People and Places

Smith Falls vet saves rare horse species from extinction

What is a herd of wild horses from Alberta doing on a farm near Smiths Falls? That’s a question for Gaelin O’Grady, a horse breeder who tends the animals on her 400-acre property, where she also runs a veterinary clinic with her husband. With unfettered access to pasture, bush, and forest, the habitat is very much like the wilderness from which the horses came.

“I went out to Alberta looking for an endurance horse, and I fell in love with Widowmaker,” says Gaelin of the wild mustang stallion that started it all. When she bought him, along with four mares to form a breeding herd, she took an important step toward helping to save this rare species from extinction.

Photo: Sandy Sharkey
Photo: Sandy Sharkey

“They’re Thinkers”
While the Suffield mustangs on the O’Grady farm are technically no longer wild, they are not domesticated either. When I visited on a cold, sleeting night, they appeared out of the gloom, manes long and wild, eyes watchful, demeanour calm but wary. They certainly did not approach looking for carrots as would most domesticated horses. While mustangs might be more aware of their surroundings than domesticated horses — they’ll spot a coyote in the bush at a distance — they do not panic. Once handled and ridden by humans, they become very loyal. “They’re thinkers,” says O’Grady, “and they are amazingly quick to learn and have adapted to many uses. They are perfect horses for endurance riding.”

Photo: Sandy Sharkey
Photo: Sandy Sharkey

Hunted Down
“They are essentially Canadian and a link to our heritage, our pioneer days,” says O’Grady, who is president of the Suffield Mustangs Association of Canada. She believes that Canada should follow the lead of the United States, where wild horses are protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which protects wild horses on public land. But in western Canada, friction between ranchers and wild horses has led to accusations of hunting and culling.

“There are a few wild horses left in the mountains out west, but their future is more grim than bright,” says O’Grady. “While the American herds remain protected, the Canadian ones have been hunted almost to extinction.”

Photo: Sandy Sharkey
Photo: Sandy Sharkey

Fenced In
O’Grady’s horses are descended from a genetically distinct wild herd that developed and prospered for at least 60 years on ranchland south of Calgary. But their freedom became threatened in the 1940s, when the Suffield army base was created  near Medicine Hat. A fence was erected around a 200-square-mile section of the base, and in 1994 the federal government invited ranchers far and wide to buy the horses for a song. Luckily, some found homes with breeders keen to maintain their lineage — the lack of contact with humans over the years means they are a strong bunch. “They don’t have any of the health issues that modern horses have. They’re incredibly tough, sensible, [and] intelligent,” says O’Grady. “They had to be, as only the fittest survived.”

The Future
“Canadian Suffield mustangs’ time as ‘wild horses’ came to an end when the Canadian government ordered them removed from the base,” says O’Grady. “Their only future is as domesticated horses.” Her association wants to see them recognized as a critically endangered distinct breed and is working to preserve the very best aspects of these formerly wild horses — any horse that is bred to a horse that is not a Suffield mustang is not eligible to be registered as a Suffield. But they will never again be wild. “In order to be successful in man’s world, the Suffield mustangs need to be valuable to man. Hopefully the Suffields will have a brighter future as a domesticated breed,” says O’Grady.