It was all about four white feet. It was also about fourteen hundred kilometers, four provinces, and four thousand pounds of horses.
We raise purebred Shire horses. Like their Clydesdale “cousins,” the desirable markings are four fluffy white feet, the white extending up the leg. Picture the Budweiser Eight Horse Hitch. In Shires, this marking is less common.
However, being optimistic farmers, we left Delta, Ontario, with two mares to be bred in Prince Edward Island. A mating we were sure would produce the desired colouring.
We prided ourselves on being prepared. Spare tires, truck and trailer serviced, hay, water, standard emergency equipment, human and equine, Canadian Automobile Association membership, maps, and two sons home to run the farm.
At five o’clock on a Saturday morning in July 2007, we loaded Kate, one mare, into the front of the stock trailer and Maggie, the other, into the back. No luxury trailer for draft horses.
Around Cornwall we finished our coffee, and planned to stop for a break after Montreal. Driving onto the bridge at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, the tires made that whining sound, then thump, thump, thump. A pick-up truck was beside us, horn beeping, the passenger waving a “Montreal Canadiens” ball cap from the window, yelling.
Luckily, there was an exit just over the bridge with a service road along side. Without discussion, I got the jack while my husband, Chris, retrieved the spare. It was flat. Time to call for CAA roadside assistance. Waiting, I noticed a path, littered with garbage winding along a wooded area. Chris noticed the spare tire was not the right one.
The horses peeked through the side openings. Anthropomorphizing, perhaps, but there seemed to be an accusation of incompetence in their dark liquid eyes. Then Maggie took advantage of the motionless trailer and emptied her bladder. A noticeable puddle flowed towards the jack.
Did I mention farmers are optimistic?
Kate nickered, as if to say, “Enough already, let’s go.”
The CAA car pulled up, the young man listened to our dilemma then crushed our optimism “I am sorry, but I can not take anyone, anywhere, against policy. But there’s a tire store in just few kilometers down the highway.”
So, we unhooked the truck from the trailer, and Chris left.
For the first hour I waited, watching transport trucks stop along the service road, then some bikers, the motorcycle type, taking a break and lots of drivers parking while using cell phones. I tried to be inconspicuous in the shadow of the trailer.
After the second hour, I was feeling that second cup of coffee. Then I saw movement in the woods. A gray squirrel struggled, jumping and rubbing on the ground, his head firmly stuck in a Tim Horton’s iced cappuccino cup. Chattering echoed inside the plastic. Finally, the cup broke away, but the top that allowed for a straw, remained tight around his neck. Then, the squirrel was gone, out of sight.
By now the horses had lost their impatient attitude and munched on hay.
With the third hour, came worry. Where was my husband? What about that path? Was that car backing up? Should I call home? The Surete du Quebec pulled up and the suspicious car left.
“Bonjour,” my high school French kicked in.
A smile. Was it my poor accent? I didn’t care. It was a friendly face.
“What’s going on here?” He easily switched to English and pulled out a notepad.
I gave him the condensed version, and he laughed, put away his notebook, closing the report of an abandoned trailer and horses.
“If you have any trouble, just call 911, but you should be fine here. That’s MacDonald College,” he pointed past the trailer, “part of McGill University.” He looked at the horses, “Big Girls. Well, have a safe trip.”
Then he left, but the suspicious car returned. I looked at Maggie. I could get in with her. She is one of our largest horses, full of attitude, and no interest in anyone who doesn’t provide a feed bucket regularly. After watching the heavy horse charge in the movie “Braveheart”, we agreed, our horse for battle would be Maggie!
The car door opened; a middle-aged man approached.
“Hello, do you speak English? Francais?”
“Do you plan on being here long?”
“I actually hadn’t planned this at all. Why?”
“We were to meet my sons here, but they are late. We can’t wait. Can you give them a message?
“I guess so. However, I am sure my husband will be right along.” Optimism, again!
“They drive a small red car. They look a little like….. hippies?” He searched for the right description, “And they only speak French. All you have to tell them is – La mère et le père sont à votre tante Marie.”
I repeat it, apologizing for my French.
“That’s good. Tante Marie is the important part.”
He looked in the trailer, asked where we were headed.
“Make sure you go to Hopewell Rocks, the Flowerpot Rocks – it’s not far off your route. The tide is amazing, just like your horses.” He reached in patting Maggie right on the nose. She never moved a muscle. Traitor, I thought, but recanted, chalking up her pleasant demeanor to natural instinct.
Suddenly Kate stopped chewing, her ears alert. There was the truck. What a happy reunion. Changing the tire, Chris told me about the west end of Montreal and getting directions, and about the one-way streets, signs in French, stores closed on Saturdays, how he was worried, and why we need two cell phones.
As we pulled away, a gray squirrel ran from the path, no plastic cup. I hoped it was the same one. Free and on his way too! The hippies – well they will have to find their own way – we are out of here!
We spent that night at a bed and breakfast, near Florence, New Brunswick. Here, we unloaded the horses into a pasture normally used for cattle on the modern dairy farm.
The owners were Dutch immigrants. Rural backgrounds had us talking about the struggles of family farms and small businesses. Weather, crops, livestock prices and even the changing Trans Canada route were having an adverse effect here.
Exhausted, we headed to our room, and opened the window to listen for any problems outside. “The National” was covering news of six soldiers and an Afghan interpreter killed by a roadside bomb the week before. Sleep did not come easy after the heart-wrenching broadcast. These were Canadians. Matthew Dawe, Kingston, Ontario; Colin Bason, Abbotsford, British Columbia; Jordan Anderson, Iqaluit, Nunavut; Cole Bartsch, Whitecourt, Alberta; Lane Watkins, Clearwater, Manitoba; Jefferson Francis, Shiloh, Manitoba. Our large country felt somehow smaller, even more connected in our shared grief.
Morning saw us on the final leg of our drive to P.E.I. We crossed Confederation Bridge, windows down, ocean air blowing through the cab. I wondered how the horses were processing these new smells as we crossed the strait.
We drove up a steep, red dirt driveway to our destination, and “Anne of Green Gables” came to life as a white farmhouse, outlined in green trim, and rolling fields with an ocean backdrop came into view.
After appropriate introductions, both horse and human, and official “breeding” and veterinary paperwork done, we left, local maps in hand, agreeing to meet our hosts later for a lobster supper. In New Glasgow, fresh seafood complemented conversation that ran the gamut from hockey to horses.
Kate and Maggie were waiting at the gate in the morning.
“Sorry girls.” Kate nuzzled me, “We’ll be back. Be good. Get pregnant.”
In September, ultrasounds confirmed both mares in foal. Time to pick them up. The trip down was uneventful and quick. When we arrived, the horses recognized the sound of the truck, and trotted over. We met them; apples ready. They promptly turned their backs to us. This was not anthropomorphizing; they were angry, obviously missing home and their herd. After coaxing and cooing, they ate the treats, and then walked away. Point made, horse style.
The next morning, the ocean mist made it hard to see the horses in the field. But once we hooked on the trailer, they were right there, hooves pawing the ground. That trailer was NOT leaving without them.
Eleven months later, Maggie lost her stillborn foal, but Kate delivered a filly, right on schedule.
This was Hope. Officially, “Coldacres Hope”. Hope, after Hopewell Rocks, where the Bay of Fundy tide amazed us. Hope for rural Canada, where small towns, small business and small farms fight to survive. Hope for wildlife in an increasingly urban world. Hope for peace. Hope for soldiers and families dealing with experiences and emotional roller coasters most of us would not be willing to ride. Hope, for heavy horses who once pulled our loads, tilled our fields and carried us into battle. (***2020 - and hope for the future after Covid 19!) And for us, we are still hoping for four white feet!
But farmers are optimistic, and there is an outstanding young stallion, just four provinces away, in Alberta. Hmmm, maybe next year.