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Fireaway

Drawing from his files and his own memories, Grant MacEwan has distilled fascinating facts and human-interest anecdotes about thirty-seven horses and shaped them into brief and appealing short stories. Memory Meadows
Copyright 1976 by Grant MacEwan
242 pages,
ISBN 1-55054-568-X.

Wonder Horse of the Frontier

As traders and travelers in the early We t remembered the stallion, Fireaway, "he had everything". He had enough. peed to overtake a herd of fleeing buffalo or leave native horses far behind in a Red River race, enough stamina to carry a hunter all day, and enough beauty and character to fill horse thieves with the urge to steal him. "What a horse!" men exclaimed. He was the unbeatable, unforgettable, unbelievable, and for more than thirty years after his disappearance from prairie scenes, sons and daughters were still winning attention and commanding premium prices.

Very properly, Fireaway could claim a long list of firsts. Beyond any question, he was the first horse of his breed - Norfolk Trotter or Hackney - to be brought to Canadian oil, first horse of any improved breed to be brought to the new West, first to materially change the quality of the native horse stock. Altogether, this imported horse became a legend on the frontier. Most citizens in the buffalo country had never heard of Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, but they were familiar with this Wonder Horse of Red River, Fireaway the Marvelous, and were in pired.

True. the horse was brought to the West at a time in history when it would not be difficult for a good animal to make an impre ion and gain fame. The Selkirk settlers. Western Canada's first real farmers, began coming in 1812 and their needs were many and urgent.

Fortunately, the new land to which the courageous settlers were coming to make homes was not totally without horses. The country was without sheep and pigs and practically without cattle, but the prairie Indian held horses of a lowly strain tracing to introductions to the southern part of the North American continent by Spaniards about 300 years earlier. In the absence of any attempt to improve or even maintain quality in the existing stock, the animals were small and often undernourished and illshaped. In their favor, however, they were hardy, acclimatized and sure-footed. The Selkirk people were thankful to find and acquire some of them for work purposes.

But the British settlers longed for bigger horsesmore like those in the home lands. Governor George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company believed that the provision of a good stallion would be of the greatest benefit to settlers. In 1830. he notified his business friends in London that about fifty of the native mares had been selected and gathered together at the new Experimental Farm in the settlement for a breeding and improvement program. Obviously, a superior stallion was needed and company officials took the hint. The Deputy Governor wrote from London on February 25, 1831, to report that "a stallion of a proper breed" was being sent by ship to York Factory at the south end of Hudson Bay and gave it as his advice that the Experimental Farm in the Red River Colony would be "the best place at which to commence raising horses for the service."

This was good news and Simpson ordered preparation , at the same time confirming that the horse would be placed at the Experimental Farm "on the Assiniboine river, about four miles above the Forks. "

The great horse arrived at York Factory late in the summer of 1831 when, after many weeks on the sailing ship, he still faced the bigger test, that of transportation by canoe or York boat over the water route of almost 700 miles from York Factory to Fort Garry. Carrying a grown and restless horse in a small craft on an upstream course on the treacherous river flowing into Hudson Bay had to be a most dangerous occupation and one likely to be extremely unpopular with voyageurs who had never before been required to share their canoe with a strange stallion. But apparently, the horse learned how to behave in a canoe, how to balance himself in rough water, and how to step into and out of the boat when portaging was necessary.

After more weeks of travel, Fireaway arrived at the Experimental Farm, safe and well. He was at once the center of attraction. He was of an imposing size, probably close to 16 hands in height. A red-roan in color, the animal was identified as a Norrolk Trotter, the strain or breed from which the better-known Hackney sprang. As an early test demonstrated, Fireaway had unusual speed and that in itself was enough to ensure popularity.

Simpson was pleased to report by letter: "He is looked upon as one of the wonders of the world by the natives, many of whom have travelled great distances with no other object than to see him."

The breeding program proved successful and the progeny from Fireaway and the selected mares were the best buffalo runners and the best utility horses the settlers had used in this new land. The best compliment that could be paid to his popularity was in the several attempts to steal him. One of the plots detected was to whisk him away by night and take him south to the United States.

The popularity of Fireaway colts continued long after the horse wa gone. Even in 1864, which was thirty-three years after Fireaway's importation, the Methodist missionary, John McDougall, traveled from Fort Edmonton to Fort Garry and felt rewarded at being able to buy a descendant of Fireaway for seventy dollars. The be t horses for racing and chasing buffalo were still those that carried Fireaway blood.

Strangely enough, no record survived to tell exactly what happened to the famous horse. Numerous stories were told, one that he was stolen and taken southward, one that he was sold legitimately to go to the United State, one that he was so highly regarded that horsemen in England bought him and had him shipped back to hi homeland. Perhaps he died at Red River, but nobody seems to be sure. But regardless of what happened to him in his la t years, his importation was one of the best things undertaken to help the settlers in Western Canada's first farm colony.


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