Story by: Marie Zhuikov
Photography by: Ontario Parks, Lake Superior Magazine, Marie Zhuikov
The stallion glides around the corral at the Dawson Trail Campground like a dark forest ghost.
His owner, Kimberlee Campbell, encourages his circular path with a long whip – not touching the animal, but flicking the air gently behind it.
“Isn’t he graceful?” I say, turning to the man next to me beside the fence in the Quetico Provincial Park campground. He agrees. Later I learn he is Trevor Gibb, the park superintendent.
Kim’s partner, Darcy Whitecrow, stands outside the corral with another small dark horse, showing him off to visitors and allowing them to pet him.
Darcy explains that the stallion in the corral, Babaaminizhikawaad (“He Chases Them Around”) was getting too uppity with his companion, a gelding named Naabesim (Ojibwe for “Stud Colt”). They had to separate the pair and work off Chase’s excess energy.
“Kim’s lunging him,” Darcy says. “That’s basically part of training a horse. You’re trying to get their focus on you instead of everything else that’s happening. Chase was getting too greedy with the carrots all the people are bringing them; he was pushing Sim out of the way.
“We don’t hit them with the whip, maybe tap them with it to get them going. We get the horse working and working. You keep running them until they start making inside turns toward you, not outside turns and lunging their head. Once you do it enough, they get tired and start abiding by everything that you do. Then you totally ignore them and turn away,” says Darcy.
As I watch, Kim does just that. Chase walks up behind her and puts his head near her shoulder. Kim takes a few steps. The horse follows. Then she puts her hands out, as if she were holding a lead line. Chase follows, exactly as if he were attached to the imaginary rope. He even pivots in concert with her as she switches directions in the corral and walks across it.
Amazed, I look to Darcy. “That’s called ‘hooking”, he explains. “The horse is standing there wondering what you want it to do next. Then you walk. Because they’ve all been trained on a lead line already, they know the whole routine, right? You get so good after a while, you don’t even need a lead line.”
Kim and Darcy are in the campground in the northern reaches of the Lake Superior watershed on a Labour Day weekend for their annual educational program, which allows visitors to see these rare and historied horses.
Courtesy Ontario Parks
Alert and gentle, the Ojibwe horses are a special breed.
Apart from their gracefulness and ability to follow imaginary lead ropes, these horses are exceptional because they are a breed developed by the Ojibwe people. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, these once wild, semi-feral horses were known in the Ojibwe language as bebezhigooganzhii or mishdatim – “one big toenail.”
Today called Lac La Croix ponies or Ojibwe horses, the obscure breed is on a slow comeback from 1977, having been reduced to just four mares on the lands of the Lac La Croix First Nation, just over the Minnesota border in northwestern Ontario.
Decades back, Canadian health officials reportedly deemed the remaining mares a health risk and announced plans to destroy them. Before that could happen, in a caper worthy of a Hollywood movie, five men from the Bois Forte and Lac La Croix Ojibwe bands loaded the horses into a trailer and drove them across a frozen Lac La Croix to Bois Forte land in Minnesota.
Bred with a Spanish mustang, one of the mares gave birth to a black stallion in 1980. Five years later, another black stallion was born and the two breathed new life into the endangered breed.
“There’s 175 Ojibwe horses now,” Kim explains. “The sad part is, they are still one of the rarest horse breeds on Earth. Babaaminizhikawaad is one of only about 24 stallions left.”
Darcy, housing manager and youth educator for the Seine River First Nation, and Kim, a semi-retired Harvard language professor, run Grey Raven Ranch, a modest operation on the Seine River First Nation in Canada, not far from Fort Francis. They keep their four stallions and geldings at the ranch and their four mares at a farm in northern Minnesota, bringing them together in spring for breeding.
The couple, who previously kept horses, discovered Ojibwe horse breeding by happenstance when one of their own mares went missing. “We had a horse who ran away,” Kim said. “She went to a nearby ranch that had Ojibwe horses, which I’d never heard of. Darcy didn’t even really know about them.”
They visited the ranch, though their own mare had left by then and was never found. But it brought the couple an introduction to this historic Ojibwe horse breed. “We started learning about them.” Eventually, with grant money they obtained, the duo started their program.
Ojibwe horses, such as Naabesim, shown here, have unique qualities that help them survive in the north. They are short – only about 14 hands or just under 5 feet. The compact size helps them conserve heat in winter and means they don’t need as much food as a larger horse. In fact, Kim says, they browse like deer and don’t do well with rich pasture. “They strip bark off trees. They love to eat moss! Pussy willows, too.”
Also like deer, they lie down to sleep. Their ears are extra hairy and their coats grow long in the winter, which Kim says makes them look like bears. An extra nose flap some develop helps warm the air they breathe. Their hooves are hard enough to withstand rocks and roots common to the Canadian Shield.
The breed’s base color is red or black. Some have markings common to feral horses, such as a dark stripe down the back and subtle “zebra stripes” on their legs. They can have white blazes and stars on their faces, and many sport low white socks on their rear legs. “There are certain things that define the breed,” Kim says. “You see that one white rear hind foot, and you think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a Lac La Croix horse.’”
The horses are different on the inside, too. Kim, who has been around horses from a young age, says even the stallion Chase is nice to people. As if to demonstrate, Chase starts licking visitors’ hands through the fence.
“They’re a gentle, thoughtful breed,” she says. “They’re easy to train. They have common sense, and they’re not as high-strung as some other breeds.”
Before my trip to the Quetico, I happened across a mention of the horses in Neil McQuarrie’s book, A Bit of a Legend in These Parts, about the life of Betty Berger Lessard who lived on Namakan Lake in northern Minnesota. Her father, also a Neil, bought a Lac La Croix horse from an Ojibwe village and used it to pull a sleigh. As the author recounts, one winter during the ice harvest, the horse, named Jenny, wandered to the edge of the ice, slipped and fell into the lake.
The ice crew sprang into action and tried to rescue her with ropes and poles. “Jenny confounded them all,” the author wrote. “Somehow, she managed to get her front hooves out of the water and onto the ice and scrambled up and out of the water on her own, much to Neil’s relief.”
Park Superintendent Trevor Gibb, who is also Ojibwe, had no idea his tribe had its own horse breed until he met Darcy.
“He told me their whole story and that was a ‘Wow!’ moment for me,” Trevor says. People come to the Dawson Trail Campground on Labour Day weekend specifically to see the horses.
“Every year since Darcy started bringing the horses, it’s been our most well-attended education program at the campground,” Trevor says. “I think it’s because the ponies are right here. They’re so calm and friendly, people just really enjoy being able to see them and touch them – to learn about them first-hand.”
Darcy and Kim estimate nearly 300 people visited the horses during the Labour Day weekend in 2019, when I was there.
Along with the growing numbers for the horses comes recognition of the breed’s cultural importance. Darcy and Kim and other owners have established youth education programs at their ranches to encourage Ojibwe children and teens to connect with the horses and their own culture.
The children attend for free. They come from Seine River and other reserves and from Thunder Bay to learn how to care for the horses and train them. It all teaches leadership skills.
Training is done gently, Darcy stresses. “As you can see, we don’t use mouth bits, we don’t use horseshoes, and a lot of times, we don’t use saddles. We want the horse to build a relationship with the kids and trust them so that when they carry them, they know that it’s a child on there. We try to teach the youth to train other youths to do that now. It’s been a very successful program.”
It’s been so effective in teaching life skills and inspiring confidence, they are currently short of students. “We shot ourselves in our own foot,” Darcy smiles. “The students have all gone off to college.”
The history of the Ojibwe horses mirrors the aggressive colonization experience. One way to control the Ojibwe people was to control their transportation, and in the early years, that was the horse. Semi-feral in the early 1900s, a few thousand were once free to wander the woods during summers, only brought into Indigenous settlements in winter for protection and care. They were owned by the community as a whole. When someone needed a horse, they just went out and found one.
By the 1940s, the horses were systematically exploited – sold for use as glue and food by settlers – and vilified by missionaries. Those missionaries, according to a dissertation by Yvette Running Horse Collin that quotes Donald Chosa Jr., cultural coordinator at Bois Forte Indian Reservation, the horses “became endangered when the missionaries came to the reservation in the 1940s and saw no use for the ponies. Furthermore, they felt that it was inappropriate for First Nations children to witness the ponies breeding. As a result, the majority of the breed was destroyed, regardless of the discernible social and historical importance of the ponies to their original caretakers.”
Snowmobiles and cars also played a part in the horses’ decline as the Ojibwe people turned to motorized horsepower. The last four horses only survived on the Lac La Croix reserve because it was remote and lacked road access.
To help bring the breed back even stronger, Darcy and Kim are working with the Ojibwe Horse Society to gain official recognition for the horses by the Canadian government. This would make them eligible for government funding and grants.
“The Canadian government hasn’t recognized them because they want 100 pairs of breeding horses. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg-type questions because 100 pairs is 200 animals, not counting any geldings or youngsters,” Kim says. “That’s triple the number of animals we have now. My concern is that the horses will die out before we can get to the number because there’s no government funding or support available. Basically, right now, it’s a labor of love.”
Grey Raven Ranch gets funding from companies, individual donors and Quetico Park – enough for the horses’ basic necessities, Kim explains. Other breeders have not been as fortunate.
“You have people who stay in it as long as they can afford it, then they get out of it. Right now, we’re in a phase of a lot of people getting out of it. … We’re hoping we can get the government away from thinking of it as a numbers thing and more about how unique the population of horses is. It’s the only Indigenous breed of horses in Canada.”
Ojibwe elders believe horses were in North America many years before the arrival of Europeans, Darcy notes. “There were thousands of horses here, and these Ojibwe horses are the same ones. Some pockets of them survived the Ice Age and have been here all along.”
It is popular scientific belief that horses originated in North America during prehistoric times, spreading to Asia and Europe 2 million to 3 million years ago. And it’s also currently believed they disappeared from the continent during the Ice Age, migrating across the Bering land bridge or killed by a combination of ancient climate changes and hunting by humans as part of the mega-fauna die-off about 10,000 years ago when animals like the giant beaver and mammoth also disappeared in North America.
Professor Emeritus Gus Cothran, who holds one of the largest horse genetics databases in the country at Texas A&M University, contends that while Ojibwe horses are a breed developed by Indigenous people in Canada, their roots are not native to Canada. “They are derived from horses that Europeans brought to North America. They did not originate in North America as a distinct strain of horse,” Gus says, classifying them as a mix of Spanish mustang and Canadian horses originally from France.
What everyone does agree about today’s Ojibwe horse is that it is unique and should be preserved. “Basically,” says Darcy, “they’re a national treasure of North America.”
“These horses did phenomenally well for a long, long time until they ran into the 20th century,” Kim adds. “When you talk about Indigenous horses, people think about Lakota, Arapaho or Nez Perce. Nobody thinks about the Ojibwe. They quietly took over the biggest freshwater source in the world. They very quietly bred their own horse breed that suits their conditions – the woods and winter transport. They’ve been doing this all along, and they’re very savvy.”
After their campground appearance ends, Darcy and Kim invite me to Grey Raven Ranch to see their other horses. After about an hour-and-a-half driving down the Trans-Canada Highway, I take a left on Horse Collar Junction Road onto the Seine River First Nation. The road is named in honor of the Ojibwe horse.
Chase and Sim are in a corral near the house. Darcy meets us along with Grizzly, his 2-year-old black malamute-German shepherd. What Darcy really wants to show me is down the street about a half-mile. I climb into his sedan. Grizz runs alongside us, a powerful dark shadow, beating us to the horses’ “lakefront property,” as Darcy calls it.
Inside the three-acre fenced area open to a lake are Waskotay, “Shining Heart,” and Makade, “Black,” a gelding and one of their oldest horses. Darcy describes him as leader of the herd. Waskotay is the youngest in the herd, a skinny, gangly 14-month-old colt.
Darcy enters the enclosure, and Waskotay pushes and nips for attention. They’ve left Makade, nicknamed Mac, with him to train the youngster in proper behavior. Darcy hopes Mac’s calmness will rub off on Waskotay.
Courtesy Marie Zhuikov
Waskotay nuzzles up to Grizzly, another resident of the Grey Raven Ranch on the Seine River First Nation in Ontario.
Grizz squeezes through a hole in the fence and nuzzles the horses. I raise my camera to capture the dog-to-horse, nose-to-nose hello with Mac. “Look at how gentle,” Darcy says as I snap the photo. “That’s a picture worth a thousand words.”
Waskotay shoulders in for attention from Grizz, too. “Waskotay went through a naming ceremony,” Darcy says. “We keep it very traditional in our program. Shining Heart is his spirit name. He’s our shining hope for the Ojibwe horse breed. You’re looking at the future right there.”
This article was originally published in the December/January 2021 Lake Superior Magazine and is being published by Equine Monthly magazine with permission of the author and Lake Superior Magazine. To preserve the original voice and style of the author, no pre-press edits have been made.
About Marie Zhuikov: Horse crazy as a child, Duluth novelist and poet Marie Zhuikov welcomed this opportunity to revisit her passion. To learn more, please visit marieZwrites.com.