A worrying future for Alberta’s historic Block Horses

Photo by Tim Kalinowski This young Block Horse colt at McKee Ranch represents the future of the pedigree, but faces an uncertain future.
Photo by Tim Kalinowski
This young Block Horse colt at McKee Ranch represents the future of the pedigree, but faces an uncertain future.
Photo by Tim Kalinowski Suffield's Block Horses are extraordinary animals with a denser bone structure than most horses and greater intelligence.
Photo by Tim Kalinowski
Suffield’s Block Horses are extraordinary animals with a denser bone structure than most horses and greater intelligence.
Photo by Tim Kalinowski Arnold McKee feeds some of his Suffield Block Horses.
Photo by Tim Kalinowski
Arnold McKee feeds some of his Suffield Block Horses.

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Photo

The history of the British Block is the history of its horses, says Arnold McKee, a rancher living near Acadia Valley. McKee has dedicated the latter part of his life, over 20 years now, to preserving the memory of that historical injustice, and its aftermath.

He has done it in an odd way: By taking care of and preserving the historical horse pedigree known as the Block Horses, horses descended from the wild horses rounded up and evicted from CFB Suffield near Medicine Hat in 1994.

McKee feels the keen resonance between the historical eviction of local ranchers and farmers in 1940, when the territory which eventually became CFB Suffield was expropriated by the federal government to create the British Block, and the roundup and dispersal of the range’s wild horses 55 years later.

“That area was settled, and there were towns in it, ranches and farms. In the Depression years, and before them, it was farms. That whole area the government eventually took over was under ranches and farms. They expropriated all the land and evicted all the people. It wasn’t a pretty situation. Growing up I heard from oldtimers of that era, and it struck home,” says McKee.

McKee grows visibly angry when he considers the outrageous stories he has heard about the Block Horses over the years. Even the most common one, that they were left behind when the original farmers were forced to clear out of the British Block, is wrong, says McKee.

“When these people were expropriated and evicted out of there, they didn’t leave anything behind. They only had 30 days to get out so they pushed all the livestock out of there. They were certainly not going to leave anything for any government official. “These people, to the day they died, hated the government. They didn’t vote. They didn’t do nothing. And hated any government involvement in anything… That whole area was cleaned out. They started on the west side and pushed and combed it right through.” McKee has also heard “ludicrous” tales about how the Block Horses were descended from Spanish mustangs, California wild horses, Sundre wild horses or that they were trailed in from Texas in the late 19th century and abandoned. McKee says the truth is much simpler, and can now be told because most of the oldtimers are long gone. Horse breeders living around the British Block put their breeding stock in after the clearances, and paid officials at the base money to look the other way while they did their roundups. This happened from 1940 to about 1960. Even a then teenaged McKee knew about the deal; as did everyone in the local ranching community. McKee says that is why the Block Horses are of such good quality. They weren’t scrubs left behind and descended from abandoned farm animals; they were quality stock to begin with. “When the horses we know as the Suffield Block Horses of today evolved, you can get a lot of different stories. But basically, the horse breeders in all the area around the British Block; each breeder put a stallion in there with mares. There was obviously an agreement under the table with the (Block’s) range managers. Every two years those breeders would go in and they would gather those horses, and sort them and take the colts out. They always kept their breeding stock in there. Remember, this was a restricted area. Money was exchanging hands and people were looking the other way to keep this going; that’s basically what it was.” Part of what motivated the horse breeders to break the law in the beginning, says McKee, was a feeling that a revenge of some sort must be exacted on the federal government managers of the British Block for the eviction of their neighbours. This was a way to show their defiance and contempt. Later it became a great business arrangement for everyone involved; a business arrangement that was later voided by the British Block range managers when the breeders were told to roundup their stock, get out and stay out in about 1960. The horse breeders complied, but in one last act of defiance turned some of their old stallions and breeding mares back into the Block to live out the rest of their lives. McKee says what happened next is perhaps the most extraordinary story of horse evolution in Canadian history. “It was something that took place that could never happen anywhere else in the world,” says McKee with awe. “A lot of breeders turned their old stock back before they left to live out what was left of their lives in the British Block, and they were locked in from then on. From approximately 1960 until 1994, the original stock these breeders turned back were in there. As time went on, nature, which is cruel, dictated. And over the years, it turns out only the strongest and the smartest survived.” According to McKee, this nature-created cast has given the horses extraordinary qualities. They rarely have foot problems, and don’t need to be shod. They heal extraordinarily quickly from even very serious wounds. They have a heavier and denser bone structure than any other horse of similar size he has encountered. There are imminently trainable as they recognize the dominance of the herd leader as an unbreakable law, and they are also amazingly intelligent, says McKee. McKee has bred and trained rare horses for most of his life, and says he has never dealt with a better quality horse than the Block Horses. When he applied to get a filly from their roundup in 1994, he had expected what most people expect from wild horses: Scraggly, untrainable, “rank old mares.” What he got instead was a new purpose in life: To preserve this historical pedigree at any cost. He began gathering others of like mind. From 1995-1999 he and others in his Block Horse society attempted to track down every single Block Horse they could to buy and bring together to form a breeding herd to preserve the pedigree. They ended up finding only about 180 proven Block Horses out of the 1,200-3,000 that were estimated to be rounded up in 1994. The rest likely went down the road to Fort McLeod’s horse slaughter plant. McKee carries about 100 descendants on his own Block Horse herd, and several hundred others are being preserved on other ranches. But McKee is now 73 years-old, has had triple bypass surgery and is currently undergoing cancer treatment. He knows he will not likely see his dream fulfilled of seeing the Block Horse recognized as its own distinct breed, and he worries constantly about the whether or not anyone will be able to take up the mantle of their preservation after he can no longer take care of them himself; especially because Canada’s horse breeders have been struggling with tough economic times for the past decade. Hundreds of thousands of bred horses have been dispersed and slaughtered during this period because there is little money to be made in the business anymore. “If I wasn’t into these Block Horses, I would have gotten out of it too,” admits McKee. “But because these horses can’t be replaced, and there are very few of them, I stay in it. I guess what’s sad is this is likely going to fail because there is no one going to come to come along who is as passionate. I hope there is, but I don’t know.” McKee says he can only do what he can do. “I go out there every morning, and some of those mornings I am pretty downtrodden, and I take a look around and I think: ‘Holy man, they have to go on somehow. “They are part of our history. Not only south eastern Alberta or Alberta alone, but of Canada. You only find these horses in one place, and they are all that will ever exist. They are a horse unto themselves. There were high quality horses locked in there (at CFB Suffield), and nature did its thing.”