Mention “Canadian wild horses” and most will conjure up images of the sun-kissed equines of Sable Island, Nova Scotia, with their long, sandy, tangled manes and demure yet majestic presence, stoic against all manner of east coast weather. They’re stunning for sure and part of a vibrant wildlife ecosystem we ought to continue to protect and be proud of as Canadians.
But there’s another tribe of wild horses further west that deserve equal attention and protection – Alberta’s Wildies.
Roaming the expansive south eastern foothills since the mid-1700s, Wildies are an integral part of Alberta’s history and cultural identity. Admittedly, it’s a long, hotly-contested and complex tale of how they got there and whether they’re wild or feral. Much like their mustang cousins to the south, what’s not contested (at least by wild horse advocates), is that Wildies require legal protection and sound husbandry in order to secure their ongoing and rightful place within the awe-inspiring Canadian landscape we are privileged to share with them.
The tangible historic contribution Wildies made to the foundations of Albertan society is regrettably often overlooked by the future-forward-focused population of today. As with most other horses around the globe, Wildies provided the indigenous and settler populations with modes of transportation, tools of work and war, sport, commerce and trade, and, yes, even food. The earliest article of proof we could find that such shocking practices took place on Canadian soil — and still do (just ask Jann Arden, ardent horse advocate and founder of the viral #HORSESHIT movement, focused on the government-sanctioned live export of Canadian draft horses for slaughter in Japan and South Korea, ) — is dated December 16, 1945 in the Milwaukee Journal:
“The days of wild freedom are numbered for many of the more than 200,000 horses which have long roamed the plains and mountains of the Peigan I* Reservation (Piikani Nation) in Alberta, Canada. The I* and cowboys are rounding them up for shipment to Europe. Those suitable for farm work will be broken and trained to the plow and harness and others will be herded to processing plants for canning or pickling. Canada expects to provide 10,000 tons of such meat for the Belgian government by 1947.” – ACME (Note: I* is used to reference the original (1945) term no longer used in civil discourse.)
Since the second world war, these ethereal prey animals have managed to survive the unrelenting onslaught of bears, wolves, poachers, hunters, kill buyers, cattle farmers, government land expansion projects (favouring said cattle ranchers, as well as oil interests both domestic and foreign) – if only just barely. Today, a mere 1,314 Wildies have been manually counted within the 2.2 million acres that comprise the Eastern Slopes, including Sundre, Elbow, Clearwater, Brazeau, Nordegg and Ghost, according to the 2021 Minimum Counts Survey undertaken and published by Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP).
In no small part, these Wildies owe their continued existence to the passionate, tireless and steadfast watch of the Help Alberta Wildies Society (HAWS) founded eight years ago by Darrell Glover, his partner Barb Robinson and a very small group of 60+year-old friends/volunteers. As the face of HAWS, Glover is, by his own admission, a strong-willed, no-nonsense (albeit good-humoured) Type A personality who stands up for what he believes in. He’s of the mind that those closest to him would describe him as having a heart of gold, to be trustworthy and to possess unending stores of integrity. With equal conviction, he acknowledges that those who come up against him view him to be stubborn, outspoken and annoyingly persistent. Combined, these traits proved to be the ideal toolkit for someone who, in 2014, decided to take on the Alberta government and stop the legally sanctioned wild horse cull, virtually on his own.
Glover, a 68-year old pilot, rancher and oil patch retiree, is a native of Ontario. He landed in Alberta in 1977, fell in love with its beauty, and never left. Wild horses were not on his radar, let alone his calling, until one particularly harsh winter when friends asked if they could borrow his horse trailer to rescue a Wildie colt trapped in deep snow. It was “Kai” that started Glover on what was to become an epic David-and-Goliath style battle that pitted him against Alberta’s Department of Environment and Parks and the Feral Horse Advisory Committee. A battle that he would ultimately win, through sheer grit, determination and an unwavering commitment to the truth — something he felt the government and special interest groups were intent on obscuring.
“Darrell Glover has brought a mountain of awareness to the plight of Alberta’s Wildies. These misunderstood free-range horses have been ruthlessly hunted by the Alberta government, who keep telling us that they are a nuisance and that they’re “destructive” to the eastern slopes. I think they must mean the cattle industry-forestry and the endless cash grab for fossil fuels. Darrell has bravely, and almost single-handedly, been trying to save these beautiful horses from greed and ignorance,” said Jann Arden, award-winning singer/songwriter, actor and animal rights activist.
As with most battles, winning came at a cost. Glover was charged with mischief for refusing to vacate the perimeter of a wild horse capture site situated deep within Crown Lands, for which he and four others spent a night in jail. “Best sleep of my life,” Glover chuckles. “Really it was. So peaceful and quiet.” More than legal fees, it also cost him longstanding friendships. But Glover seems to have made peace with that. For him, it was a price worth paying.
“Alberta’s wild horses needed the strongest voice to ensure their survival. It seemed as though they had chosen me, to speak for them. I wasn’t about to let them down,” remarked Glover.
However, the battle isn’t truly over. Yes. Alberta’s Wildies are safe — for now. There is a tacit stalemate in the province, as the government has come to realize, in large part to Glover’s astute social and traditional media campaigning, that Alberta’s legally recognized “feral” horses are socially accepted, not only in the province, but internationally as well.
As a result, the largely self-funded HAWS has pivoted to document Wildie behavior and activities — to counter what they deem as ongoing fake news/misinformation generated by the government and cattle ranchers — via the set up and monitoring of trail cams, as well as aerial and weekly drone fly-overs piloted by Glover himself. There are literally hundreds of hours of footage uploaded to Facebook, enabling the entire world to see exactly where and what the Wildies (and other wildlife) are up to. And people are interested. To date, the HAWS Facebook page has over 185K followers from Canada, Russia, Germany, the UK, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the US, among others.
“Darrell, Barb and the team at Help Alberta Wildies Society are not only dedicated to the protection of the magnificent wild horses of western Canada, their documentation and Wildies videos have become the textbook for wild horse advocates around the world,” said Sandy Sharkey, acclaimed equine and wildlife photographer and wild horse advocate.
Yet Glover is only one man. HAWS has no succession plan. Despite a tremendous loyal following and the unwavering 24/7 dedication of a very small group of volunteer seniors, once they’re gone, there’s no guarantee that the Alberta government won’t reinstitute the wild horse cull without legal protections similar to those afforded the wild horses of Sable Island.
So, next time you find yourself wandering the iconic foothills of Alberta, take a good long look around and try to imagine this quintessentially Canadian landscape without the freedom and breath-taking wonder of these spectacular creatures running through it, hoofbeats pounding, manes flowing, whinnies echoing. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll spot one. Because this is where the Wildies are – for real – in our lifetime. And with your help, for many, many lifetimes to come.
To support the legal protection of Alberta’s Wildies, contact:
Government of Alberta
Michael Alexander | Director Rangeland Conservation and Stewardship
Lands Delivery and Coordination South | Lands Division
Government of Canada
The Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson | Minister of Environment & Climate Change
In charge of Parks Canada with mandate that includes Species Protection