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WILD HORSES NEAR THE ALBERTA ROCKY'S EASTERN SLOPES
 
(2023 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: CAROL PATTERSON



Dark brown eyes watched us. Deep in the forested wilderness of the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, a tiny horse peered around its mother, the foal’s gaze relaxed, oblivious to her mama’s protruding hip and rib bones.

“She’s alive,” exclaimed my guide, Debra Garside, an expert in wild horses and a renowned photographer who leads photography workshops, many for people choosing the upscale comfort at one of Alberta’s finest wilderness offerings known as The Lodge at Panther River. Weeks earlier she’d seen a dark brown mare called Tia give birth, her condition so malnourished, birth was slow and the foal struggled to stand.

Garside tracked her for a time but didn’t expect this wild foal to survive. Her mother was skinny and had a low status among the mares. She needed to stay with the herd for protection from predators but their pace was draining her reserves and her foal was getting weaker. Hence, the reason she was named Joplin, after the doomed singer (names are assigned through a volunteer coordinator). Now the cinnamon-coloured youngster began to nurse greedily.

Inside Track

You don’t need an expert to find wild horses in western Alberta, but it helps. A 2022 survey of Alberta’s wild horses revealed 1,178 animals, most of them found in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains west of Sundre.

The Lodge at Panther River is located near this horse-dense region. Perched above the Panther River, the wilderness resort has a main lodge for meals and coffee. Guests stay in log cabins, log cabin suites or glamp in canvas-wall outfitter tents with wood-burning stoves and private decks. Rarest of all amenities in the backcountry, the lodge also has Wi-Fi!

Spring Renewal

I’d signed up for Garside’s wild horse photography workshop to see newly born foals and stallions fighting for mares. Up before dawn, I checked camera settings, eager to see wildies, as some call the horses. We loaded into an SUV and soon found horses grazing nearby, wary of humans but allowing us to approach quietly.

We snapped a few pics and carried on, spending hours criss-crossing Crown lands in search of descendants of the horses that worked in forestry, mining and farming before turning feral. We found bachelor stallions, and others with herds, mares grazing hungrily on spring grass while their young tumbled across the field to chase other foals, all of them basking in warm sunshine.

Battle for Dominance

Late in the day, I stood watching a herd with Garside, our position a respectable distance away. Until it wasn’t. A horse burst from the bush, her nostrils flared, a new foal pressed close. Up a steep ditch they raced, her foal from last year following, and behind, a stallion chasing his new herd away from the valley.

Garside said it seemed the mare and her offspring had been stolen by a stallion known locally as Tango. The original patriarch, a stallion called Donder, was a distraught, russet-coloured bundle of muscle. He raced across the meadow, snorting and whinnying. He reared at another stallion, seemingly angry at the world.

We left knowing Donder, a strong stud, wouldn’t give up. When we returned the next morning, he was grazing peacefully with his herd.

Beating the Odds

I wasn’t sure how long that fight had gone on but life for these creatures is often harsh. There’s little food in winter. The males fight for mares. Humans drive noisy off-road vehicles across the landscape. Logging companies fell trees and oil and gas companies drill wells. Sometimes the horses are hunted when resource managers deem their populations too high. Fortunately, the wildies have advocates (see “A Polarizing Topic”).

As my visit drew to an end, we paused at a gravel pit to observe Tia and Joplin. Garside explained a nearby outfitter had let the pair into a fenced pasture to graze safely and increase their odds of survival. I hadn’t known these critters days earlier but now I cheered for my favourites like fans cheer on Grey Cup contenders. I hoped Tia and Joplin and the other wildies dotting the eastern slopes were victorious in their mountain home.

A Polarizing Topic

Few people are neutral on the topic of wild horses. Some love them, feeling their wildness deserves respect. Others think wild horses have no place in a wilderness environment, claiming they eat vegetation that should go to cattle or other ungulates. In past years, the Alberta government has sanctioned horse culls. To improve feral horse management, the Government of Alberta struck a Feral Horse Advisory Committee in 2021. At the time of writing, no recommendations had been made. Two non-profit organizations, the Wild Horses of Alberta Society and the Help Alberta Wildies Society, advocate for wild horse protection and humane treatment.

Travel Planner

Best routes for finding wild horses:

sundre.com/t/tourism/wild-horses

The Lodge at Panther River pantherriver.com

Wild horse photography workshops

debragarside.com/alberta-wild-horse-photography-workshops

 
 
 
 
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