Thursday, July 11, 2024

Bristol farm new home to rare Ojibwe horse

In early May, Cheryl Bezoine took a road trip to visit horses of a rare breed she had been curious about for years, had spent hours reading about online, but had never seen in person.
Bezoine and her husband Vincent Perrier own TNT Belgian’s in Bristol, where they breed and train Belgian horses for competing in draft horse pulls. In the winter, they put their four Belgians to work, offering sleigh rides on the trails they have made across their 250 or so acres of land.
The couple spends a lot of time researching desirable bloodlines of Belgian draft horses, and many hours on the road to visit with horses in the U.S. they might be interested in buying, or breeding, for their farm.
But this trip was different for Bezoine. She was going to visit a farm that breeds Ojibwe Spirit horses, also known as the Lac La Croix Indigenous pony, a once-wild horse which became nearly extinct in the 20th century.
Bezoine is Ojibwe herself, but because her father was separated from his First Nation on Manitoulin Island when he was put in a residential school, she grew up disconnected from her Indigenous culture. When she learned about these horses, she felt a sense of kinship with the animals which, like her, were slowly trying to recover from the repercussions of colonization.
“The things I read about what those horses went through, that the government wanted them destroyed, I associate it with my Dad,” Bezoine said.
She felt immediately inspired to buy one and care for it on her farm in Bristol.
Her trip to the stable in Chatham, Ont. was meant to be a first step towards this dream.
“I wasn’t planning on purchasing. I was going down with a friend to look,” Bezoine said, noting she usually likes to do a lot of research into a horse’s ancestry before buying it.
“But when I went into the pen, Niimi was the first one that came to me, and the whole time I was in there, she followed me around. I knew I had to have her.”
Niimi is the name given to the 23-year-old horse that Bezoine fell in love with in Chatham that day.
Ojibwe horses are small, usually between 12 and 14 hands tall, and sturdy, with fuzzy ears and an extra flap on their nose to protect them from the cold. They are typically of a dun colouring, with a dorsal stripe down their back, and subtle striping running down their legs.
While they mostly roamed free in the boreal forests surrounding the Great Lakes, they were often used by Anishinaabe communities for help with hunting and gathering, and other types of work, and were of spiritual significance in Ojibwe culture.
According to the Ojibwe Horse Society, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the endangered breed, DNA testing has shown these horses are genetically distinct from those introduced to North America by Europeans in the 1400s.
In fact, Ojibwe horses ran wild for thousands of years until the early 1900s, when settler farmers found them to be a nuisance to their crops, and the horses were hunted to near extinction.
In 1977, only four mares remained in the Lac La Croix First Nation area. Canadian officials, deeming them to be a health risk, ordered them to be euthanized.
But before this could happen, a group of Indigenous men evacuated the horses from Canada to a ranch in Minnesota, where they were bred with a Spanish Mustang, according to the Ojibwe Horse Society.
Decades later, a woman named Rhonda Snow, having heard legends of these horses told by elders in her home in Northwestern Ontario, tracked down the last four mares of the breed. She brought them back to her ranch in Canada and began to grow a new herd.
According to the Ojibwe Horse Society, Niimi is the great-granddaughter to one of the last four mares that were saved from slaughter in 1977, and one of about 200 horses of this breed alive today.
Bezoine brought Niimi back to her farm the same day she bought her, making Niimi the only Ojibwe horse living in Quebec.
“I cried on the way home. I was just so full of joy and happiness. I’m in awe. I can’t believe I did it,” Bezoine said.
“I know I can’t save them all, but I’m starting that first step of taking care of heritage that’s so important to my people.”
Bringing Niimi onto her farm is both key to Bezoine’s bigger project of learning about the culture and identity that she said her father was too ashamed to teach her about as a child, and also a welcome distraction from this project, which can at times be painful.
Bezoine has been trying to reach out to various members of her father’s family for help tracking down some documentation that she might be able to use to apply for what Canada calls Indian status, but has not yet been successful.
“I’m just trying to find out who my family really is,” Bezoine said. “And she’s taking my mind off of it.”
Niimi is much smaller than the four Belgians and the retired quarter horse who already live on Bezoine’s farm, but she said she’s fitting in very well; so well, in fact, that Bezoine and Perrier are already considering buying another Ojibwe horse.
Bezoine said once Niimi is well settled, she would like to invite people to visit with the horse on the farm, and learn more about the heritage she and the horse share.
“They were broken down. My Dad was broken down. I don’t want to be broken down,” Bezoine said. “So this is reconciliation.”


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