an archived edition of the Ottawa Journal published May 5, 1967, and the website Our Ontario, Alvis Le Gate, a 50-year-old former jockey, organized “the longest pony express ride in history.”
Le Gate, born in 1916 in Spokane, Washington, and raised in Killam, Alberta, was committed to delivering a scroll given him by the president of Mexico for delivery to the Queen. Knowing this would be an excellent way to promote horseback riding and make the public aware of the shortage of riding and hiking trails, he took the scroll on horseback from Mexico to Victoria, BC. Le Gate’s obituary recounts that he rode each horse 500 miles (about 800 km), and was the first person to ride a horse across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Once in Canada, he lined up horses and riders for the eastward trek, and some 1,500 riders had participated by the time he reached Winnipeg. The scroll was rolled up in a metal tube which also contained postcard greetings from towns along the way, and Le Gate finally delivered it to Governor-General Roland Michener who accepted it on behalf of Queen Elizabeth.
Jumping action at Toronto’s Eglinton Hunt Club, May 15, 1949. Photo: Alexandra Studio/Library and Archives Canada/PA-052505
It would take another 25 years before action on a cross-country trail materialized as the celebrated Trans Canada Trail stretching coast to coast to coast. Construction started in 1992 and, when completed will stretch 24,000 kilometres. The trail is multi-purpose for hiking, bike riding, paddling, cross country skiing, and horseback riding and, as of April 2017, about 22,000 kilometres have been completed through 13 provinces and territories and is 93 percent connected. Now called The Great Trail, it’s billed as the longest recreational trail in the world.
Today, the value of horses in sport and recreation is stronger than ever, and the appreciation of horses as therapy companions is growing. But as much as therapeutic riding and equine assisted psychotherapy are considered contemporary uses of horses, the practice has its roots in ancient Greek culture when Hippocrates wrote of the therapeutic values of riding, and 17th century literature documented that horse riding was prescribed for gout, neurological disorder, and low morale.
According to the Community Association for Riders with Disabilities (CARD), in 1901 Dame Agnes Hunt founded the first orthopedic hospital in Oswestry, England, advocating the use of horses and riding for her patients. In 1918, physiotherapist Olive Sands took horses to a hospital outside Oxford to provide riding opportunities for disabled World War I soldiers. In the subsequent decades, therapeutic riding rapidly progressed and proved its value when used to combat debilitating polio.
In 1968, Dr. Reginald Renaud and Joseph Bauer were so impressed with the concept of therapeutic riding that they brought it to Canada and founded CARD. In 1980, CanTRA was founded to facilitate and promote therapeutic riding and, in the 1990s, equine assisted psychotherapy became a valued tool in helping people overcome trauma, emotional challenges, PTSD, and debilitating self-esteem problems.
Photo: Shutterstock/Pulach Andrei
Horses have a powerful role in healing trauma. They live in the present, are constantly in tune with their environment, and are able to sense the emotions of others. As prey animals, they are hypersensitive to everything going on around them and are constantly analyzing any situation. In the horse-human relationship, a horse is a peer providing immediate feedback through a bond of connectivity.
While horses share our long history, they also keep us grounded in the here and now. They provide companionship, recreation, sport, and therapy. They teach us patience, responsibility, and a host of other life lessons. And some are still called upon to perform the historical duties of yesteryear with the same skill and quality of service they provided hundreds of years ago. What other aspect of life from centuries past can stand that test of time?
Is Equus essentially an amazingly adaptable creature that continues to find ways share our lives while other species are long extinct? Or does the human/equine relationship endure and evolve with the passage of time because the two species share an innate connection?
It is that ancient connective bond that has brought horses and humans together to create the Canada we know and love today. Horses are in our DNA. Through the simple act of touching the face of a horse we are, at a deeper level, touching the face of history.
Related: Horse Hooves in History
Main aphoto: Canstock/ConleysHorsePhotos