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 Canada’s only indigenous-developed horse breed. The breed is also known as the Lac La Croix Indian Pony, and was developed by the Ojibwe people.
The filly foal’s arrival on a farm near Dugald, Manitoba, is the first since the breed became “locally extinct” from the province many years ago.
Following a traditional Ojibwe naming ceremony, the foal was named Giigwanens, which translates to Little Comet in English. She was bred at the farm of Trevor Kirczenow, the registrar for the Ojibwe Horse Society.
Ojibwe horses were once plentiful throughout the boreal forests of North America, but are now considered critically endangered. Records indicate they lived with all the First Nations that congregated in present-day Manitoba, as well as in Ontario and northern United States. They are generally from 12hh to 14.2hh.
“The last few of the breed were rescued by a partnership of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in 1977 near Lac La Croix First Nation, Ontario. Now, there are about 200,” Kirczenow says.
In 1977, for “health reasons”, the Canadian government planned to shoot the last four Ojibwe horses living at the village of Lac La Croix, Ontario. Fred Isham, Wally Olsen, Walter Saatela, and Omar Hilde, and the people of Lac La Croix caught the last four Ojibwe horses (all mares) and spirited them across the border into Minnesota via an ice road.
Saatela kept the mares at his Minnesota farm immediately after the rescue, and introduced the Spanish Mustang stallion Smokey SMR 169 to breed them. As their numbers grew, Saatela sold or gave away horses to other breeders nearby in Minnesota. All Ojibwe horses today descend from the original four mares that were rescued from Lac La Croix in 1977.
Rare Breeds Canada became involved with the breed in 1992, and over the next decade, coordinated the repatriation of several dozen ponies from the Minnesota breeders, placing them at host farms in Canada.
There are currently breeding groups of Ojibwe Horses in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Alabama. There are fewer than 10 in Manitoba.
Kirczenow said the filly’s mother Asemaa’kwe (Tobacco Medicine Woman in Ojibwe) came from Ontario two years ago. “Her sire, Crane, was in Manitoba last year to participate in the Ojibwe Horse Society’s breeding program. Since 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 society has frozen Crane’s semen to help safeguard the breed for the future. As of last year, there were only about 30 Ojibwe breeding stallions.
“Keeping multiple stallions intact is difficult for most owners due to fencing and space requirements. Unfortunately, this has led to the gelding of many stallions in the breed, without reproducing, which narrows the breed’s gene pool,” the society said.
In Manitoba, these small yet powerful horses were used by the Métis for the Red River carts and traditionally lived alongside indigenous people at their winter camps. They figured prominently as spirit animals as well as helpers for activities such as logging, trapping, and hauling.
The Ojibwe Horse Society has funded studies that show these horses have unique genetic characteristics from other horses. More research is ongoing that suggests Ojibwe Horses may have been in North America before European arrival.