Rare Ojibway spirit horses to be showcased at Ottawa festival

The now-rare breed predates the arrival of Europeans in North America and once ran wild across eastern Ontario. Four of the horses will be the stars of the inaugural Tagwàgi Festival, which kicks off Saturday.

Once almost wiped out, 4 horses will be part of the inaugural Tagwàgi Festival

Once nearly extinct, Ojibway spirit horses make a comeback

1 year ago
Duration 0:56
Trina Mather-Simard, director of the event company Indigenous Experiences, says the rare breed of horses used to run wild across the region and now represents an opportunity to share Indigenous culture.

For Trina Mather-Simard, her four "gentle, sweet boys" also serve as a testament to her people's resilience.

The executive director of Ottawa-based event company Indigenous Experiences, Mather-Simard is also the proud caretaker of four Ojibway spirit horses: a now-rare breed that predates the arrival of Europeans in North America and once ran wild across the region.

The four horses will be showcased at the inaugural Tagwàgi Festival, which kicks off Oct. 16 at the former Lone Star Ranch — now leased by Mather-Simard's organization and renamed Mādahòkì Farm — in Ottawa's Greenbelt.

"It's actually the horses that sparked our [search] for a farm," Mather-Simard told CBC Radio's In Town and Out.

"I'm Ojibway myself, and ... when I first heard of these ponies, I was just so inspired. We drove down to where there was a caretaker in southwestern Ontario, and we fell in love. We picked up four ponies even before we had the farm here."

Trina Mather-Simard says while there are now only about 150 of the spirit horses in existence, they once roamed wild across what's now the Ottawa area. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Breed almost vanished

According to the Ojibway Horse Society, there are now fewer than 150 of the spirit horses — which resemble horses in build but are shorter like ponies — in existence, Mather-Simard said.

At one point, their numbers were just down to a handful, she added.

"They just have a really great story of resilience, and coming back to share. So we're really excited to have them," said Mather-Simard.

Back when the horses ran wild across eastern Ontario, Mather-Simard said people would harness them for tasks like making ice holes for fishing or plowing fields — but they never belonged to anyone.

"They didn't come with colonization. They were wild, like our moose and our deer. And they lived in partnership with our community. Nobody owned them or kept them," she said.

"I think [it says] a lot about our Indigenous beliefs and connection to the animals, and our mutual respect."

The four spirit horses are incredibly personable, says Mather-Simard — as this footage attests. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

'They just want to meet people'

While the horses will be a big highlight of the Tagwàgi Festival — which means "autumn" in Anishinaabemowin — the nine-day event also includes cultural performances, a craft and farmers' market, and plenty of traditional food.

Mather-Simard says although they weren't as well-behaved when she and her daughter collected them from southern Ontario, they're now incredibly tame and friendly.

"They just want to meet people," she said. "They're very soft, gentle, sweet boys."