Saturday, July 29, 2017


I was thrilled as my friend Debra Garside invited me to join and co-lead her Wild Horses workshop last month in Sundre, Alberta. Not only is Debra an amazing horse photographer, please check out her work on the Sable Island Horses, she also is a horse woman inside and out! Thus she can read horses better than any photographer I know, which is invaluable when photographing WILD horses.

Mare with foal
Being almost a local to the area where the wild horses roam led Debra to many outings and photo session with them, hence she knew where to find them...another big plus.

Same mare with foal leaving with the herd
Although I did know all this, the actual workshop exceeded  my expectations by far. Had I hoped for maybe one or two encounters during the three days, we actually had so many I couldn't keep track.

We could see all kinds of behavior, some all understood, some were more subtle, then Debra would explain to the participants what was actually going on. Except the stallion in the above maybe, most horses were so clean and shiny as if someone had just groomed them with show shine...amazing!

Mare peeking through tree branches
Now you are probably wondering, just as I did, how "wild" are these horses? Runaways from the sixties, more feral than wild? Far from it! The first round of genetic testing revealed that these horses could be more closely related to the Mongolian Horse.
Let's go a bit into the natural history of horses in North America. I would like to quote an article from the June 2013 issue of Canadian Horse Journal:
"The first equids appeared about 56 million years ago in North America. Over millions of years they went through vast changes as they adapted to profoundly altering climates and habitats. Species arose, disappeared, or merged with others. Ultimately, the genus of the modern horse Equus (which also includes asses and zebras) appeared in the fossil record some four million years ago and gave rise to a branch of caballine (true) horses that appeared about two million years ago.
Around the same time, some Equus species dispersed into Eurasia across the Bering land bridge, and some return migrations back and forth followed. But in North America, the caballine horses diversified into separate species leading to the appearance of today’s modern horse Equus caballus exclusively on this continent about 250,000 years ago. Over millennia, a wide variety in size and type of the modern horse continued to evolve throughout North America, and some populations migrated to Asia and spread to Europe.
But in North America, horses became the victim of the disappearance of large mammals between 13,000 and 7600 years ago. Fossils of ancient horses have been unearthed in the Dawson City area of the Yukon (Equus lambei), a small caballoid horse carbon dated to 10,000 years ago, and in southern Alberta (Equus conversidens), dated to 11,300 years ago and killed by early hunters."(1)

Very handsome stallion
It is believed that all the horses on the American Continent are descendants from the horses that the first Spaniards "reintroduced" in the early 1500.
Hence one would expect that also the wild horses genetic findings would show the Spanish heritage. Finding genetic traits from Mongolian horses could mean, that the horse was NOT "extinct" and is truly a native wild animal of North America. Even if this can not be validated, even the "Spanish horse" would be a reintroduced wild species, as the wolf in Yellowstone or the bison in Banff.

Ok, and why would that matter? Well, as everywhere where nature and humankind are close together, there are opponents. In this case opponents that argue that the wild horses are "feral, alien, or an invasive species. They [...] overpopulate ranges, compete with wildlife and livestock for grass, and impact tree regeneration and the health of habitats." (1) and hence propose major culling of the wild horses.

If the genetic testing can proof that these horses are from Mongolian heritage or if one accepts that they are a reintroduced native species, the alien and invasive species argument is invalid and the wild horses would have to be treated as what they are: Native wild animals!

 Flyswatter aka Mom's tail

Two organizations are trying hard to promote and protect the wild horses in Alberta: The Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) and Help Alberta Wildies.
On our third day of the workshop we visited the headquarters of  WHOAS and met some of the leading volunteers and 'rescued' now geldings. The wildies most often come under fire when the young stallions leave the herd, or get driven out by the head stallion, and now are looking for company or mares to breed. Sometimes they then jump into domestic horse pastures and havoc breaks loose. Or they harass riders that happen to be the misfortune rider of a mare...
Repeat offenders get caught and brought to WHOAS. Here they get gelded and handled, so that they can be adopted. This is not always easy as this post from Debra shows: The true wild horse story of Cody

Bachelor group play-fighting
WHOAS also supports the wild horse mare contraception project, a long term study to show wild horse populations can be safely and humanely managed by 'birth-control'. WHOAS is a completely volunteer operated organization that relies on donations.....I know, I know...but this is a matter close to my heart and I saw how well the rescued horses were treated and handled. And I also know how much work even two horses make in our climate, not to think how many horses are at the WHOAS at any given time.
You can donate via doesn't get much easier ;-), just click here: Donate to WHOAS

Another bachelor group, if you enlarge the image you will see two birds "chasing" them
The cherry on the cake? We not only saw wild horses....we also ran into this Black Bear momma...

...and got almost run over by these curios Bighorn Sheep ewe's with their kids.

The sheep came running at us with what felt like 100 km/h, but as I slowly and cautiously stepped out of  the car, kind of hiding behind the car door, they slowed down and one after the other came and checked me out, cautious and gentle, to the point where even my wide-angle lens couldn't handle it anymore.

I fell in love with this posing "newly-born", if you click on the photo to enlarge it, you will see that the shriveled up umbilical cord is still tangling from it's belly,

The light was most of the times rather challenging as horses are late risers and when they are tucked down they are a.) not so photogenic if you b.) find them at all. On the first evening though we got lucky and saw a herd in the last rays of the day.

Last rays

Best of all? Debra offers these amazing 3 day workshops ongoing. As I happen to know the next one will be around Mid-October. If you are interested, please shoot Debra an email and mention you read this blog.

(1) The Canadian Horse Journal, June 2013