For a long time I have said that the United States doesn’t have a native working pony breed. Now I’m beginning to wonder if one exists, and I just don’t know about it yet. The story of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony has made me reconsider my former belief. The similarities in its story to the Fell Pony I also found striking.
The Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies are also known as Ojibwe Ponies and sometimes ‘indigenous’ is replaced with ‘Indian.” This critically endangered pony breed is indeed native to North America and is thought to be the only pony breed created by indigenous people on this continent. There are at least two origin stories for this breed. One says that small Canadian horses were crossed with Spanish mustangs. Indeed, two types are said to be present in the breed, one being more similar to Canadian horses and the other being more similar to the Spanish type. In the 1970s only four LLCI ponies remained, all mares, and the breed has been brought back from the edge of extinction by judicious crossing with Spanish type mustangs.
Another origin story for the LLCI is more fascinating to ponder and has some support from Dr. Gus Cothran’s research saying the breed is genetically distinct. Based on oral histories from native peoples and the presence of petroglyphs, the LLCI ponies are believed to have lived with their people since before Christopher Columbus “discovered” North America and introduced equines to the continent. This story suggests that equines did not entirely go extinct on this continent after the last Ice Age, but instead remnant populations held on, with the LLCI ponies being one example. I was reminded of the British mountain and moorland breeds that hung on despite King Henry VIII’s edict against small statured equines.
The LLCI ponies traditionally resided straddling the US/Canada border between Ontario and Minnesota. They were ideally adapted for forest living, “a nose flap to hinder cold air from entering its lungs, rock-hard hooves for running over the Canadian Shield, fuzzy ears to protect it from insects…” (1) The ponies are said to enjoy human company and indeed hung around human settlements, receiving food in exchange for helping with traplines, hauling wood for fires, and harvesting ice. One parallel story in Fell Pony lore is from Viking times: “The horses for riding or pack work were kept handy in the villages, and the breeding stock lived out on the fell, because they were able to fend for themselves.” (2)
Today the LLCI ponies are embedded in some native communities and are offering assistance in new ways as therapy workers. They are helping indigenous people reconnect with their heritage and themselves. The photographs of these ponies with their people are exceptionally beautiful; follow the link in the first footnote to see some. For me, the kind eyes of these ponies and their interest in their humans is extremely reminiscent of Fell Ponies. We who get to partner in our lives with ponies are so fortunate.
Nerberg, Susan. “Lac La Croix pony saved from extinction by the Ojibwe,” Broadview, 10/2/19, as found at https://broadview.org/lac-la-croix-pony-saved-from-extinction-by-the-ojibwe/?fbclid=IwAR17LZGQFYCklUhs1LZnBpx3MZtCgoM-iBPOM7AK7lto0XVcXlX3CYMHYNE
Millard, Sue. “Ploughing today, pirating tomorrow,” Vikings and Normans page, Fell Pony Museum website, http://www.fellponymuseum.org.uk/fells/vik_norm/vikings.htm
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019