In June 2001, wildlife biologist Wayne McCrory had a dream. He had been contracted by Friends of the Nemaiah Valley to map grizzly bear habitat and document wildlife signs, in order to help the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, one of the Tsilhqot’in Nations, oppose the planned logging of their ancestral lands – lands to which they had won rights and title through cases heard by the Supreme Courts of British Columbia and Canada.
Once on the ground, McCrory came face to face with the much-maligned wild horses (qiyus) of the Xeni Gwet’in. As a young biologist working in the Galapagos Islands many years earlier, he had seen the damage invasive species caused to healthy ecosystems; he expected the horses to have done the same here. To his surprise, he found a healthy population of fine horses that appeared to have fully integrated into the natural predator-prey ecosystem.
On an early exploration of the area he was investigating, he was charged by a band of wild horses. Later that evening, he dreamed he went on a journey to sacred Ts’il?os (Mount Tatlow). In the dream, McCrory was confronted by a stone horse that came to life. Thus began a twenty-year journey of observation, research, and advocacy, culminating in The Wild Horses of the Chilcotin.
To McCrory’s surprise, he found a healthy population of fine horses that appeared to have fully integrated into the natural predator-prey ecosystem.
McCrory’s long journey is informed at every turn by the Xeni Gwet’in, who share their history and knowledge with him. There can be no wild horses without a wilderness to live in, and the book takes us throughout the area, including to the 770,000 hectares of the largely intact ecosystem of the ?Elegesi Qiyus (Eagle Lake Henry) Wild Horse Preserve between the Chilko and Taseko rivers.
The book spans years of researching the origins of the wild horses and how and when they came to the Xeni Gwet’in. Modern, perhaps convenient, belief was that they arrived with European settlement after the Cariboo gold rush in the mid-1800s, but McCrory offers a different, and compelling, explanation.
Horses first evolved in North America but became extinct during the Pleistocene Ice Ages; modern horses were brought to this continent by the Spanish during their conquest of the Aztec Empire. By the mid-1600s, they had spread northward through Indigenous territories all the way to BC’s Chilcotin region. Simon Fraser recorded encountering First Nations, including the Tsilhqot’in, with horses at the time of first contact in 1806.
There can be no wild horses without a wilderness to live in.
Extensive genetic testing of two geographically distinct Chilcotin wild horse populations in 2014 revealed both groups were descended from Spanish Iberian and Barb ancestors, but one also included bloodlines of the east Russian Yakut and the Canadian Horse, a distinct breed descended from French horses sent to Quebec in 1665.
In more contemporary times, the Xeni Gwet’in/Tsilhqot’in qiyus have been under sustained attack. For more than 100 years, the BC government declared them feral, deemed them undesirable, and promoted their slaughter, beginning in 1896 with the Act for the Eradication of Wild Horses.
McCrory documents the chilling success of the wild horse bounty hunts and culling programs throughout the BC Interior grasslands. By 1999, they had been eradicated everywhere except the West Chilcotin, where 2,800 survive.
The horses’ existence is not guaranteed
McCrory does a masterful job of sharing his interactions with and observations of the Xeni Gwet’in qiyus living freely in their natural habitat. Their existence is not guaranteed: the ?Elegesi Qiyus (Eagle Lake Henry) Wild Horse Preserve was proclaimed by the Xeni Gwet’in in 2002, but is not recognized as a protected area by either the provincial or federal governments.
McCrory concludes with the hope that The Wild Horses of the Chilcotin will stimulate public advocacy to protect the remaining wild horses. He gives the last words to Xeni Gwet’in elder and knowledge-keeper, Alice William: “We are the horse people. The world is watching.”
Bob Collins is a farmer, a year-round resort operator, and a writer. One of his books was short-listed for the Leacock Medal of Humour, and he has been a regular columnist for Country Life in BC for 27 years. Along with his wife, Ann, he is the co-owner of a couple of rescued wild horses.