Memories of the old grey mare and real horsepower

A little mare pulling a buggy piloted by a diminutive Scot, the latter holding the halter shank of the stallion that pranced alongside

HOWARD FREDEEN

A little mare pulling a buggy piloted by a diminutive Scot, the latter holding the halter shank of the stallion that pranced alongside; a stallion with arched neck, head on high, prancing feet, shining hooves visible beneath the feather and fire in his eyes.

A beautiful sight in the eyes of all onlookers and a common sight in pioneer years when every pioneer raised their own horsepower for work that ranged from farmyard chores with the buggy to duties involved in crop production and road building.

A team, even a single horse, sufficed for the former but the latter required hitches of four to eight horses to break new sod, harvest the crop and operate road construction equipment.

The hitches would be either mares or geldings. Stallions were too high-spirited and their attention too easily diverted to provide steady power, hence the need for the traveling stallion to ensure a new crop of foals would be available for annual replenishment of the power supply.

The service provided by traveling studs was augmented by stallions maintained in studs operated by the federal government. These studs, an integral part of the experimental farms system, were intended to upgrade the quality of draft horses in the local area, each stud featuring the breed or breeds of importance to the local agricultural community.

Two breeds, the Clydesdale and the Percheron got the nod in the Lacombe area when the experiment station was created here in 1907. Mares were brought to the station for breeding. No service fee was charged and pasture was provided for a weekly charge of $4 per week. During the period 1946 to 1958 more than 150 mares were pastured annually.

A Shire breeding program, initiated by a gift provided by the Shire Society of Great Britain, began in 1923. Shire stallions stood for public service until 1929 with 200 mares served in the final year.

At the station the Shire lost out to the Clydesdale, its smaller look-alike cousin; by 1938 the Clydesdale was the signature breed of the station and provider of all of its horsepower. During the summer, 20 horses, all registered Clydesdales, stood harnessed and ready for fieldwork each morning at 8 a.m.

A thoroughbred was added in 1946 to meet a demand for lighter weight horses. His name was Warrenpoint. When he was retired in 1958 all horse breeding service at the station was terminated but his tenure had provided an innovative example of rustling.

Warrenpoint’s pedigree was studded with relatives sporting impressive championships at the racetrack.

Accordingly, his service fee was $50. A sharp contrast with the zero fee charged for the draft breeds. But even $50 was too much for one individual. One night an employee returning late to the bunkhouse noted the stallion’s stall was vacant and a mare was being loaded into a truck parked in the shadows. He recorded the license number and reported the incident to the superintendent the next morning, evidence the stallion had worked overtime was readily established and the RCMP were called.

They were not surprised; the license number was well known.

Before pressing charges they wanted to have the crime described. This proved difficult. Theft of semen was not listed among crimes. Since the stallion did not appear to be disturbed by the night’s proceedings, the matter was dropped.

The sequel to this story came the following summer. The culprit demanded the station, as owner of the  stallion that had yielded to temptation, sign the foal’s registration papers; a detail required by law for registration of the resulting foal.

Jack Stothart, the station director and thus de facto ‘owner’ of the stallion, rejected this demand. His Ottawa boss gave a direct order. Jack refused a second time, referencing the letter he had sent to Ottawa the previous year providing details of the unauthorized liaison. But the man was persistent and fortified with political connections as well for he wrote the minister of agriculture claiming the station was in contempt of the Pedigree Act for failure to provide service papers.

The minister himself ordered Stothart to sign the papers. The traveling stallion has vanished from the scene. Draft horses were rendered redundant with the advent of tractor power. Such was the case on the home farm where I was born. Forty horses provided the power and on average two foals were introduced to harness each year. When the time came to convert to tractor power the down payment for a 25 horsepower tractor required the sale of 30 young but experienced harness-ready horses at $10 per head. Draft horses remain visible today but only as chore boys at livestock shows or as show entertainment, drawing wagons for brewing companies at agricultural exhibitions.