Meet the horsewomen of P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Being in charge of the horses wasn't always a woman's place, but in the bygone days when horses were the main mode of transportation on P.E.I., some women literally took up the reins. 

'I rode bareback and I rode saddleback and every way'

Mary Stuart Sage, centre, said her family had a series of horses all called Maud. (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 few weeks, CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

P.E.I. has been called the Kentucky of Canada for its raising and racing standardbred harness racing horses — a tradition that dates back to 1886, according to Tourism P.E.I.'s website. 

Being in charge of the horses wasn't always a woman's place, but in the bygone days when horses were the main mode of transportation on P.E.I., some women literally took up the reins. 

Muriel Boulter MacKay was born in 1895. She told Dutch it was all horsepower when she was growing up in Albany, near Borden-Carleton, P.E.I. 

MacKay said her favourite horse was one of the family's big work horses, Tom, whom she helped raise from a foal. He was black and handsome, she said. 

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

"Rode him all the time," she said. "I rode bareback and I rode saddleback and every way. Oh, I was very fond of horses.

"I used to drive the horses and harrow fields and planted potatoes," she said. Steam engines were introduced when MacKay was a girl, and she remembers them being used first to saw wood on the farm. 

"I used to take loads of lumber to the mill and bring out wood from the woods — two teams you know, two sleighs ... I'd drive one," she said. 

'I never forgot that ride'

MacKay remembered one day she'd been in a field harrowing, and decided to ride one of the three horses home. The young colt's name was Dean, but he spooked when a bird flew up in front of him. 

"He galloped all the way home, full blast! Well I hung on, hung on to his mane. He just raced into the stable — the door was open — and I went off over his head into the manger! But I didn't get hurt," she said with a laugh. "I never forgot that ride!" 

'I used to drive the horses and harrow fields and planted potatoes,' said Muriel Boulter MacKay. (Dutch Thompson)

MacKay was an unusual girl in other ways, too — she had a Grade 10 education by the time she was 10 years old. She told Dutch one of the reasons she was home working with the horses so much is that her father wouldn't allow her to go to Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown, because she was only 11.

She did eventually go on to PWC then to Acadia University, which was unusual for a woman at that time. Later in the 1910s, she went to Saskatchewan to teach. She came home eventually and married George MacKay, who became lieutenant governor. She lived to be 101. 

Mary Sage was born Mary Stuart in Wood Islands, P.E.I., and recalled her family had a succession of horses named Maud. The Mauds would haul the cream wagon to the dairy, and also bring groceries from the wholesaler in Charlottetown to the Stuart's country store in Wood Islands, run by her father Hector. 

Sage recalled riding Maud bareback across the fields when she was a girl in the 1930s. The horse was so gentle, Mary could crawl under her belly and in between her hind legs without the horse making a move.

Mary Sage died in 2014 at age 91.

The Travelling Man

Hester Linkletter was born in 1907 and grew up with horses on the family farm in Central Bedeque. The horses did everything, including the heavy lifting of hauling sleigh-loads of mussel mud — that's the rich mud dragged up from the bottom of waterways where mussels were grown, which was spread on fields as fertilizer. All the local farmers took part in harvesting mussel mud in the fall, Linkletter recalled. 

"They'd go down our lane in the morning about six o'clock, you'd hear those teams going down. And they'd bring it back to our lower field, unload, and then go get another load. Then in the spring they'd come and get it," she said. 

Hester Linkletter pumped water for the family's horses when she was a girl using a hand pump, and gathered eggs which were taken to town by horse and wagon. (Dutch Thompson)

One of Linkletter's chores as a child was to collect eggs on the farm and stamp each one with a rubber stamp and ink, before a man came to pick up the eggs with his horse and wagon, taking them to be graded. 

She also remembered the man who'd travel around with a stallion, breeding mares on P.E.I. farms — they called him the Travelling Man. Her husband drove a horse named Witt, named after one of the Travelling Man's stallions. 

Before they married, Linkletter would get her future husband to play Santa, and he would drive up to the school in his sleigh behind Witt. He continued to play Santa for 40 years. 

Her father had a nice mare named Minto he'd use for driving to town or church, she said. The horse was named after the ice-breaking steamer S.S. Minto, which plied the Northumberland Strait.

'All of a sudden he wasn't going anywhere'

Elizabeth MacEwen was born in New Dominion on the West River in 1909. She and her five brothers loved animals and loved to train the animals to do unusual things, even attempting to train the family dog to haul them in a sled. 

"But he wasn't very co-operative, he'd just sit down," she recalled. "My job was to sit on the hand-sleigh with a piece of bread tied on a stick held out in front of him to see if he'd go after that, but it didn't entice him on too much!"

P.E.I. farmers hauled mussel mud using horse-drawn sleds in O'Leary circa 1908. (PARO)

When the boys' friends from up the road, Alexander and Tupper Strang, arrived one day with their family's ox hauling a sleigh, MacEwen said her brothers became very competitive. 

"Oh they weren't going to be beaten, I tell you it was a big competition," MacEwen said. The boys began to train a young steer to haul the sleigh. 

One day MacEwen and her mother were going to visit her aunt, and the boys offered to drive them with the steer. 

"But we only got as far as half-way down the lane and he balked, and I think he's there yet cause he never moved for a long time!" she said with a laugh. "He was trotting right along and all of a sudden he wasn't going anywhere, that's it." 

Her parents' horses refused to drink the water in Charlottetown, she said. 

"They'd just put their nose down to the bucket, shake the bridle pretty near off them. No drinking, no sir!" she said. The family got used to hauling buckets of water in the back ot the sleigh for the horses to drink in town. 

MacEwen herself would sometimes drive the horses the 13 kilometres into town when she was a girl, as would her mother. She would take the team and wagon across to Charlottetown on the ferry that used to go across the West River, delivering loads of turnips and potatoes to sell in city stores. 

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