A Love Letter to the Horses by Heidi Eijgel February 2023

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Inspired by PJ Grant who wrote a love letter to her farm and one of my horse mentors, Suzanne Spierenburg.

Dear Herd: Exquise, Fleury AKA Beaver, Juniper, Luna, Lucy, Piper AKA Grinner, Patricia, Aurora AKA Brooks, Cameo, Duet, Hope, Jessie Mae, and Missy. Dear Guest Horses: Pat AKA Valentine (Cheryl), the “not my ponies” Stormy and Fancy Pants, Maddy (Susan), Rosy (now back with her owner Karen), and Wave (Kristen and Garry). Dear Extended Herd who have gone or will go to Incredible Homes: Pippin, Tamoshanter, Aurora AKA Brooks, Ferrero, Zoe, Casey, Comet, Alator, Hawk, Inspirer, Ismay, and Jedi-Master.

Dear Horses who have passed tragically way too soon: Strydr (patrol service horse died on the job), Sara, and Eye Catcher, I know you have souls and that your spirits soar. Dear Horses who have passed at the end of their amazing life: Annabelle, The first Windy Coulee Canadian (age 29), my first pony’s foal, Mystica (age 35), Co Co (who insisted on being at the farm for the birth of her first grand foal), and Ebony (30+) who started it all when I was 10. We will all meet again.

I love you all. 

I know that to preserve this Le Cheval Canadien breed and the herd’s “pedigree”, I must plan breedings and select the best sire and dam as well as educate the youngsters, pick the right human partners, and make time to enjoy riding myself. I do so as sustainably as I can, but it has been a slow process because I also worked 9 – 5 with another job for 30 years in addition to managing the farm and herd.  I am grateful to only have one key focus now. I know you all want to live at Windy Coulee forever, but it is healthy for the youngsters to find new adventures and human partners who have the time to focus on your life, and to go out into the world.  Even a “wild” horse herd sends their youngsters away and well, wild herds are significantly meaner to the young stallions. Windy Coulee only has so much room in its grasslands, creek valley, and horse sheds. I know it is best for the breed and this line, for other humans to start a sustainable breeding program. 

Bruce Christie Training

I keep in touch with all of you. 

When I look for a human partner for you I look at how they will ride or drive with you, who they and you will train with, how their equine accommodation and pasture looks, their equipment, and their references.  If they call you “it”, or support horse slaughter, I end negotiations.  I advocate for you and all horses at all opportunity.

Windy Coulee Zefyr Fererro with Rhonda Berglund

I mourn when I lose you unexpectedly.  I work on having resources on standby in case you need major surgery, but have learned the surgery is the easy part, keeping you alive and out of pain afterwards is almost out of range financially, and works less than it fails. I know prevention is key, but even that does not work sometimes. I learned about Grief and Grieving from you. 

Du Coteau Lalou Annabelle and Windy Coulee Kamouraska Strydr

I celebrate every day and every moment I am with you.  When I wake up in the morning and you are grazing in the big pasture; when you gallop up the hill in a group; when you come galloping (or trudging, Juniper) in for mineral; when you hang out in the corrals; when you behave for hoof care; when you chase the bear; when you just do not leave me alone because I am your human (Hope); when I remember your dam or sire, and they are no longer here (Cameo and Hope); when you carry and safely deliver a foal at the age of 19 or 25 (Piper, Patricia, Pat/Valentine, and Exquise);

Calo Heros Exqise and Windy Coulee Eye Catcher Hope

. . . when you take care of people who are new at riding (Luna); when you win your first CTR in your prime, and then come out of retirement to take a wwoof guest for a quiet walking ride at age 25 (Fleury AKA Beaver); when you are my herd stallion and become my main riding horse and finally settle to do your dressage in Working Equitation, love moving cows in your first cow clinic, and win your first Ease of Handling round (Zefyr); when you challenge me to find amazing professionals to work with you and me (Bruce Christie, Anna Petrova, Selena Dickmann, Brent Trout and Bob Laye);

Anna Petrova and Windy Coulee Zefyr Cameo

. . . when you cuddle with wwoof guests (Inspirer); when you jump into the trailer, sneak into the shop, scratch your back on the hitching rail as a colt and run through the creek for the first time for fun (Hawk); when you wear your halter, lead and tie quietly for some bot egg removal time and you are such a beautiful young filly (Ismay);

Windy Coulee Zefyr Jedi-Master

. . . when you decide humans are the best and put your halter on for the first time (Jedi-Master); when you safely and sneakily deliver your foals (Piper, Patricia); when you show all the signs and deliver on time (Rosy); when you ask for someone to be there when you deliver (Exquise and Wave); when you are the kindest gentlest boss mare (Maddy/Holly); when you are the best emotional support hinny for the uncertain and lonely (Missy); when you take your time healing and trusting (“Not my Pony” AKA Stormy) and when you are the most loving, cooperative, and sweetest big filly (Jessie Mae); when you swish your tails gently as a group in the evening on the hill top and the sun glistens off your shiny coats and that soft golden haze settles in around you before night time. I learned about Hope, Healing, and Gratitude from you. 

Dear Herd, you taught me the meaning of hard work, your beauty and comfort inspires me to keep burdock in check and the grassland healthy.  You help me stay in the moment. You keep me physically healthy and mentally sound.

Windy Coule Kilimanjaro Piper and me.

I love you.

Heidi

Obituary for the Beavers of Beaver Creek January 2023

I moved to the valley along Beaver Creek (I am not sure of the real name of this creek) in 1997, lived in a small trailer, and took a job to help pay for my farm. My now ex- husband and I agreeably co-own the land.  I managed the grassland and the farms livestock and still do. 

First generation farmers in today’s world are few and far between.  I am not sure how many solo women farmers there are, and well, my main livestock is the non-edible kind, that puts me in a unique category.  Though, I know my appreciation for the SW Alberta landscape is not unusual.

Healthy creek with active beavers.
Beaver dam and pond along Beaver Creek, SW Alberta, before 2021..

I first got in hot water because of the creek’s mammal population when someone wanted to feed them a pile of bark from an invasive bush.  I stood my ground politely and asked them not to, as it may cause an infestation of non-native bushes along the creek.  

When you love something so dearly, sometimes you hurt people’s feelings.

Beavers can live on willows along the creek.
The ranch dogs enjoying Beaver Creek.

I also created the farm emergency plan.  How does one save your herd in case of a grass fire? With a three -horse trailer and a sustainable breeding herd of rare Canadian Horses, I rely on beaver dams and natural beaver ponds as the safety net.  The herd will gravitate to these ponds during a grass fire emergency; horses have the smarts to keep themselves safe near a water body during fires.  I can only evacuate dogs, cats, and three of my horses.  But I can encourage the beaver to live where they have lived since the beginning of time.  There is a hands-off beaver policy at Windy Coulee. I am grateful every time I see a sturdy beaver dam and a full pond behind it.  

My farm volunteers and I hike out on those hot summer evenings to find the beaver.  Late summer, you can sit on the banks and watch beaver cut the abundant willows on the creekside and drag them to the centre of the beaver ponds. Watching them swim, trying not to scare them or let them catch your scent helps you meditate in the failing light. If you are from Europe, this is an experience of a lifetime, like watching the northern lights.  

Beavers of Beaver Creek
Healthy beavers means a healthy creek.

Yet the beaver are simply collecting food for the winter. When the ponds are full, the piles of willow sink to the bottom and are reachable from underneath the ice. This is the result of their diligent work keeping the dams in place, storing the water, feeding the excess into the water table and supporting a healthy creek.  Willows on ice in winter though, does make for dangerous skating.  

I don’t skate.  I walk the winter frozen creek and look for various wild animal tracks, see the willows and know the beaver are safe in their bank dens, and still able to get some food.  I dream of watching them with their young next spring.  It is a love affair from afar.  I will never hold them or catch that strong beaver scent with a sniff of my nose in their fur.  I will only remember hot summer evenings sitting on the coulee edge looking down at the beaver, getting ready for winter. 

Beaver ponds keep wildlife and livestock safe in prairie grass fires.

In the spring, sometimes the snow, ice, and chinooks get the better of them.  In March, 2014, everything melted into a huge torrent. 

The Windy Coulee Herd of Canadian Horses stuck on the east side of the creek for a time.

The herd was stuck on the east side of the creek, the beavers who survived were stuck alongside a raging force of water that plowed through the dams, draining everything, washing food downstream, exposing the beaver to predators. I prayed for them to survive. 

March 10, 2014 Beaver in trouble due to an early spring melt

Later that spring, as I was checking on the herd, I saw a large beaver slogging back upstream.  I know in my heart he or she stayed safe after being washed down towards the Oldman River, that runs through Piikani land.  

This is all Nitsitapi land; Blackfoot Territory since the beginning of time. “Niitsitapi” (nee-itsee-TAH-peh) means “the real people.” I am privileged to live on this land as a guest.  I am privileged to have the beaver living in the creek as my neighbours. 

My heart was broken again, just before the floods of 2013 and 2014.  I heard someone had a permit to trap a considerable amount of beaver from the creek valley.  Not on Windy Coulee, but all around. How is that possible without even asking the neighbours? 

The next two years of severe floods ensured no beaver used the creek for several years, then they resiliently moved back. 

There was a balance for a decade.  

In 2021, it all changed.  Is this the ebb and flow of a creek? My heart says no.  In August the creek dried up, flowed a bit again, dried up, flowed a bit again, dried up, and then the reservoir of water in the riparian water table also dried up, and then the beaver ponds dried up and the beaver disappeared.  It stayed that way well into September.  The beaver had no chance to store their food, get their homes ready for winter. I remember when the water came back, it was almost as if someone had turned on the tap.  Too late in September to do any good for the beaver.  In 2022 it happened again. My pond building neighbours are gone.

August 2022
Some small pools remained for a while in early August, but lack of oxygen from so little overheated water, still killed the fish.

I hope that our creek can be managed to the point where the water will not stop on again off again like a city tap.  I know humans take water out of the creek, and they may even do it without thinking of what is happening downstream.  I know that humans can learn to think and act more for the downstream ecology.

Beaver Creek SW Alberta dries up in 2021 and 2022.
By mid August the creek was completely dry except for a few small over heated pools.

I pray the beaver will come back again. But with drought affected crops, and diminishing wells, will there be enough water?  Or can humans learn and act to show they know that a healthy creek is the most important thing for every living being in our community?  Can humans learn how to live and farm with less water for short term business and more water for the creek?

Without adequate water table, even a well constructed beaver dam can not hold enough water to keep a healthy pond in place.
Abandoned beaver dam in 2022.

I loved you beaver and everything you represented. When, or if, you come back I will be so very grateful! My herd will be safe again, Beaver Creek will be flowing again, and the creek known today as Beaver Creek will have its namesake back again. If, (hopefully when) this happens, our whole community may have a second chance to regain health, well being and the one thing that keeps everyone alive . . . water.

Mournfully yours, Heidi 

Making a Plan Does Not Mean You are Afraid.

I finally figured out why some horsemen plain refuse to use certain components of their personal safety equipment.  A friend, who lives and rides alone, told me that she was not afraid of hurting her head.  Since I understand that equestrian gear, feed, trailers, training techniques, in fact, everything to do about horses, including the type of horse to ride, is a personal choice, I said nothing.  

Instead, later that evening at home, I opened this document and typed the title,  “Making a Plan Does Not Mean You Are Afraid”. 

I may lapse sometimes, but generally, I am pretty fearless when I ride my horses. In fact, I think I take quite a few risks, well calculated ones of course, but risks indeed.  And when you take risks anything can happen, like coming off a horse, having a horse fall on you, hitting a large branch, getting kicked, being knocked down; you name it, it can happen with horses.  When there are risks, most of us make a plan before taking the risk.  And making a plan to avoid severe results that could happen if you take said risk, doesn’t mean you are afraid.  I ride a lot of horses a lot of the time. I know I will fall off, I may even get kicked or knocked down; it is part of what I do.  I do my best not to get injured however, because it hurts and it can also harm the horse.  I have skill and I am continuously working to improve my skills, and create good, safe habits as well.  I know that if I do hurt myself riding, well, I love riding and it was worth it.  On the other hand, the more that I can do to prevent injury the better, mainly because I do not want to waste any time that I could spend riding, grounded and recuperating from an injury instead.  Any sport professional knows the risk involved with their chosen sport and wears the equipment necessary to prevent and reduce serious injuries.  

59295629_10161683736680082_761318421055930368_oWith horsemen, it is no different, or so you would think.  We wear proper boots with heels, gloves, practical and very comfortable clothing, english saddles have stirrups that release from the saddle if you are ever caught up in them, western riders use tapaderos, which cover the outside of the stirrups to prevent a rider’s foot slipping through and getting caught and to safely navigate thick brush, (they look really cool too).  We clean our tack regularly to inspect the important parts like the girth, and strive for properly fitting tack. Heck, we spend thousands of dollars on comfortable, safe tack to sit on and manage our horses from.  Some folks wear chaps to avoid puncture wounds on their legs as they travel through thick bush with their horses.  Horsemen even put safety features on their horses such as wrap supports for their legs, and boots.  Horsemen who drive and event wear safety vests, and I am starting to see very nicely fitting air bag vests on riders in the show ring.

Another important component of a rider’s equipment is the helmet.  Head injuries are not that common with riders, however in Canada tramatic head Injuries are not decreasing. For equestrians, severe head injuries occur relatively less often than the more common broken collarbone, wrist, and ribs, but when a head injury does happen, they often have serious consequences.

In 2009–2010, an estimated 98,440 Canadians, 2.4% of the population aged 12 and over, sustained a head injury. Of those, 57% (55,910) were working-age adults, 23% (22,720) were adolescents, and 20% (19,810) were seniors (Appendix 4).

Billette J.M. and Janz T. Injuries in Canada: Insights from the Canadian Community Health Survey Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X.

 

Luckily, the more common injuries can heal, mostly to a complete recovery.  However, if a rider is hit in the head by a branch or sharp object, or if they come off and hit their head on the way down, or are kicked in the head while working around their horse, the injury can be severe and the recovery long and difficult.  Horse related head injuries are usually so severe that the person may not ever be able to recover fully.  That is not an acceptable risk to me, unless I have done absolutely everything possible to to keep that risk to a very small level.  Then, there are the few instances when the injury is deadly.  On very rare occasions it is unavoidable.  Other times, well, there were injury preventative pieces of equipment available that were not used and that is not acceptable to me either.

Avoiding a brain injury is a good idea; it does not mean you are afraid of anything, it does mean that you are sensible and efficient with your time and money.  Avoiding a brain injury means you will continue to be able to care for, promote, enjoy, and be with your horse(s).  The outlook of a long recovery or even death being even slightly possible is not an acceptable risk, unless the modernized, tested and approved equipment that could greatly reduce this risk is used. Wearing an approved riding helmet has been proven to reduce the risk of brain injuries related to riding horses.  Now here is a piece of statistics that shocked me at first.  There are fewer head injuries related to off road vehicle use and quadding in the backcountry than head injuries related to riding horses.  What?  Run that by me again!  A quad goes faster, farther and does not have a brain to avoid flipping, and there are fewer head injuries in that sport?  The simple answer is, more quad riders wear helmets – it is part of the culture of off road vehicle riding.

zefyr and heidi after dressageI have had this answer from another riding friend – I would wear a helmet but, helmets give me a headache.  Sorry, this is no excuse.  There are so many different helmets available these days, and you can purchase them from professional fitters.  You can find one that fits properly and you can also have one custom made.  Do not even try to tell me you cannot afford it.  How much did you invest in your education?  Are you really willing to put all that brain investment at risk?  If you purely thought it through from a business perspective, it does not make sense to invest the time and energy to get through high school, the thousands of dollars for college, trade school, any job training or university and then not put even one thousand dollars into the purchase of a piece of equipment that has proven to reduce the risk of damaging your investment.  There are safe riding helmets out there for 90 dollars as well, but the more durable ones, or fancier ones for show outfits, with a closer more customized fit, can be upwards of 700 dollars.

I know some horsemen think a helmet makes them look unprofessional.  We are beyond this now.  I don’t even want to go there.  Even Prix St. George dressage riders wear helmets. Have you seen bull riders, professional jumpers at Spruce Meadows, event riders lately? I commend all coaches who wear a helmet when riding, it is a sign of respect for the sport.

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Supporting our youth by role modeling appropriate use of safety equipment – we all want to keep our brains safe.

 

So, I wear an approved, comfortable and pretty nice looking riding helmet.  I do this for more reasons than simply safety.  I respect my sport and I am putting a plan in place to protect myself from the most severe injury I could sustain from my horse.  I also wear my helmet as an example for young up and coming riders.  Children don’t like to be treated any differently from adults. I overheard a young participant at a clinic tell her mum that she was not going to wear a helmet because no one else was.  Wow, even if all I could accomplish with wearing a helmet was to encourage others to do the same, it would be worth it, especially if it was someone’s young daughter or son. Creating good habits is, well, something we should all strive for, for ourselves and our loved ones.

If you study the statistics on Traumatic Brain Injuries in Canada, you will find most of them are in contact sports such as hockey, ringette and primarily they are experienced by young males.  Even in the non contact sports young males prevail, with the exception of one catagory, equestrian sports.  The young ladies take the lead here.  Male or female, it is not good for a sport to be the lead in traumatic brain injuries. 

The Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting Prevention Program stated that out of all the statistics, it is also worth noting that among females in all age groups shown, equestrian sport/horseback riding was also among the most common non-contact sport with reported concussions or other TBI’s (Traumatic Brain Injuries).

Provvidenza, C, Tator, CH. Sports injuries prevention: general principles. In: Tator, CH, editor. Catastrophic injuries in sports and recreation, causes and prevention: a Canadian study. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 2008. p. 58–78.

 

That fact alone is a good reason for any recommendation that children should wear helmets.  But why not adults?  Is it because adults skulls are thicker?  It turns out that it has nothing to do with the thickness of a skull.  A child’s head is more at kicking height for a horse if they are standing on the ground.  So, a shorter adult would be in the same boat.  Here is a question for those supporting children in their riding pursuits – how many children just dawn their helmets as they are about to mount, after they have completed many of the risky tasks, like lead their horse through a crowd of other horses at a horse show?   

“Catastrophic brain injuries account for half the trauma deaths and about half the trauma cases with permanent, major disability.”  says Dr. Tator. 

 In fact, Tator goes on to reference a Think First  symposiam where brain injuries are narrowed down further to say that in Canada, approximately 20 percent of brain injuries are sports related. In another paper, Tator et al report that traumatic injuries in sports cost Ontario, 3 billion dollars a year.

Tator, H. Brain Injury is a Major Problem in Canada and Annual Incedence is Not Declining.  Charlse H. Tator, Cambridge University Press; 2016.

 

Not to mention the personal suffering and grief these types of injuries cause.  I often think of my dear friends who have suffered serious concussions and brain damage as a result of equestrian sports related injury, their stories of recovery and loss are incredible.  IMG_8728

The one with the permanent damage was not wearing a helmet, the two who were wearing a helmet (which broke upon impact) are still living their life as they were prior.

My habit is to dress for riding (the riding clothes now take up more space in my closet than my work clothes, a good sign!), and I put the helmet on when the boots go on, at the door, inside the house.  The gloves are on the belt with my knife and my GPS SPOT.  I now feel like something is missing if any of these items are not on my body for any session with my horse.  Now I am ready to catch my horse, groom, saddle up and have a fantastic, challenging time with 100 percent of my focus on myself and my horse. I do not even think of the risks, because I have done everything I can to prevent a wreck. If one happens, then, well, I have the tools to help myself and my horse.  I know coming off a horse is part of the sport and a risk I am willing to take with the correct equipment!  

Zef Sorting CowsThere is more to planning for risk, and it stems from when you should or should not get on a horse and much of that has to do with the breed, age, experience, training, fitness of your horse as well as other equipment used (and misused), as well as, your fitness or
skill level, and so on.  In the meantime, first and foremost, take a look at how you use your own safety equipment and consider the impact of your choices on your family, our horse community and our country’s health care system when you get ready for some quality horse time.

 

Copyright Heidi Eijgel, Windy Coulee Canadians