By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Dale and Sallianne Patch have always been horse people but they’ve never had horses like the herd of Lac La Croix Indian Ponies, also known as Spirit or Ojibwe horses, at their horse farm near Gads Hill in Perth County called Aspens Ojibwe Horses.
“I’m not saying all Ojibwe horses are like this but this family is amazingly gentle with each other and with us as human beings,” says Sallianne who stresses that she and Dale do not own these horses. Instead, they are caretakers of this historical breed which came to their farm, known as Aspens Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary, as a family.
The four horses arrived semi-feral, with the sire Takona, a dam and their two offspring. The youngest was 11 and the four had always lived together, under the care of another caretaker who was ready to pass on the responsibility to the Patches.
While it took some time to earn their trust, the four horses were always gentle. They do not fight for hay or are rammy at feeding or around people. “I have had horses all my life, but I have never come across this,” says Sallianne.
Becoming caretakers of the four Ojibwe horses has put the Patches on a journey concerning First Nations people, their horses, history and the realities of their lives today. They are members of the Ojibwe Horse Society and work with Indigenous teachers when they take the horses to schools and groups with the goal of promotion, preservation and protection of these horses and Indigenous culture.
“The Avon Maitland School Board allows us to visit elementary schools with the horses, where the story of colonization and ultimate survival is told,” says Sallianne. Indigenous educators use a program called ‘Finding the Ojibwe Horse’ by Ken MacDonald to share this story.
The Patches also host a monthly “open barn event” which is supported by Tourism Perth. Each month, an average of 50 visitors get to meet the horses and learn about Indigenous culture.
“Our goal as caretakers is to enable the local indigenous community to access and learn from the herd on the sanctuary, and ultimately to be able to reunite with the horses and care for them themselves,” says Sallianne.
It will take time. It’s expensive to take care of horses. The Patches estimate it costs $4,000 per horse per year for their keep. Indigenous communities already have many issues to deal with and preserving a horse breed is pretty minor to other concerns with the community. This is why caretakers are needed.
To earn their keep, the Takona family of horses are used with Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) programs. Dale and Sallianne partner with family services and other agencies to help indigenous families reconnect with their equine relatives and discover the special bond they share. Sallianne believes that because Ojibwe horses have been relatively isolated from colonialist society, they retain an “untamed spiritual connection” that other horses do not have. “They are particularly suitable to engage in connecting with Indigenous people,” she says.
During the EAL sessions, the horses are not ridden. Instead, participants learn to develop a relationship with the horses during groundwork sessions. The goal is for the student to develop a relationship with the horse and learn to communicate effectively. These communication and confidence-building skills are meant to carry over into everyday life. With the help of a facilitator, participants become much more aware of how their own body language and verbal skills are received or interpreted. Sallianne took a course to offer EAL and is a former therapeutic ride instructor, as well as a nurse.
Dale and Sallianne use the Ojibwe horses for EAL along with their own warmblood and Icelandic horses.
“It’s not only empowering and insightful but it’s a great deal of fun,” says Sallianne.
The farm also offers “date nights” for couples to spend time with the horses. “With all horses, there is trust.They are non-threatening and there is no judgment.”
The reason Ojibwe horses are also called “Spirit Horses” by the Indigenous people is that, historically, the horses were understood to be “a gift from the Creator that serves as a spiritual companion and an amplifier for powerful healing energy” as stated in a research article by Angela Snowshoe and Noel V, Starblanket.
The Patches have witnessed it. Stepping into their enclosure does seem to be a calming experience, with the friendly horses eager for a pat and calmly accepting apple treats from Dale and Sallianne.
They explain that Ojibwe horses have many desirable traits that make them perfect “all around” horses. They characteristics include:
– intelligence, with a broad forehead and bright, kind eyes
– tolerant of human ineptitude, making them particularly suitable for beginner handlers
– common sense
– strong animal full of spirit
– an average height of 13 hh at maturity (six years)
Ojibwe horses are predominantly varieties of dun, bay, black, or grulla and red but can be any colour except white, creams or a variant. All Ojibwe horses have a dorsal stripe. White markings are permitted on the face providing they do extend from eye to eye or are classified as white face. Their action is clean, straight, smooth and flowing.
Dale and Sallianne were actually retired when the opportunity to be caretakers of the Ojibwe horses presented itself. They took on the responsibility to, in a small way, have a part in putting things to rights between settlers and Indigenous peoples. Also, to protect the Takona family and grow the Ojibwe horse herd. Two of the horses are pregnant.
“It is going to take First Nations people and settlers working together to ensure the future of these very special horses, and we feel very privileged to be part of that journey,” conclude Dale and Sallianne. ◊