Gone are the days of bundled up rides, getting home with frozen toes, and wet rain jackets. Today, we leave the saddles at home and make our way through a blazing hot field with flies and mosquitos in tow towards a short dusty trail that will lead us towards our cool swimming hole salvation. As we slowly make our way down the winding trail through the tall second growth fir stand to the water’s edge, I notice springboard notched stumps and begin to imagine the loggers and horses working and hauling in this very place nearly 100 years ago.
Horses have shaped the Comox Valley more than you might think. Around the turn of the twentieth century, early settlers like the Cliffe and Blackburn families used robust draft breeds to plough fields, haul hay, and work in the vast forests of the area. At the time, the Comox Logging Company supplied millions of board feet of Douglas fir timber to Fraser Mills in New Westminster. Trees that had been felled a distance from rail lines needed skidding from the bush by a team of horses. This job required a tremendous amount of effort and is a testament to the powerful potential and heartiness of a team of steeds. This job would later be replaced by steam donkeys and cable yarders, but horses still helped by hauling cables from the machinery out to the logs before haul-back lines were invented. In the marginal land surrounding the extensive logging operations, horses helped in the fields where hay was one of the most important crops, as it fed the horses of the area and remained important for transport and land clearing.
Today the valley continues to support a large horse community. In rural parts of the valley you can find them grazing in many of our beautiful green pastures. Quarter horses, Thoroughbreds, and Warmbloods to name a few, have since replaced the early draft horses. These horses assume a very different role in our lives today as show animals, companions, and lawnmowers. These impressive animals have been bred for their athleticism evident in local events including: jumping, dressage, gymkhana, rodeo, and endurance racing. Talented local trainers, equine veterinarians, and farriers operate in barns not far from a bustling downtown and are largely unknown to the general public.
I’m extremely proud to say I was born and raised in the Comox Valley. This place is more than amazing. While many things have changed here, the continuing equine tradition has been a big part of what brought me back here after years of university in the big city across the pond. Some say home is where the heart is. For me home has always been where my horse is, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Some of my fondest memories have riding horses in the Valley View area at their heart, when it was still a huge pasture. Or thundering across the sand at Kye Bay, early morning rides through the cool second growth fir stands at Seal Bay, and swimming with the horses in lesser known holes throughout the area.
Into the slow moving water we plunge, smiling and laughing, an instant relief from the humid summer days. The feeling of such a large powerful animal swimming in the river beneath you is something very special, long slender legs pacing, flared nose pointed towards the sky, and an incredible surge of energy as soaked horse and rider emerge on the river bank. Moments like this won’t be forgotten anytime soon; here’s to making more. Bring on the summer.