Grazing peacefully on the grassland of the farm called Windy Coulee near Pincher Creek, approximately two hours due south of Calgary, Alberta, you will find the Canadian horses of Heidi Eijgel and her husband, David Glass. Here, not far from the majesty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the landscape in places seems to touch the sky. Cloud and grassland are close enough to greet one another.
Yet, despite the vastness of white cloud above gentle prairie in the top photo, perhaps the best place to see this place, and the national horse of Canada which roams it, is in Heidi’s eyes. There, you witness her profound belief in this meeting of grassland, sky and the Canadian horse. In the picture of Heidi with her horses you can find it: sky in the background, then coulee in front of sky, then three of her Canadians crowding in behind Heidi, as if not wanting to be left out of the photo.
Aside: The word “coulee” refers to a valley or ravine. It is derived from the French word couler, “to flow.” The coulee of Heidi and David’s farm is a broad undulation carved long ago which momentarily interrupts the otherwise flatness of the surrounding landscape. The coulee is a thing of beauty in its own right.
You find there in the picture, too, evidence of the “Windy” part of the farm’s name in the windswept hair of the Canadians’ manes. In the foreground, of course, is Heidi herself. The photo encapsulates the two fundamental things that lie at the heart of the lives of Eijgel and Glass at Windy Coulee: the Canadian horse and the Alberta grassland.
The Canadian horse has a long and illustrious history in this country of which it is the namesake.
First, the horse. The Canadian horse has a long and illustrious history in this country of which it is the namesake. The breed originated in France and arrived in the French North American Colony by the arrangement of French King Louis XIV in an effort to make the Colony and its economy stronger. This eminent breed was selected from the Brittany and Normandy provinces of France because their native climate and topography was the closest approximation to the rugged, demanding conditions that the breed was to encounter in their new home. Having left the French port of Le Havre on 10 May 1665, the first horses from France arrived in Quebec City on the vessel Marie-Thérèse on 16 July 1665. It was, to be sure, a long and difficult voyage, but one that the surviving horses of this rugged breed conquered all the same. The horses that disembarked on that Spring day, and not all of them did, were to be the forerunners of the national horse of what later was to become Canada, a land rugged, strong and free. They were often included in the classical Canadian artwork of nineteenth century painter Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872).
Reference: Art Montague, The Canadian Horse: The Fascinating Story of Canada’s National Breed (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto, 2010))
In the view of Heidi, the Canadian horse mirrors not only the ruggedness of the land, but also the Canadian people themselves. “[Canadian horses are] cooperative, friendly, easy going, sturdy, and fun to hang out with”. "The Canadian is", she goes on, “a calm, level-headed horse, an extremely smart horse, that can make an amazing bond with its owner.” What can be especially noted here is the way that the Canadian comes to the horse-rider relationship. The goal for Heidi is to find the perfect matching of temperaments, finding the right combination of horse and rider.
The question becomes, then, for Heidi, not one so much about horse ownership, as one about horse stewardship. There has been movement over the years in her ideas about her relationship with her horses, and in the terminology she uses to describe that relationship:
I've started using the word “stewardship” instead of “ownership” because it is good stewardship to have a horse to survive thirty or thirty-five years. It’s not about [buying], using and getting rid of. – Heidi Eijgel
“I've started using the word “stewardship” instead of “ownership” because it is good stewardship to have a horse to survive thirty or thirty-five years. It’s not about [buying], using and getting rid of. It is about finding the right partner and someone who will enjoy and look after the horse for their lifetime and do a good job of it and make a commitment to the horse. This is what we believe in.”
What Heidi and David also believe in is doing all they can to preserve this breed of horse which is both endangered and an important part of the country’s heritage. You cannot miss the notion of trusteeship in her talk of her relationship with the breed. Still, you can also find in her words the tension between partnership and bonding on the one hand, and a carefully crafted distance on the other. It is also a matter of respect.
Asked what her horses have taught her, she immediately answers that one can “Never give up.” Then she spoke of coming to an understanding of just how amazing the horse is:
“[I’ve] learned how incredibly athletic, how strong, horses actually are. We rarely see them go to their limits, and you never want to push them to their limits. But when they are brought into condition properly, provided the right nutrition and support, there are amazing things they can do. Once, [my first horse Fleury] basically hand-galloped the 25 miles of the Competitive Trail... There were pulse and respirations stops, stops to eat and drink... but it was amazing... it was more than a cantor, not full out gallop... It is incredible what they can do when they are given all that they need. And, frankly, it is incredible what they can do in spite of the mistakes we make. They are absolutely incredible beings.”
Photograph by Brenna Varga
As to her goals for herself and the breed, Heidi spoke of her future direction in this way:
“I’m striving for a more natural type of horsemanship. Something that is kind, using only a few aides. [I am] conditioning myself to ride balanced. People say that a horse can feel a fly, so why are we using all this equipment?”
She also sees the need for more inclusive competitions as a way of building a horse community:
“And with [my horse] Zefyr, the same thing. He presents amazing challenges for me. Every now and then we have these glimpses of these incredible rides, dressage, obstacles and working equitation. You are competing against yourself, scored for horsemanship and balanced riding. And it’s really fun. This brings the horse community together. This is what we need as horse people. We need fun, inclusive competitions that demonstrate and support good horsemanship.”
Still, above all, the idea of good stewardship of the breed lies at the very heart of Heidi and Dave’s efforts at Windy Coulee to preserve the Canadian:
“The more people that we can inspire to want to be good stewards of the horse the better our horse industry will be. We need to encourage young people and support them, encourage good horse care and help people to understand and enjoy what they are doing. When there is the wrong match between person and horse it is not a good thing. We need [to stay] positive and professional... when it is good for the horse, it is good for the person.”
Heidi and David’s idea of stewardship does not end, however, with the Canadians that graze on their quarter section of the prairie. It is also about the grasslands themselves. Next time we visit Windy Coulee we will explore how Heidi and David are applying the idea of stewardship to the grassland which they, and their Canadians, call home.