Chapter 8. Horses, Hunters and Homesteaders
Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization, we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it. John Trotwood Moore
I was digging in my vegetable garden when I found a rusty horseshoe buried in the dirt. [Who could have been riding through this field?] My interest piqued, I was off on an investigation of this watershed’s quadrupedal inhabitants. In no time at all I found myself standing beside a thousand pounds of solid horseflesh, looking up at the towering chestnut beast with awe, ready to climb on. Surrounded as I am by a deepseated and pervasive horse culture in my watershed neighbourhood, I decided I should learn to ride. So here I am at a Bragg Creek riding stable, about to fulfill my dream — all in the name of research.
The stories, the old photographs, the drawings, the books about the watershed’s history all reference this background element — the horse. From the wiry tribal bison-hunting ponies, to the draft horses hauling homesteader carts across the prairie, to the skillful ranch horses working cattle on the range — these beasts had a significance in the watershed I had not suspected.
Below Bragg Creek amid the treed foothills, the Elbow watershed opens out onto a broad ochre-andgreen plain centred on the meandering river: this is the central watershed. Here amongst the hay fields, pastures and residential acreages, it is hard to imagine this landscape without horses. But there was such a time. About 15,000 years ago, the equine descendants of the little dawn horse Eohippus disappeared from North America, possibly over the Bering land bridge. It was not until the 1500s when the Spaniards arrived in the New World that the modern horse returned to its ancestral home. By about 1750, horses had been acquired by tribes in the vicinity of the Bow and Elbow rivers, transforming hunting, warring, transportation, recreation and wealth; they were such valuable commodities that horse thieving was rampant.