Horses of Red River

Cover Page Capture

[For additional information, see “Horses” in “Red River Ranching: A Reasonable and Rewarding Endeavour,” Chapter 3 of the free e-book,  A Casualty of Colonialism: Red River Métis Farming, 1810-1870 (2015).]


moving horse picture

A Possession for All Seasons: at work, on display, and at play

Lithograph, “Governor of Red River, driving his family on the River in a horse cariole,” c.1823/1824. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-1052.3. Copyright: expired / périmé. Source for animated trotting horse gif:

The date of the image above indicates the driver is Hudson’s Bay Company Governor of Assiniboia, Robert Pelly, while the passengers in the sleigh are his wife, Emma, and their four year old son Robert. The young man standing behind is likely a servant, perhaps employed from among youths of the settlement as a groom/ carriage hand. [See Governor’s (and First Ladies) of Assiniboia, this site.]

H. Bullock Webster, water colour, “Red River Carriole — old style,” (c.1874), which, incidentally, suggests there were pacers as well as trotters among the horses of the settlement. Source: Wikimedia Commons,

According to Gregory P. Marchildon, author of Agricultural History: History of the Prairie West (2011), “By the 1830s, many Red River farmers had a horse for riding in summer and for sledge-pulling in winter.”[84] By his figures, in 1827 there were 237 horses in the settlement; by 1833 there were 492; by 1840 there were 1,292; by 1846 there were 2,360; by 1856 there were 2,681. According to the census taken that year there were 6,523 people at Red River. If very young infants and/or very old grandparents are taken out of the equation, there would have been approximately one horse for every person in the settlement.

William G.R. Hind, oil painting, “Breaking a Road in Manitoba,” (which is a misnomer, as the Province had not yet been created or named, unless the region near Lake Manitobah is meant), 1863. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1937-284-1. Copyright: Expired.

According to Alexander Ross, in his book, The Red River Settlement (1856), horses were a sign of status in the settlement: “A Canadian or half-breed able to exhibit a fine horse, and gay cariole is in his glory; this achievement is at once the height of his ambition.” That Ross did not approve did not change matters. Métis settlers continued their love affair with fine horses and their “driving and carioling in all places, and every opportunity.” [196]

Paul Kane, watercolour, “Half-breeds surprise buffalo,” June 1846. Click image to enlarge.

John McLean, Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson’s Bay Territory (London: Richard Bentley, 1849), wrote of the Métis and their horses in connection with the buffalo hunt:

“When they set out for the plains, they observe all the order and regularity of a military march; officers being chosen for the enforcement of discipline, who are subject to the orders of a chief, whom they style “M. le Commandant.” They take their departure from the settlement about the latter end of June, to the number of from 1,200 to 1,500 souls; each hunter possesses at least six carts, and some twelve; the whole number may amount to 5,000 carts. Besides his riding nag and cart horses, he has also at least one buffalo runner, which he never mounts until he is about to charge the buffalo. The “runner” is tended with all the care which the cavalier of old bestowed on his war steed; his housing and trappings are garnished with beads and porcupine quills, exhibiting all the skill which the hunter’s wife or belle can exercise; while head and tail display all the colors of the rainbow in the variety of ribbon attached to them.”

Paul Kane, “Half-breed buffalo hunt,” June 1846.

The riders depicted above are using North American Aboriginal pad saddles: “They were stuffed with buffalo hair, horse hair, or even grass. A rope or leather cinch would have secured the saddle on the horse. The carefully beaded decorations reflect the high value the owner placed on his horse.” [ For other examples see;; and]

red river guide

‘Red River Guide,’ illustration, in Manton Marble, “To Red River and Beyond,” Part 1, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 21 Issue 123 (August 1860): 202, depicted with a leather western-style saddle with roping horn.

William G.R. Hind, watercolour, “Red River Cart with Resting Horse,” June 1862. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1963-97-1.8R:A. Copyright: Expired.


As of 1869:

The following reads as though written by Nor’-Wester editor Walter Robert Bown, because critical of the settlement and settlers (although the article could also have been contributed by another Canadian, such as John Christian Schultz). The news story does, however, impart the information that there was a race track just north of St. Boniface, which suggests it was located in the vicinity of what is now Whittier Park.

Awakened at Last

On Saturday last our town was thrown into a state of intense excitement.

The post office was closed; our merchants left their stores in the possession of their clerks or shut up altogether; general business was suspended, and all of the young bucks of the settlement together with many of our citizens, were seen wending their way, as fast as possible in the direction of St. Boniface. What could be the matter? was the question first asked of ourself, and then of a sleepy looking young man whose steps were directed toward the general current. He answered with a yawn. The race! didn’t you hear of the race? Well, we had not, as we very seldom hear of anything going on in this land of stagnation, so we quickly donned our capot and directed our steps toward the scene of action.

When we arrived on the grounds; just above St. Boniface, we learned that our postmaster [A.G.B. Bannatyne, later an honorable member of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia] had made a bet of £20 on his little Canadian mare “Pussy” to run against a supposed=to-be-fast French steed called “No-where.”

Considerable time was taken up in measuring off the course and in the setting of the poles, and everything else being ready, the cry was “where are the horses?” They were “no-where” to be seen. Explanations were suggested, and it was hinted that “No-where” had “backed” out and was not disposed to “come to time.” At last, however, a snug, well made little horse made his appearance before us, trotting under a rider weighing some 200[? illegible] lbs. A weight far beyond [?] proportion for the size of the horse. This was “No where” and “Pussy” followed directly after. Then followed the race which was a mere burlesque [?] and an insult to “Pussy.” “No -where” did not belie his name in this instance, for when the mile stake was passed “Pussy” had left him No where indeed.

The postmaster’s little nag, is a stylish little beat, and was trained in Detroit and brought into the settlement last spring by the Messrs McGregor of Windsor, Canada.

She is well spoken of in these parts, and foreshadows what may be expected when there is enterprise enough in this settlement to look to the improvement of stock by the introduction of thoroughbreds.

Our sporting postmaster’s mare had her head decorated after the race with flowers and ribbons, as trophies of victory we suppose, and there was much honor felt as though the race had been run upon some of the most famous courses of the East.

[“Awakened at Last,” Nor’-Wester (22 January 1869), 34]

Otto Eerelman, lithograph, “The Canadian Horse,” 1898.

Henry James Warre, sketch, “Horse and Rider/Cheval et cavalier,” drawn July 1840 at Saguenay, Quebec. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1971-86-. Copyright: Expired / Expiré.The sketch indicates that the ‘French Canadian Horse’ was every bit as well bred as the ‘English’ version.

In 1870:

As the 24 May 1870 festivities approached, the New Nation (15 April 1870) [page 2], made mention of the settlement’s need for a permanent race track:

As an aside, the reference to ‘Lemons’ in the column above, displays use at Red River  of the latest North American slang catch phrases — if perhaps a little belatedly. The phrase was discussed in an article entitled “Live Metaphors,” printed in 1866 in The Galaxy “an illustrated magazine of entertaining reading,” published out of New York. Author George Wakeman explained slang was evidence of creativity in communication as well as of the flexibility of language, but argued (though much of the time with tongue in cheek):

I can imagine no more deplorable object than a pert young lady, who, having spurned such adjectives as “sweet” and “nice” as effeminate, calls everything “gay” and “bully” and pleases her penchant for masculinity by frequent repetition of such phrases as, “Can’t see it!” [and] “Go in lemons!

The latter phrase apparently meant “in full force, or earnestly.” In the Red River context it could also have served as a play on one of the resident’s names, that of John Lennon, owner of a saloon in the Town of Winnipeg (see below, “Sporting Affairs” New Nation of17 June 1870).

A horse named Black Kate figured in the pages in the New Nation  of 20 May 1870, which carried an ad on page 2, placed by John ‘Francis ‘Johnny’ Grant, who was selling tickets to raffle off the “celebrated” mare:

The New Nation of 27 May [page 3] repeated Grant’s ad (as it would for weeks to come), and included a notice from Maurice J.G. Lowman. Lowman had been a member of the Convention of Twenty-four, representing St. John’s Parish, in 1869, and was the son, from a previous marriage, of Mary Kelly Lowman Bird, the widow of James Bird Sr. By his mother’s last marriage, Maurice Lowman was half-brother to the Hon. Dr. Curtis James Bird of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, representing St. Paul’s/Middlechurch. Lowman placed the following ad under the heading “Horses Astray”:

The fact that the horses had been running at large was not unusual. Many horses (mares, colts, fillies, and geldings), were left “on the prairie” in summer to forage for themselves until needed. [See, for example a mention of horses needing to be caught in “Report of the Select Committee on the Causes of the Difficulties in the North-West Territory in 1869–70,” 92.] In winter, however, horses were usually tended to. It was against the local law, moreover, to let stallions roam at large. Encounters between stallions (especially if one was being ridden or driven) could lead to serious injuries and difficulty in rounding up a herd.

rowlandson horses fighting

Thomas Rowlandson, watercolour, depiction of stallions fighting (c.1800).

The fine for allowing a stallion to run free was three pounds sterling. [See Laws of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia, this site.]

Also in the The New Nation of 27 May, on page 2, there was mention of the races that had been held during the 24 May celebrations:

The Queen’s Birth-day

The Queen’s birth-day was ushered in with us, like the usual bright, clear, and lovely days at this season. Few such perfectly salubrious days can be found in other parts of the empire over which the sun never sets. The day was observed as a general holiday all over the settlement; in town the stores and other places of business were closed, and people generally went in for a good time, to enjoy this fifty-first anniversary of our good Queen’s natal day. The pricipal features of the day were the races ….

The day passed off very pleasantly and quietly, with the exception of the little incidents attending sport,– such as is all too frequently the case in Red River. Some individuals got exceedingly drunk and disorderly and were of course at once taken care of by our active town police force, and escorted to airy and comfortable quarters in one of the bastions of Fort Garry where they could amuse themselves with any amount of noise to their hearts’ content without afflicting anyone else, (no doubt many a gentleman indulged with impunity out of a sincere desire to do proper honor to the day, and in fact got “tooral-ooral,” or spoken soberly, “truly loyal drunk.”)

The actual races did not receive coverage, though they seem to have inspired follow-up matches, which were reported in the 16 June issue of the paper:

The reference to ‘McKay’s track’ suggests that the Hon. James McKay of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia had laid out a course on or near his ranch at Deer Lodge, in St. James Parish. Persons of note in the article include Charles ‘Sharlo’ Bottineau [Jr.], who had married Frances/Francoise Parenteau, daughter of a Pierre Parenteau who was possibly the Hon. Pierre Parenteau of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, representing St. Norbert. The Bottineau couple were at odds however, and had separated, as a notices in subsequent issues of the New Nation made clear. Alfred Boyd, owner of the black, was a wealthy merchant of the settlement. Hon. William B. O’Donoghue was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, representing St. Boniface, and Treasurer of the Provisional Government. The Rowand horse most likely belonged to John Rowand, the brother of Hon. James McKay’s wife Margaret. John had retired from HBC service in 1856 and had settled as a neighbour of the McKays, in St. James on a ranch known as Silver Heights.

The New Nation of 17 June reported on the horse race that followed:

People mentioned in the above article include: John Lennon (businessman in Town of Winnipeg — best known as a saloon keeper); Dr. John Harrison O’Donnel (who would later write his recollection of the years 1869-1870 in the settlement); Miles McDermot (married to Guillamine Goulet, a sister to Sarah Goulet who married Elzear Lagimodiere, a cousin of President Louis Riel, Provisional Government of Assiniboia); Thomas Spence (editor of the New Nation from 28 March 1870); and Major Henry Martin Robinson (previously an editor of the New Nation, he was an American who “had some connection by marriage with a family at Fort Garry,” and who would eventually author a history).

On 24 June the paper recounted another day at the races:

Horses mentioned as racers in the community to this point include include Boyd’s black horse; McKay’s cream a.k.a Cream (previously owned by Charles ‘Sharlo’ Bottineau Jr.), and his Laprairie black horse a.k.a the Black; O’Donoghue’s mare Kathleen Mavorneen, and his roan Faugh-a-Balla. Images below show coat colours and give some indication of the kinds of animals the horses might have been.

1 July  John F. Grant is still raffling his mare


Horses and Racing in Nineteenth-century North America

Alexander Anderson, wood engraving, depicting 19th-century race horse as a sleek and powerful animal.

Coat Colours:

Black mustang:


Nakota Roan:

Depictions of Horse Racing Western Style:

“At Sioux Camp”

Karl Bodmer, lithograph, showing racing “At Fort Pierre,” Dakota Territory.

Frederic Remington, etching, “An Indian Horse-Race—Coming Over the Scratch.”

James David Smillie, etching, “Scrub Race on the Plains,” 1876. For zoomable (to very large) image see

Motion capturing:

File:Muybridge race horse animated.gif

Thoroughbred mare, Annie G., galloping. The sequence is set to motion using frames from Eadweard Muybridge’s Human and Animal Locomotion series, (plate 626) published 1887 by the University of Pennsylvania. Source: Wikipedia

File:Muybridge horse gallop animated 2.gif

Thoroughbred mare, Daisy, at a gallop. Sequence taken set to motion using frames from Eadweard Muybridge, Human and Animal Locomotion (plate 624), first published in 1887 at Philadelphia. Source: Wikipedia,


Published: 20 August 2012


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