- HEIGHT: Mares 12–12.3 hands; males 12.3–13.2 hands
- PLACE OF ORIGIN: Ojibwa Nation, especially Minnesota and northern Ontario
- SPECIAL QUALITIES: Known for sure-footedness, cleverness, tractability, and tolerance of human beings
- BEST SUITED FOR: Driving, riding, hauling; work with beginning and disabled riders
As far back as the native people of northeastern Minnesota and northern Ontario can remember, small horses have lived in the area. The oral history of the local Ojibwa goes back at least two hundred years, and the story of these tough little ponies is part of the history of the people. The Ojibwa land along the border between Canada and Minnesota is heavily forested and punctuated with hundreds of lakes and streams. Winters are long and severe. Traditionally, the Ojibwa used the ponies mostly in winter to pull logs and pack out traps and pelts over the snow. They were also ridden year-round, typically in thick forests, often on difficult footing. Speed was not a priority; tractability, cleverness, and ability to negotiate the terrain were more important.
Management of the ponies often amounted to turning them loose to forage for themselves. They flourished until gasoline-powered vehicles took over their work and various outside authorities began to make decisions about their existence. By then the horses were semi-wild, coexisting peacefully with the people. They lived in little bands that sometimes wandered into the remote Indian villages but often remained almost invisible as they foraged in the deep woods.
Starting in the 1930s, missionaries and officials at the Minnesota reservation village of Vermillion ordered that the ponies were to be killed, for reasons that are unclear. One excuse given for killing them near another village, Nett Lake, in the 1950s, was that children had seen a stallion breeding mares, which the religious authorities considered to be morally unacceptable behavior on the part of the horses. Quite a few ponies were also shot and sold as dog food by local white men. In time, the ponies disappeared completely from northeastern Minnesota.
Across the border in Canada, the Ministry of Health decided for unknown reasons that the few remaining ponies posed a health risk and declared that the animals should be eliminated. In 1977, Fred Isham heard this news from some of his relatives at La Croix and decided he simply had to take action.
A Dramatic Rescue
Lac La Croix is a fairly large border lake. The Boise Forte band of Ojibwa lives in the village of La Croix on the Canadian side. On the American side, the Boise Forte Ojibwa live on reservations at Nett Lake and Lake Vermillion. In spite of the international border, the people of the villages are closely related. The elders of the three villages decided to round up the remaining few ponies and transport them back to Minnesota to avoid the planned Canadian extermination. Once the last individuals were rescued, the people hoped to develop a plan to save the breed.
Fred Isham’s friend Walter Saatala agreed to provide a home for the horses, and former rodeo rider and roper Omar Hilde came in to capture the few semi-feral mares that lived near the remote village. Because there was no road access, the only way to transport the horses was to wait until winter and then haul them out by truck over the ice.
The Lac La Croix Indian Pony was rescued from the brink of extinction in the late 1970s.
The capture effort required help from many of the La Croix villagers. Finding and roping the elusive, frightened horses in ice and snow in a forest and then loading them onto a truck posed an enormous challenge, but they succeeded. At the time, only four female ponies were found. Problems continued after the rescue, when one of the mares nearly starved to death eating commercial grain and hay. For generations the ponies had eaten wild grasses, browsed on buds, and stripped the bark off poplar trees, very much like deer. It took time for their digestive bacteria to adjust to the sudden change to commercial horse feed.
Reestablishing a Herd
Because historical research indicated that the ponies descended from random crosses between Spanish Mustangs and Canadian Horses around the time of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the rescuers decided to cross a Spanish Mustang on the rescued mares, and they selected an animal named Smokey, a son of Yellow Fox (Spanish Mustang Registry #3).
At the time of its rescue, the breed did not have an official name. The name Lac La Croix Indian Pony commemorates the location of the final rescue and honors the people who saved the ponies. In 1993, Rare Breeds Canada (RBC) became involved with the preservation of the breed and began to bring the ponies back to Canada. Since the involvement of the RBC, record keeping has greatly improved, breeding is more comprehensively managed, and trends can be easily spotted. A few dedicated breeders operate in Minnesota, but the majority of the horses now reside in Canada.
With the total population approaching one hundred in 2005, depending on expected foal yield, all but sixteen of the ponies have had DNA extracted from mane samples to provide animal identification and confirmation of parentage and to begin a herd book for registration purposes. In addition, Dr. Gus Cothran, of the University of Kentucky, is working to include these horses in the Heritage Genome blood-typing project. Among many other things, this research will help scientifically determine the true origin of the horses. His initial research indicates “some type of British pony or at least ‘cold blood’ horse type as an ancestor of the LLCIP. However, the data also suggest that there could be some Iberian ancestry.”
Lac la Croix are sturdy fairly short-legged ponies, well suited to packing.
Though not a gaited breed, the Lac La Croix has a very smooth trot and canter and is quite comfortable to ride.
Jane Mullen, of the Lac La Croix Indian Pony Society, says, “I believe this supports our research that the LLCIP is a descendant of the Canadian Horse (cold blood) and the Spanish Mustang (Iberian ancestry).” With Dr. Cothran’s expert assistance in the management of small populations, effective strategies are being developed to help the breed remain both genetically distinct and genetically healthy well into the future.
These strong ponies are well able to carry adults or to pull sizable loads. Not surprisingly, they are sure-footed and willing when asked to push their way through dense brush. They are not gaited, but the trot and canter are very smooth and flowing. They have great stamina, and are intelligent and curious. Lac La Croix are excellent family horses for both riding and driving and said to be quite tolerant of human ineptitude. They make excellent horses for beginning handlers and have been very successful in handicapped riding programs.
Lac La Croix Indian Ponies are relatively small. Mares usually stand between 12 and 12.3 hands and stallions 12.3 and 13.2 hands. The forehead is broad, tapering toward a fine muzzle. The ears are small, profusely haired, and set well apart. The nostrils have flaps, which close to keep out inclement weather. The withers are low, the back is straight, and the croup is sloping, with a low-set tail tucked well into the buttocks.
The cannons are very thick, solid, and strikingly large for a horse this size (often measuring 7.5” to 9” on mature animals) with slight feathering on the back. The hooves are small, strong, and very hard. The tail and forelock are abundant, and the thick mane often falls on both sides of the neck.
Lac La Croix can be any solid color other than palomino, white, or cream but are predominantly bay, black, grulla, or dun. Small white markings on face and lower legs are fairly common.
BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES
According to the Lac La Croix Indian Pony Society (officially established in 2004):
• In 1977, at the time of rescue, the total population was four mares.
• By June 2005, the total population was 93, comprising 18 adult males, 34 adult females (9 of them in foal), 13 geldings and barren mares, 15 males under the age of three, and 13 females under the age of three.
• There are 14 farms in Minnesota and Canada that breed Lac La Croix Ponies.