The wild stallion appeared at the edge of a forest, his thick bay coat glistening in the sunshine. Ears perked, eyes alert, he watched me as intently as I watched him. A spindly twig was tangled in his forelock. This either added to his wild appearance, or gave him a comical look. Before I could decide, I realized that I too had a twig stuck in my hair. This is what happens when you spend a lot of time in the bushes.
I felt a kindred connection with this horse.
Ninety minutes north of Calgary, the small town of Sundre (population 2729) is considered the gateway to Alberta’s Rocky Mountain foothills, home to the wild horses that have survived here for over two and a half centuries. A large mural stretched across the Sundre Museum proudly displays a pictorial history of the area’s wild horses, tough sturdy animals that roam the forests, bogs and grasslands in close-knit family bands.
Just after sunrise on a crisp January morning, I joined my expert guides Darrell Glover and Duane Starr (founders of the organization ‘Help Alberta Wildies’). Both retired, Darrell and Duane work tirelessly to increase the awareness and protection of these wild horses. On any given day, they fill the role of ‘guardian angels’. Darrell regularly flies his Cessna airplane over the rangeland to ensure that the family bands are healthy, safe, and documented. Duane is by his side, using his instincts and expertise as a wildlife photographer to capture wild horse images that are as much a form of art as they are a source of documentation.
On this day, we were a trio in a 4 by 4 truck, headed for the ‘back roads’ of the Alberta foothills. Within minutes, a cow moose appeared, stopping for a quick glance before lumbering on. As we continued our climb through majestic forests with sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains, a red fox popped out of the snow. A tasty rodent had eluded him this time, but he went right back to work, burying his nose into a snowdrift.
‘Horses’! Darrell spotted them first. A small family band of Alberta wild horses stood knee-deep in snow on the edge of a forest. Three mares and a stallion with a twig stuck in his forelock. We quietly got out of the truck, stepping through thick brush to get a better view, but keeping a respectful distance. The wild horses had thick winter coats that glistened in the sun, and manes the colour of midnight. I was struck by their beauty. The mares ignored our presence, digging to uncover the forage beneath the snow. But the stallion remained curious and watchful. Then with a toss of his mane, he gave his mares the signal, and the horses galloped through the deep snow and disappeared into the forest.
We continued on, and found more bands of wild horses at the forest edge, or in clearings or bogs, each sighting different from the rest but equally exhilarating. Last spring’s foals were now almost as tall as their mothers, prancing about and kick their heels into the fresh mountain air.
Our drive through the foothills was an easy loop. My mind kept repeating the same thought.
Most people have never seen a wild horse.
There is a belief among the First Nations people that a spiritual connection exists between mankind and wild horses. If wild horses come to you in your dreams, you are blessed with certain powers.
You don’t have to search far and wide to find the wild horses of Alberta. Stallions tend to keep their family bands in familiar territories. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, a wild horse sighting is pure gold for a nature lover.
At the end of our loop, the sun began to set on the foothills. Duane, Darrell and I headed for home (or in my case, my motel room) but not before the day delivered one final gift: a large band of wild horses on the edge of a bog, with two dueling stallions in a sparring match. Kicking up heels, kicking up snow, boys doing what boys do.
For your next wildlife experience, the wild horses of Alberta will leave you breathless.
In fact, if you contact ‘Help Alberta Wildies’, Duane or Darrell will be glad to tell you where they are. And maybe even escort you to them, since they were likely going out to see them that day anyway.
The Rocky Mountain foothills are home to red fox, lynx, cougar, wolves, bears, moose and elk.
The wild horses of Alberta have earned their place as one of the star attractions in this pristine wilderness.
For more information, contact Help Alberta Wildies.