Monday 15 October 2012

A History of Horses

A silk scarf in process on my work table.
Things are busy in the studio these days as I gear up to display and promote my art at a favourite annual show: The Mane Event. It's a kind of a trade show for the equestrian crowd and it draws folks from all over the region to see horse trainers in action, view horsey products, learn about horsey services, and basically immerse themselves full-on in a three day equine extravaganza. It's an event I always enjoy, despite long hours and a lengthy drive to and fro, because it connects me with a great crowd of outdoorsey people who are passionate about the critters - the horses, dogs, donkeys, sheep, llamas, cats, cattle, and whatever-else-have-you - that share their lives.

I don't have a horse in my own life right now but they're in my blood and therefore they surface regularly in my art. Looking back on my own history with horses, I recall there were always ponies or horses around our small farm during my childhood in Langley, BC. Many passed through our gates (my dad bought and sold livestock) but there were only four that I considered to be "mine".

The first, when I was four or five, was a cute-as-a-button Shetland pony named Tony who had the nasty habit of stopping suddenly and lowering his head in an effort to unseat me. If all went according to his plan, I'd tumble off and land in front of him so he could step on me (I can clearly recall having a Shetland-sized hoof print on my arm). It wasn't a love story between us but I was undeterred and Tony was followed by Dixie, a plump Welsh-x pony on whom I really learned to ride - or at least to stay in the saddle and steer effectively. There were no formal lessons, only a second-hand saddle and mis-matched bridle, a will to learn, and a good-natured pony who was gracious enough, most of the time, to put up with me. After a time and only a few mishaps that left me in the dust, the spunky little mare lost favour in our family by bolting out the front gate and leading us a merry chase down a nearby highway, my dad and I in hot pursuit in our Volkswagen Beetle. Thankfully she came to a stop unharmed on the lawn of a home that housed a very large family, and all the children of various ages and sizes were ushered out to form a human corral and capture her.

As I had nearly outgrown Dixie anyway, she was soon sold and Apple arrived. Apple was, as the name suggests, an Appaloosa; a beautiful mare not much bigger than a pony. She came to us in horribly emaciated condition, and we were shocked to discover that she was in foal, producing a beautiful filly in fairly short order and blossoming into a nurturing mother. However poor Apple had a history of abuse and was so skittish my parents feared for my life when I rode her. She would spook at nothing and run hell-bent-for-leather away from whatever imaginary threat had frightened her, with me possibly in the saddle or quite likely in a heap on the ground. She never lost this alarming habit and it was not the best situation for my health or my parents' who were riddled with anxiety at the prospect that I'd eventually come to serious grief.

Then came Duke - my first full-sized horse and, as my friends, family and followers know, the equine love of my life. He was a young gelding who had landed in the hands of a local horse-trader. A gangley, butter-coloured palomino Saddlebred-Quarterhorse with a gentle, unflappable disposition, he was less than three years of age. He had been "green broke", meaning he'd had a rider on his back and some basic training, and he turned out to be the perfect match for a shy teenager with minimal riding skills but a fierce passion for horses. We learned together with the help of an older, experienced riding buddy, various books, and endless hours in the saddle. We were inseparable - if I could find time to ride for 15 minutes after school and before my babysitting job, I would. I brushed Duke, bathed him, braided his mane and tail, and rode and rode and rode. He wasn't a champion or a purebred, but he was a good boy - faithful, steady and true, good-natured and patient. We entered a few local horse shows and won a handful of ribbons but my passion really was just spending time with him and riding - miles and miles and miles of riding. No indoor arena for us, just the lure of the open road!

Duke and I covered a lot of territory together. During the 1970s you could have seen us heading out in various directions in the Aldergrove area: north to the vast acreage owned by the Department of National Defence and which in those days was open to riders, south to the trails of Aldergrove Lake Park (the man-made lake has since been drained and filled in, so it's now called Aldergrove Park), or making the long trek west to the equestrian heaven of Campbell Valley Park with its fine facilities and trails tailored to horseback riders. When I left home and the family farm was sold, Duke lived at other farms and stables in various parts of the Lower Mainland as I gypsied from place to place. In the 1980s, you might have seen us galloping around Mud Bay near Crescent Beach, or ambling around the Queensborough area that's now totally developed into housing and highways (in those days a horse and rider was an anomaly in an increasingly urbanized area, and we attracted lots of gawkers) or racing down the horse trail between Highway 1 and Burnaby Lake. In the 90s we both ended up back in Langley, and it was there Duke eventually ended his days at a small family-run stable just a stone's throw from our favourite place, Campbell Valley Park, which was where you'd have been most likely to have seen us during those last years. I remember our first ride in the park after moving back to Langley - Duke's joy was tangible (as was mine) as we returned to the stomping ground we'd left behind so many years earlier. There's now a plaque in the park's Spirit of the Horse Garden celebrating his memory.

So while I'm horseless these days, much of my past was spent in the saddle and I have the bad knees to prove it! Not to mention a couple of old saddles and a trunk full of tack gathering dust. Life has taken me in different directions and my art has followed suit, but the hours spent grooming, riding and observing horses are indelibly imprinted on me and I'm certain that even blindfolded I could make a fair stab at accurately drawing a horse. Pretty well the first thing I ever drew was a horse, and it may well be my last. My deep seated love for horses and for making art are forever intertwined.

"Friendly Faces" - my most recent equine artwork.

I don't know when a new horse will come along and become "mine" but I know one day, when circumstances are right, it will happen. For now I content myself with hanging out at places like the Mane Event and enjoying every moment of it.


  1. I just love your style and wonderful artistic interpretations of the animal world. Viewing your artwork helps me to remember and re-connect with nature and the animals we so dearly love. I am currently working on a Masters in Social Work with a focus on Animal-Assisted Therapy. I hope that one day I can have a clinc that is filled with 'strong' art that reflects our passion in life. See you at the 'Mane Event' this weekend. Dianne

  2. I've walked through the Spirit of the Horse Garden at CV Park, and read the tributes - I was very moved by the love shown to horses who have passed.

    Deb, your plaque shared with us all the love between you, for so many years.


  3. nice horse and this is a beautiful post,i want some more posts.personal trainer langley bc