Uncover the mystery behind the wild horses of Southern Alberta, Canada

Where Did the Ghost Forest Horses Come From?

Based on close observation of their physical characteristics, Maureen Enns, an artist / conservationist, believes the Ghost Forest’s current wild horse population – about 50 in all – are of Spanish mustang blood. Spanish mustangs were first brought to Mexico and South America by the Spanish conquistadors. One account states the first horse stepped on North American soil in 1494, during Christopher Columbus’s arrival. Indigenous people during that time told a variety of legends to explain the coming of the horse, which transformed how they led their everyday lives as hunters, traders and warriors.1

Within a generation of acquiring their first horses, the Apache and Comanche people in the United States were doing things with horses that stunned the Spaniards, who were known as excellent horsemen.

As far as the wild horses located on and near the Stoney Nakoda Nation, west of Calgary, Elders have their own account – they talk about stories of the horses emerging from Kananaskis Lake.

In addition to their Spanish Mustang origins, Enns believes the horses have some Andalusian blood in them, too. Stock that was let loose in the early 1900s also came into the wild herd, which also has evidence of Thoroughbred, Irish Hunter and Quarter Horse.

The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s brought heavier stock – such as Percherons and Belgians – into the wild horse mix. The result is seen in their feathered feet and a generally solid appearance that further sets the wild horse apart from its domestic – and feral counterparts.

Also contributing to the wild horse’s genetic diversity is an account from 1920s, when a rancher in the Ghost Forest decided he would raise 1,000 head of really good bloodstock, which included Thoroughbred, Arab and Quarter Horse.

The plan was to breed these horses and send them towards the war effort, but the war ended and the horses were set loose.  The result is a wild horse population that takes the best of these breeds.

“They’re some of the best wild horses left in the country,” says Enns, who believes these wild horses have lived independently for many generations and have not had much contact with Man.

She acknowledges that determining a wild horse from one that is feral is a tough question.

“A wild horse is one that can live off the land, without anything interfering with its ability to survive and carry young in a healthy and independent way for many generations,” she says.

Bob Henderson has been observing the wild horses in the Sundre area since founding WHOAS (Wild Horses of Alberta Society) several years ago. He agrees while some domesticated species have mixed with the wild herd over the years, domestic traits are disposed of rather quickly, resulting in a distinctly wild species.

“These wild horses are adapted for the environment, very much so. In size, they’re smaller than a domestic horse, they have bigger feet, and they have superior intelligence, because they have to survive with their smarts.”

  1. Wild About Horses: Our Timeless Passion for the Horse (Lawrence Scanlan, 1998).