We often talk about Canada's "little iron horse" and, deservedly so, mean the Canadian breed, but we have our own "little horses of iron" right here in Alberta. Anyone driving across Morley Flats, the last piece of open ground before the Rockies on the Trans Canada Highway, has likely seen the horses out grazing on the dry, yellowed grass. These horses come in all sizes and shapes but many show signs of draft blood, evidenced by their often feathered feet, stocky build, thick bone and wild manes. They can be seen fending for themselves out on the windswept prairie in all weather and at all times of year. These are tough and hardy animals.
Jesse is a 25 year old buckskin gelding acquired back in 1994 by YMCA Camp Chief Hector. In his file, the seller is listed simply as "Morley reserve horse". To look at him, he has the same, thick and stocky build, with some feathering about the fetlocks, yet he is light and athletic on his feet. He is, in fact, something of a legend in the YMCA herd.
Though only 14.3 in height, Jesse carries a presence that earns him respect among humans and horses alike. For the past ten years and more, Jesse has ruled the camp band of 80-90 horses and is, without a doubt, the herd patriarch. Though you might expect an alpha mare to take control of a band of horses, in the YMCA herd it's Jesse who calls the shots. In his younger days, he would take on all comers in order to maintain his position. He wasn't a mean horse, he just took his job as leader seriously and was willing to put any newcomer in their place, firmly behind him!
These days, Jesse still maintains order in the herd but has enlisted a few sidekicks to help him get the job done. Together with these three other geldings and two or three mares, Jesse and his "posse" lead the way. When teaching campers about herd dynamics, camp staff often refer to Jesse and extol his virtues of leadership. At the end of a day of riding, when the hay has been carried out to the feeders and the horses turned loose, it is very common for a group of campers to linger at the fence rail, just to watch Jesse and his crew at work.
He is what some might call a "cowboy's horse". He can seemingly take or leave his human handlers and is certainly not a suck for attention, but when there is a job to do, there is simply no better horse in the paddock. Not so many years ago he was THE horse to ride for both campers and staff. Built low to the ground and well muscled, he had the acceleration and agility of a Quarter Horse and the durability of...well, a Morley horse!
Jesse could climb mountains all day. His performance note from 1996 reads "ultimate mountain pony" and from the following year, "solid working horse". In his career in the Camp Chief Hector riding program he has done innumerable overnight pack trips, endless numbers of day-long trail rides and countless arena lessons. He has crossed swollen rivers, ponied pack horses, stood on high-lines, toured all around the Ya Ha Tinda and given beginner riders their very first riding lessons.
Jesse has slowed a bit in his twenties, and there are signs that arthritis may be creeping up on him, but he is still the kind of horse you can rely on with just about any kind of rider. He now works just one or two of the camp’s three operating seasons each year, and his days in the remote country are likely over, but the camp staff are looking forward to having him in the string this season for the Shotungwa program, a week-long riding program for girls and boys 11-13. It is horses like Jesse that make the camp horse programs both possible and enjoyable for the many campers who visit each year.
Though he may not have papers, and he's certainly no show horse, Jesse and his kind are a credit to his roots and to the rich horse history of our province. He is an Alberta horse that is truly worthy of the title "little horse of iron".
For more information on Camp Chief Hector and their horse programs, visit www.ymcacalgary.org