Listen: PKG: Ojibwe horses (Kraker)

MPR’s Dan Kraker reports on a rare breed that has adapted to the forests along the Minnesota-Canadian border. It's called the Lac la Croix Pony, or the Ojibwe horse. A few decades ago there were only four of them left. Kraker interviews those dedicated to reviving the population and help Ojibwe people to reconnect with the horses. 


2023 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Coverage - Feature Reporting (big) category


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DAN CROCKER: Now, here's something I bet you didn't know. I know I didn't until I heard this next story. There is a rare horse breed that's native to the thick forests along the Minnesota-Canadian border. It's called the Lac La Croix pony or the Ojibwe horse. A few decades ago, there were only four of them left. Dan Crocker reports on the long effort to bring the Ojibwe horse back.

DAN CROCKER: Em Loerzel grew up hearing stories about the Ojibwe horse from her uncle, about small ponies that would roam free near Ojibwe communities and help with tasks like hauling wood. He told Loerzel, who's a descendant of the White Earth Nation, not to forget these horses.

EM LOERZEL: I think when people think about Native people and their horses, they think of Lakota people or Southwest people. But he would tell me, he goes, you know, don't forget that we were horse people, too.

DAN CROCKER: Loerzel recently rescued six Ojibwe horses from a ranch in Canada and brought them to a farm outside River Falls, Wisconsin.

EM LOERZEL: This is Mino, short for Mino Bimaadiziwin. So that's our word for a good life. All of our Ojibwe horses have their Ojibwe names. Hey, kid.

DAN CROCKER: Mino, a two-year-old colt checks my microphone.

EM LOERZEL: What is that? He's, I think, just one of the sweetest guys.

DAN CROCKER: Loerzel created a nonprofit called the Humble Horse to raise awareness about the breed and to help revive it. Only about 180 Ojibwe horses remain mostly in Canada. Loerzel points out a few ways the breed has adapted over the generations to survive in the harsh northern climate.

EM LOERZEL: It's this little inside flap that you see here. It helps--

DAN CROCKER: On his nostrils?

EM LOERZEL: Yes. It helps protect them from cold air. And then you probably noticed his really small fuzzy ears. It also protects them from the cold, but it also protects them from black flies.

DAN CROCKER: But the Ojibwe horse almost wasn't able to survive its greatest threat, peopl. In the early 1900s, they were killed and used to make dog food and glue. By 1977, there were only four left on the lac La Croix First Nation in Ontario, just North of the US-Canada border. Word spread that the Canadian government planned to exterminate them. So four men from the Boys Fort Reservation in Minnesota launched a rescue mission.

HEATHER O'CONNOR: They piled in a pickup truck, hooked up a horse trailer, drove across like beaver dams and portages and frozen ice in the middle of February.

DAN CROCKER: Heather O'Connor is a Canadian author and journalist who spent five years researching Ojibwe horses. She says it was dubbed The Heist Across the Ice. Norman Jordan was a young boy at the time living at Lac La Croix. He remembers watching the men lead the horses away.

NORMAN JORDAN: I was thinking, well, I'm wondering if this is the last time I'm going to ever see those horses. I don't know if they'll ever be back again, you know, because everybody was so attached to them in a deep way, spiritual way.

DAN CROCKER: But those four rescued mares allowed the breed to survive. Some of them were bred with a Spanish mustang, and slowly, their numbers increased. In 2017, almost 40 years to the day that those four remaining horses were taken away, Jordan, who was Lac La Croix First Nation chief at the time, helped bring a herd back to the community.

NORMAN JORDAN: It's almost like when they left, there was a piece of my history that was leaving, a piece of me, like, a void that I've had for all these years. And then that night they came back it's like that piece that was missing was back now.

DAN CROCKER: Eight years ago, Darcy Whitecrow and Kim Campbell started Gray Raven Ranch on the nearby Seine River First nation, where they keep a small herd of Ojibwe horses. But Campbell says more people need to get involved for the horse to survive.

KIM CAMPBELL: The biggest thing is having people say, gee, I have a farm. I could have a breeding pair and do one baby a year. That's our biggest need.

EM LOERZEL: It's time to go out. Come on.

DAN CROCKER: That's why advocates for the breed are thrilled that Em Loerzel has started her small herd in Wisconsin. Loerzel says the Ojibwe horse's story is a parallel to the story of Anishinaabe people.

EM LOERZEL: They were forcefully removed from their families. They were almost exterminated by the government. The population dwindled, and now we're coming back. And now we're thriving.

DAN CROCKER: And about a month ago, one of her mares gave birth to a healthy foal. Dan Crocker, NPR News, River Falls, Wisconsin.

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