Travel

Ojibway spirit horses gallop into view

Everything you need to know about the eight unique spirit horses at Ottawa's Mādahòkì Farm

  • Oct 13, 2022
  • 1,206 words
  • 5 minutes
The spirit horses at Mādahòkì Farm each have unique characteristics and their own personality. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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You don’t have to be an equestrian to appreciate eight unusual horses grazing on the sweet summer grass in the Ottawa greenbelt. You just have to be into stories, and this is a good one.

Horses and ponies were first introduced to North America by the Spanish in the late 1400s. Within a few years, the animal began to play a crucial role in the history of the continent’s conquest, exploration, transportation, and agriculture. Some might think of the spirited mustang as a native untamed horse, but that legendary breed is a descendant of Spanish horses. What about the wild herd of horses on the sandy beaches of Sable Island, or the free-roaming ponies of Assateague? They’re from Spanish stock too. According to Smithsonian Magazine: “Native horses once lived in North America, but they died out over 10,000 years ago.” This is the history book narrative, and it is wrong.

Sweetgrass and Cedar, two of the spirit horses that can be found at Mādahòkì Farm. (Photo: Orange Horse Studio)
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There was a native breed of horse roaming North America when the Spanish arrived. A shorter, furrier and timid creature well adapted to its environment, and one that had appeared in legends since the dawn of human stories. Indigenous communities never saw these horses as a tool to be exploited, regarding them instead as powerful spirits, teachers, and guides. Settlers saw only a docile, useless pest causing havoc in the fields. The Ojibway Spirit Horse – also known as the Lac La Croix Pony – was hunted to the very point of extinction, and discarded from the history books. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of an Anishinaabe artist, passionate horse lovers, a daring late-night rescue mission, and the ambitions of an Indigenous tourism pioneer, North America’s native equestrian wonder is finally galloping back into view. 

“Every living thing has a spirit,” explains cultural ambassador Maggie Downer as she proudly shows me around Indigenous Experience’s 164-acre Mādahòkì Farm. Leading me to the horse enclosure, she explains how plants, land, people, and animals are all part of a circle, not a hierarchical pyramid. This way of life is baked into Mādahòkì, (which translates in Anishnaabe as ‘share the land’) creating a unique cultural, educational, event and reconciliation space that emerged from the ashes of the tourism company’s former location on Victoria Island. That cultural centre that was destroyed in a 2010 arson attack, was rebuilt and set ablaze again in another arson attack in 2014. In fall 2021, Mādahòkì Farm opened its gates on West Hunt Road not far from Ottawa’s city centre, expanding the vision of founder and Indigenous tourism pioneer Trina Mather-Simard. Trina found this land after she’d committed to bringing four Ojibway Spirit Horses to Ottawa, inspired by a CBC Radio interview with an Anishnaabe visual artist named Rhonda Snow. 

Growing up in Northwestern Ontario, Rhonda Snow had heard legends about the Ojibway Spirit Horses since she was eleven years old. Inspired to learn more, she travelled around the country – Turtle Island – gathering stories and tales from elders and communities. One legend recalls how three Ojibway horses successfully protected kids hiding in a schoolhouse from residential school agents. Another speaks of Métis fishermen partnering with the horses each winter to haul fish off frozen lakes, with the horses roaming free in the woods during summer months.

Settler’s treatment of Ojibway horses appeared to mirror the treatment of Canada’s Indigenous people in general. An Indian Affairs report referred to them as “worthless, useless little ponies we need to get rid of.” Despite their heritage as the continent’s only native horses – equipped with speed, strength and stamina – ranchers only saw a pest to eradicate. Ignoring their cultural significance as Indigenous companions and spiritual allies, the horses were hunted, shipped off to glue or dog food factories, and quietly destined for oblivion. In 1977, Canadian authorities ordered the destruction of the last four Ojibway horses in Canada. In a plot worthy of a Disney movie, a late-night clandestine rescue operation was able to smuggle these survivors to safety across the US border. 

The spirit horses at Mādahòkì Farm were purchased by Trina Mather-Simard before she had a place to put them. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Founder of Mādahòkì Farm and Indigenous tourism pioneer, Trina Mather-Simard with some of the farm's horses. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Following an exhaustive search decades later, Rhonda Snow found the last four remaining Ojibway mares in Minnesota. Although cross-bred with mustangs, the mares retained physical markers typical of Ojibway horses well adapted for life in the dense boreal forests of Ontario. This includes hairy ears for warmth, an extra nose flap to stave off frostbite in winter, dorsal stripes on their back, knotted manes, and tiger-like stripes on their legs. Overcoming various challenges, Rhonda was able to proudly return the mares to her ranch in Fort Frances, Ontario. Aided by her research into the horse’s DNA and history, a newly-formed Ojibway Horse Society was established to create a foundation stock that would re-introduce the endangered breed to their home and native land. For her efforts, Rhonda received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Rare Breeds Canada, an organization that preserves the country’s heritage livestock. But the Ojibway Spirit Horse is not out of the woods just yet. Critically endangered, there are only about 250 ponies in existence, including the eight I see thriving at Mādahòkì Farm. Maggie invites me to the paddock fence to meet one of the most recent members of the family. 

Reconciliation stones with handwritten wishes and names from those who visit the farm. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Born in spring 2022, Giizhik (Cedar) nuzzles grass from my hand as her mother Wishkossiwiki (Sweetgrass) looks on. Maggie proudly introduces each horse as if I’m meeting her close family. Migzi (Eagle) is playful and boisterous, and with his clear Ojibway markings, remains a prized stud within the Ojibway horse breeding community. Gwiingwiishi (Grey Jay) is quiet, and sweet, and often motivates the youngsters. Kitagokons (Fawn) is a proud mother to several foals and loves attention. Stanji is a super-sweet, solid citizen, while the oldest member of the herd, Mukaday-Wagoosh (Black Fox) is watchful, protective, and the clear boss of the family. A large poster by the corral identifies each horse, and anyone is free to visit the farm and interact with them. Curious and well-natured, they are ideal therapy horses, and several have been trained to ride.

Trina Mather-Simard looks at the horses, beaming like a proud mother. Ojibwe herself, and with two horse-mad daughters, Trina bought the horses before she even knew where to put them. Fortuitously finding a former event space in a state of disrepair, the community mobilized and quickly cleaned the place up, introducing traditional tobacco, vegetable and cedar beds, farm animals like pigs, goats, sheep and rabbits, and a fantastic Indigenous gift shop. They also created a kilometre-long Heritage path to be lined with Reconciliation Stones – orange-painted rocks containing the handwritten wishes and names of all who visit Mādahòkì.   

The farm – which includes a stage, hall, garden, barn and picnic tables – has already hosted a variety of events, including a free Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival that attracted 30,000 people, and more intimate gatherings throughout the year. After so many years of challenge and heartache, the future is looking bright for both Mādahòkì Farm and the Ojibway Spirit Horses. “When I first heard about the horses, I just knew they should be part of our story, and how we tell our story too,” says Trina.    

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