Endangered Canadian horse breed welcomes new foal

Giigwanens is the first foal of the rare breed of the Ojibwe horse to be born in Manitoba in many years. © Ken MacDonald

The arrival of the first foal of the rare Ojibwe horse breed in decades has been a cause for celebration in a Canadian province.

The Ojibwe horse is the only breed of horse developed by the native people of Canada. The breed is also known as the Lac La Croix Indian pony and was developed by the Ojibwe people.

The arrival of the filly on a farm near Dugald, Manitoba is the first since the breed became “locally extinct” from the province many years ago.

Giigwanens and his mother Asemaa'kwe at Trevor Kirczenow's farm.
Giigwanens and his mother Asemaa’kwe at Trevor Kirczenow’s farm. © Ken MacDonald

Following a traditional Ojibwe baptism ceremony, the foal was named Giigwanens, which translates to Little Comet in English. She was raised on the farm of Trevor Kirczenow, the registrar of the Ojibwe Horse Society.

Ojibway horses were once abundant in the boreal forests of North America, but are now considered critically endangered. Records indicate that they lived with all of the First Nations that congregated in present-day Manitoba, as well as Ontario and the northern United States. They are generally from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.

“The last members of the breed were rescued by a partnership of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in 1977 near Lac La Croix First Nation in Ontario. Now there are around 200, ”Kirczenow says.

In 1977, for “health reasons”, the Canadian government planned to slaughter the last four Ojibway horses living in the village of Lac La Croix, Ontario. Fred Isham, Wally Olsen, Walter Saatela and Omar Hilde, and the people of Lac La Croix grabbed the last four Ojibwe horses (all mares) and took them across the border to Minnesota via a road from ice.

Saatela kept the mares on his Minnesota farm immediately after the rescue and brought in the Spanish Mustang stallion Smokey SMR 169 to breed them. As their numbers increased, Saatela sold or gave horses to other ranchers in Minnesota. All Ojibway horses today are descended from the original four mares that were rescued from Lac La Croix in 1977.

Rare Breeds Canada got involved in the breed in 1992 and over the next decade coordinated the repatriation of several dozen ponies from Minnesota breeders, placing them on host farms in Canada.

There are currently breeding groups of Ojibway horses in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Alabama. There are less than 10 in Manitoba.

Kirczenow said the dam of the filly, Asemaa’kwe (female tobacco doctor in Ojibwe) came from Ontario two years ago. “His father, Crane, was in Manitoba last year to participate in the Ojibwe Horse Society breeding program. As he was housed on our farm, we were able to have him cover our mare in the field, and this filly is his first offspring.

The company froze Crane’s semen to help protect the breed for the future. Last year there were only about 30 Ojibway breeding stallions.

“Keeping multiple stallions intact is difficult for most owners due to the fence and space requirements. Unfortunately, this led to the gelding of many stallions of the breed, without breeding, which reduced the breed’s gene pool, ”the company said.

In Manitoba, these small but powerful horses were used by the Métis for the Red River carts and traditionally lived alongside the Aboriginal peoples in their winter camps. They featured prominently as spirit animals as well as assistants in activities such as logging, trapping, and transportation.

The Ojibwe Horse Society has funded studies which show that these horses have unique genetic characteristics compared to other horses. Further research is ongoing and suggests that Ojibwe horses may have been in North America before the arrival of Europeans.

Ojibway Horse Society

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