Searching for wild horses that still run free across Alberta’s eastern slopes
“Stop the car!” I shrieked. Standing a few meters from the dusty gravel road was a chocolate brown steed, no fence hemming him. His coat glinted in the early morning sun, his muzzle moving greedily across the grass, his muscular haunches relaxed.
I love horses – pay for expensive shoes and stable board for my own horse – but I’d never seen a wild horse and wanted to see if they were different from tame steeds. So I set out for the crown forestry lands in Alberta’s eastern slopes – a Maine-size strip of forest and foothills along the Rockies on the province’s west side – and Ya Ha Tinda Ranch where Parks Canada winters horses used by their rangers. I hoped to see some of Alberta’s truly wild horses or failing that, horses pretending to be free at the ranch.
As I trained my camera on the stallion, his ears turned in our direction indicating he knew we were watching but we weren’t the first motorists he’d seen. In keeping with Alberta’s fierce independence, the eastern slopes are a world where off highway vehicles meander, random camping abounds (pull up a piece of wilderness and stay for free!), and fishing and hunting are popular. Rules are few and rowdy behavior common.
Wild horses fit this landscape. They’re remnants of an era when horses were used for logging and hunting. Of no further use as technology advanced, they were let loose and became feral. A century later their ancestors remain.
Last winter was hard on these horses according to The Wild Horses of Alberta Society, an organization committed to preservation of the province’s wild horses. Deep snow reduced food sources but the stallion in front of me was plump, its hide glossy and free of wounds.
As I snapped photos, a branch snapped loudly behind me. It was either the world’s clumsiest bear approaching or another horse. Cautiously I swung around to glimpse a black shape plodding through the forest. A tangled mane framed dark eyes as a horse emerged from the trees and crossed the road to join its friend.
Experts estimate there are approximately 900 wild horses in Alberta; most live in the area west of Sundre, a town with a large car wash and a Tim Horton’s drive-through welcoming off-road enthusiasts.
Most Albertans like or at least tolerate the “wildies” as wild horses are sometimes called, but other people argue they harm the environment and without natural predators, should be removed.
There have been round ups of wild horses but these creatures take skill to tame. At the stable where my horse boards, there is a wild horse that was captured with her mother two decades ago. Babe is short, compact, and stubborn; she’s not easy to ride but she’s taken Taylor Hill to novice Reserve Provincial Champion in their first year competing in Extreme Cowboy Racing. Hill, a fan of this former wild horse, explained . . .
“She’s very brave – of all the obstacles we’ve done, nothing has fazed her. She’s smart, competitive, and once she figures out what is being asked of her, it sticks. And she’s got endurance – this little pony can go forever!”
We continued winding our way along the narrow gravel roads; charred fire rings in roadside meadows remnants of weekend campers. A gas plant ringed by chain link fence proclaimed “No Trespassing”. I glanced at my cell phone by habit but there was no signal. Forced to revert to a paper map, I traced the faint line for our road and squinted through the windshield.
“Are those more horses?” I queried my husband. We’d passed several cows grazing at large and in the early morning light, large brown lumps could be bovine or equine.
We slowed to discover a small horse herd, the stallion’s eyes and ears focused on our approach. His sorrel neck was thick, his stance erect. Behind him several mares huddled, a foal born this summer pressed against her mother’s side. They nibbled roadside grass but never strayed more than a few meters from the forest’s shelter.
I greedily snapped photos, enjoying the morning quiet, hoping no other vehicles disturbed our dawn reverie.
But too soon another vehicle roared by, the horses melted into the forest, and we continued on to Ya Ha Tinda and the nearby Bighorn Campground dedicated to equestrians.
Long, goose-necked horse trailers were parked under poplar trees; the sound of horses whinnying and a hammer striking an anvil carried across the air. Just down the road, I counted twenty Parks Canada horses enjoying winter holidays at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, a working ranch since 1917.
Covering 3,945 hectares it is the only federally operated working horse ranch in Canada. Waist-high grass and sky-high mountains offered a postcard backdrop for ranch guests and riders hauling in their own horses.
As we poked the embers of our campfire, I thought back to the wild herd I’d sat with earlier. Unlike Babe, it was likely the young foal I’d seen would live out its life in this wilderness. I was grateful for the moments of grace with these animals whose ancestors once knew human control but now live free, perhaps proving we need them more than they need us.