Monday, 21 September 2015 18:01

War Horses

Written by Garry Allison, Rocky Mountain Turf Club
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Excerpts from the book Southern Hoofprints: A History of Horse racing in Southern Alberta

In researching for my book Southern Hoofprints: A History of Horse racing in Southern Alberta, I came across a strange occurrence which impacted horse racing in southern Alberta in the late teens of the 1900s.

This was an aspect of horses I had never given much thought to, prior to spotting a three inch story in The Herald. So I dug deeper, and here is an excerpt from the book about southern Alberta horses and war in Europe.

During The First Great War the Canadian government needed replacement and regular horses for the Canadian Armed Forces serving in Europe. As well, the British and French came into western Canada to select the prime horses available for their armies. Among the horses hit hard by the acquisition were those off the race tracks.

However, when the war ended and all was back to normal, the government was first in line to restock the race tracks with needed Thoroughbreds. Along with their new interest in the race tracks the government laid out rigid controls on the sport of kings.

Peggy McKenzie of the Olds College Library was able to provide some background for me underlining the fact horses played a major role in the First World War.

The Military History Journal, Vol. 1 No. 3, states there were no less than three to four million horses in service by the Allies in 1915 alone, “and the turnover (dead horses) must have exceeded this figure by several millions.”

Pretty astounding when you think of it, and on top of this Germany was said to have had 4,523,000 horses, and yet found it difficult to keep its armies moving. On top of this the Russian supply of 24,652,000 horses far exceeded that of any other country. Astounding! Horses were everywhere on the western front, and they suffered heavy casualties.

The volume also points out: “Britain was in a much more fortunate position, for whilst she is shown as having 2,231,000 horses at the commencement of hostilities (1914-1918) she had the vast reserves of Canada, South Africa as well as the United States and Southern America to draw upon. France, who started off with 3,222,000 also drew heavily on Canada, the United States and Mexico.”

The book, A Century of Service points out the 20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery from Lethbridge, used horses in one particular instance, to bring 18-pounder shells forward to the battery positions at Vimy Ridge in March of 1917.

As an aside to the First Great War, I also discovered the South African War of 1899-1902 — just a decade or so prior to WWI -— had used thousands of horses according to the Times History of the War. The book states: “The Remount Department of the British Army supplied 520,000 horses . . . of which 350,000 horses perished.” Transporting the horses was a major challenge, first across Canada by rail and then overseas via ship.

In September of 1914 The Lethbridge Herald states a Lt. Colonel from the British Army was in southern Alberta buying cavalry horses for the British. He wasn’t just looking for any horse that could carry a saddle, but the best money could buy. In culling a herd of 200 plus brought in for sale the British officer was rejecting those “too low, too young, in bad condition, wrong colouring and weak constitution.” Minimum accepted height was 14.3 hands and the horse must have the capacity to carry 320 pounds under active service conditions.

The Lt. Colonel went on to say western Canadian horses tended to be too strong on the bit and at the same time lacked stamina - yet there he was, buying western Canadian horses.

Among the suppliers on this given day were Charles Hyssop and Raymond’s Ray Knight with about 100 head (It would have been interesting to hear Knight’s opinion of the Lt. Colonel). In the end, only 47 horses met with the British officer’s approval.

Come September two more British officers showed up and spent the day at the Northwest Mounted Police barracks in Lethbridge selecting more horses for use in the war overseas - if the horses were no good, why did the British keep coming back?

Colonel Hassell - a seemingly appropriate name considering the hassel the British put the hose sellers through - felt it would likely be the final time the British would visit the west to purchase remount horses because horses were not coming into the sales arena quickly enough.

Ray Knight was doing the buying for the Brits, with prices ranging from $100 to $135.

A week later Hassell, again accompanied by his pal Captain Jolliffe, had headed further west, to Pincher Creek, on a horse buying spree. They bought 88 of the horses offered, this time paying from $125 to $150. Some were turned down because they were “too springy” in the back. Seems the Brits had a problem with everything.

There’s more on this aspect of horses and war in my book.

With the war well under way the French entered the picture in 1916. Centering their work at Cardston, the French failed to advertise the date of their little buying extravaganza and not that many horses were on offer. However, a large percentage of those shown were sold, with the lighter horses the prime choice. It was the low prices stopping the sale of the heavier horses. As was proven in much later times with the horse factory at Fort Macleod, it wasn’t certain if the French were riding or eating these animals.

The horse buyers for the French were Sam Evans, Hugo Weiss and Joe O’Reiley of Shaunavon. A train car load of horses left for the east by rail earlier that week.

Ken Buxton, a longtime horseman in southern Alberta, recalled an excursion with a horse buyer in 1936, just prior to the Second World War.

“I went with this old horse buyer, Tony Ziegler, when I was nine or 10 years old . . . imagine at that age going off from home with this guy to buy horses. He bought a carload of big horses, and I mean really big, off Rick French’s dad along with some wild thoroughbreds out of Pincher Creek for the government. They were remount horses for the army and they all had to be broke. You know that old Tony, to the day he died, still called me kid.”

In his magnificent book A Hoofprint On My Heart Jim Coleman talks about Jim Speers, Harry Roe and Harry Rudd all being involved in purchasing horses for the French government in 1914. Coleman said the “French were scouring the western world to find horses to equip their beleaguered military machine.” He also went on to say that anyone who had eaten in a French restaurant during the war knew the “horses were used for purposes other than hauling cannon or carrying overloaded cavalrymen.”

Those horse buyers from Alberta were searching south into Montana and even west into Idaho. The pickings were slim however and between them they could only find a train car load for the French.

In 1922, after the First Great War, the Southern Alberta Turf Association was re-formed with memberships a mere $1.

September of 1940 it is said that in Britain, of the 5,000 flat racing horses and jumpers, fewer than 2,000 remained in training for the sports, Many were disposed of when the Second World War began. As well many were lost in France in the Blitzkrig, along with numerous American and Canadian horses forced into service overseas.

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