PEI

Horse tales from P.E.I.: The Bygone Days

The same way later generations grew up with the automobile, until the 1940s most Islanders relied on their horses for transportation and help on the farm and in the woods.

'You'd be just as apt to go out over the dashboard as you were to sit on the seat!'

These horses glance at the tractor which has replaced them in P.E.I. fields. Hand-plows like this are occasionally demonstrated at heritage fairs. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson )

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 


The same way later generations grew up with the automobile, until the 1940s most Islanders relied on their horses for transportation and help on the farm and in the woods.

Many of those horses were near and dear to their owners' hearts — most considered their horse a friend more than a beast of burden. 

Many of the farms at that time only had two horses — in fact many of them only had one.— Louis Cantelo 

Mildred Johnstone, born a Thompson in Dunstaffnage, P.E.I., recalls taking the horses for a gallop when the barn chores were finished. 

"And we had an old English sidesaddle — I think this is something not many did — and in the spring of the year ... the first thing we had to do was get out on horseback and ride," Johnstone said. 

Her first horse was named Joe Dylan, and she said he was a "roader," or a good driver. He'd would have been a fancier, prettier horse than a heavyset workhorse for the farm, and sometimes driven under harness with a cart or buggy.  

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"But you had keep the rein check on him — if you didn't he'd put his head down and you'd be just as apt to go out over the dashboard as you were to sit on the seat!" Johnstone said with laugh. 

'Traders' and 'drivers'

Louis Cantelo was born in 1904 in 7-Mile Road in eastern P.E.I. and he too grew up on a farm around horses.

"We always had one heavy horse and my father usually had one trader he'd do some trading with," Cantelo told Thompson. A "trader" was a horse available to trade with others for another horse as well as perhaps some cash, Cantelo explained. 

"Many of the farms at that time only had two horses — in fact many of them only had one," Cantelo said, while a few larger farms had up to four horses.   

On a good day, Cantelo said his horse could plow two acres using a single plow, one he walked behind. "That's a lot of walking — I did a lot of it!" 

Bobby, Queenie and Bess ready for action on the Cunningham farm. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

Compare that to the speed of a modern tractor and plow, which can now plow those same two acres in a matter of just 20 minutes. 

When he was grown, Louis Cantelo kept two or three horses, and shared that his favourite was one named Buck, who he called "a good driver," meaning Buck wasn't fast but had stamina. Faster horses were trotters, and used for racing. 

'They wouldn't drink the town water!'

Elizabeth MacEwen grew up along the West River in New Dominion, where she too was raised on a farm. 

One of the few places Islanders can still come in contact with working horses is at commercial sleigh ride businesses like this one. (Potts Sleigh Rides, Bonshaw, P.E.I./Facebook)

Her parents used to take the horse and sleigh to Charlottetown along the river, she told Thompson. Her parents would return home late in the afternoon, cold and hungry.

"And we'd see them coming in at the shore field here, and we'd get into the house to see if there was a good fire on because we'd be out coasting or something," MacEwen said.  

"And my father would say 'Take the chill off a bucket of water for the horse.' Our horses would never drink in town, no they wouldn't drink the town water!" 

With files from Dutch Thompson

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