The Ojibway spirit horse, is thought to be the only existing breed of horse developed by Indigenous people in Canada. It is a small horse that once lived freely in the boreal forest and worked as a service animal — and is also considered a spirit animal — for the indigenous people of Ontario and northern Minnesota. In the first half of the twentieth century, Ojibway horses were replaced by the internal combustion engine, and were caught and sold for dog meat and glue. By 1977, the numbers had dwindled from thousands … to four. Canadian health officials had reportedly deemed the four remaining horses a health risk and made plans to destroy them. To prevent the loss of these last horses, five men from Bois Forte and Lac La Croix rescued them in an action resembling a heist movie. They loaded the horses onto a trailer and drove them across the frozen lake to a private property in Minnesota where a breeding effort was launched that continues today. Sadly, there are still fewer than 200 Ojibway horses in existence and even those numbers are threatened as several breeders are retiring. In particular, keeping a good selection of stallions is critical to maintaining the breed’s already limited gene pool, but very few people have the resources and facilities to care for an intact male horse.
WHY THEY MATTER
It would be tragic to lose an entire breed, especially one that is native to this country and an integral part of aboriginal history. Ojibway elder Fred Isham recalled, “our horses ran around here free, the way dogs run. When you wanted to use a horse, you just went and caught one. Most of ‘em were like community horses.” They were traditionally used for hauling logs and ice, checking trap lines, and riding. Today, this friendly, all-purpose breed is used in Indigenous programs, equine therapy, and tourism. Additionally, because of their great temperaments, athleticism and people-positive attitude, Ojibway horses excel in equine disciplines ranging from show jumping to driving to trail riding. Terry responded to the Ojibway Horse Society's urgent call-out on social media, and eventually purchased horses from Fort Frances breeder Rhonda Snow. Included in Terry’s new herd are seven stallions and young stud colts whose genetics she intends to preserve. Terry is the founder of TJ Stables, which is located near three First Nations reserves where Ojibwe horses traditionally lived. Having heard about them from her father, Terry had spent years trying to find descendants of these same horses, encountering endless false leads and dead ends until she saw our post on Facebook. Finally, some of these horses are returning to an area from which they have been extirpated. Terry Jenkins joins a small but highly dedicated group of Ojibwe horse caretakers that work to preserve this very special breed. There are only about 30 Ojibwe stallions and 80 Ojibwe mares of breeding age alive in the world today. They currently live across Canada, including at Lac La Croix First Nation and Seine River First Nation in Ontario and at Alberta Farms in Alabama. Many other caretakers raise awareness about the breed by displaying the ponies at public exhibitions and using them in programs such as equine assisted learning.
HOW YOU CAN HELP Thanks to remarkable people like Terry Jenkins, the breed’s chances of survival are improving. The Ojibway Horse Society continues to develop breeding and research initiatives, working with caretakers, scientists, and veterinarians. We have begun a semen collection and storage program, with one Ojibway stallion’s genetics preserved so far, and plans for more. Geneticist Dr. Gus Cothran has suggested sequencing the whole genome of the breed to learn more about its origins, an endeavor that has recently come down dramatically in price due to new advancements in technology.