History & Heritage

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How the Horse Changed the West - When horses galloped across the U.S. border onto Alberta’s rolling prairies in the 1720s, it was a bit of an overdue homecoming. It had been roughly 10,000 years since the province’s expansive grasslands shuddered under hard equestrian hooves. Fossils indicate that North America is the original home of the horse, where it first appeared millions of years ago.

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Ever since the wheel was first invented around 3,500 BC in Mesopotamia as a wooden disc with a hole in the middle for some form of axle, creative Sumarian minds were buzzing. They were, after all, already planting crops, herding animals, and had a pretty impressive social order. But getting the wheel contraption right took a bit of creative genius. The holes in the centre of the disc and at the ends of the axle had to be perfectly smooth and round in order for the wheel to fit and turn. Otherwise, too much friction would cause breakage.

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Twenty years ago, the Oregon Horse Center in Eugene, Oregon held an indoor trail competition using log obstacles, water ponds, and dirt embankments to transform their arena into mountain trails. That event was the beginning of competitive mountain trail, where neatly dressed riders navigate an untimed, subjectively-judged course of obstacles typically found on wilderness mountain trails. In Canada, two organizations promote the sport — International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) Canada and the British Columbia Mountain Trail Association (BCMTA)— and each has their own rules, judging criteria, and obstacles.

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Ron Turcotte is a celebrated Thoroughbred jockey renowned for riding the superstar racehorse Secretariat to win the US Triple Crown in 1973.

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In the National Army Museum in London, U.K., a special exhibit features a curious box. The walls on the inside of the box are mirrors, each one reflecting another. Placed inside the box are dozens of cut-out horses. They are all white, unnamed, undefined. But as they reflect back and forth on the mirrors, the little cut-out horses are multiplied into infinity. The image, so simple, is a profound reminder that over eight million horses on all enemy sides died in the horrors of the First World War.

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The sacrifice of the ten million men who lost their lives during the conflict, which endured from 1914 to 1918, is well known. Less well known is the price paid by the estimated eight million horses that perished in the Great War, a fact lamented by Private James Robert Johnston, a horse transport driver who served with the 14th Canadian Machine Gun Company, in his memoir, Riding into War: “Very little has been said about the horses and mules that were used and what they suffered is beyond all description.”

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The relationship between horses and people in Canada is rich, deep, and ancient. And the story of horses in our country is as old as time itself. To understand the horse’s place in our lives today, we need to look back through the pages of history.

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Canadian Quarter Horse Association