Update: Rhonda Snow's 23 horses and ponies, the majority being rare Lac La Croix or Ojibway ponies, were sold at auction to several families across the U.S. and Canada Saturday in Manitoba.
A farmer from northwestern Ontario is appealing to people online to help save her stock of a rare horse breed from being auctioned off in Manitoba — and potentially sold for slaughter as meat.
"People are going to come after me, but they don't understand how much I am trying to protect them," said Rhonda Snow, a farmer from Fort Frances, Ont.
In a social media post on Thursday, Snow said she has been forced to sell off 23 of her roughly 50 horses, including 20 Lac La Croix, or Ojibway, ponies — a breed so rare, it's estimated there are only a few dozen breeding stock left in existence.
Snow, who farms near Fort Frances, Ont., was given a lifetime achievement award by the Rare Canada Breeds charity in 2016 for her work preserving the Ojibway pony.
She lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and ulcerative colitis, conditions Snow says have made it impossible to work and maintain a steady income over the past couple of years since she and her husband split.
Snow said she received a court order recently to sell the horses and ponies to cover her financial responsiblities as part of the divorce.
"I tried to give them away … I've tried everything I can. I have no money," a tearful Snow said over the phone Saturday morning near Grunthal, Man., where the horses are scheduled to be auctioned off on Saturday.
"They're like my babies. It's really hard."
'They're really scarce'
Harold Unrau, manager of the livestock auction house in Grunthal, confirmed he received notice that about 25 horses would be shipped in for a sale to be held Saturday in the community, about 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
Pamela Heath, office manager with Rare Canada Breeds, said the pony breed is "critically rare" and needs to be protected. She said the smaller, muscular breed measures about five feet tall (1.5 metres) and in the past, roamed the wilds from Fort Frances to Minnesota.
Heath said her organization is a volunteer-based charity with next to no capital to swoop in and save horses in situations like these.
'I'll do everything I can and I really don't think the meat buyers are going to touch these guys now.' - Rhonda Snow, farmer who bred Ojibway ponies
Elwood Quinn, livestock co-ordinator with Rare Canada Breeds, said the breed used to be common, but he estimates there are fewer than 50 breeding Ojibway ponies alive in the world. Snow estimates there could be as many as 150 still around in North America, but only one pure-bred Ojibway pony left.
"They're really scarce," he said. "These would now only be a pleasure horse."
Indigenous people used to use the nimble pony for a variety of work purposes, he said.
Quinn attributed the breed's decline, in part, to technological changes in agriculture that have rendered horses and ponies of all kinds less relevant in the sector.
It remains unclear what will happen to Snow's ponies. Unrau said he was happy to hear people were chiming in online and trying to find ways to ensure the ponies are purchased and kept alive, rather than going to a buyer who intends to slaughter and sell them.
Snow was also encouraged by the outpouring of online support.
"I'll do everything I can and I really don't think the meat buyers are going to touch these guys now."
Well-tempered, trained, young horses can fetch anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, Unrau says, but those animals are typically bought with the intention of riding them.
Horses and ponies sold as meat usually fetch between 30 and 50 cents a pound, which works out to between $300 and $500 in many cases, he said.
Canada's 'real true cultural horse,' says owner
Snow said she has raised about $30,000 since she and her husband split up two years ago through donations and selling art related to her horses and ponies.
She credits people like Heath, Quinn and others with Rare Breeds Canada for their efforts to raise awareness about the dying breed.
"It's so important that it ... get out there," she said, adding that if people know more about the rare breed, "Canadians' real true cultural horse will finally, maybe, get recognition. And that's a good thing."
Meanwhile, Quinn said if the ponies are sold for slaughter, it would more or less seal the fate of the breed because there could be too few left for the breed to survive.
If the ponies go, so does part of Canada and Indigenous people's natural heritage, he said.
"We'd be looking at going into the deep end without a lifejacket," he said. "This is a bad situation. It's critical."