History of the Block Horse
by Roy Beck of Sedgewick, Alberta, Canada
Until 1994 these horses had open reign on the Suffield military base in southeastern Alberta, moving freely across one of the largest blocks of native prairie in the world. The Government had expropriated the land in 1941 from the ranches who had established successful operations more than thirty years earlier. It was then used by the British military for training. Up to the mid-1960’s the horses on the British Block were loosely managed by local ranchers. During this time plenty of good old line Quarter horse, Thoroughbred and other breeds, as well as sound usable ranch horses were turned out. In about 1965 the military fenced the base, cutting off access to the herds for local ranchers. From then until the roundup on 1994, the horses survived unmanaged. They started out as high quality stock and natural selection did its thing, resulting in phenomenal horses.
In the early 1990’s the military decided the horses were damaging the grass and had to be controlled. After plenty of discussion, it was decided to round them up and disperse them.
The roundup of the horses on the British Block could have been the end of them were it not for a few horsemen who recognized the historical significance and the genetic quality that they had. Some people who adopted horses from the roundup joined together to promote and preserve the unique Block Horse bloodlines. Every horse recorded is totally authentic, documented back to the roundup.
There are things about these horses too precious not to preserve. They are historically unique and this can never happen again. These horses are something that nature produced. They are, however, more than just a historical curiosity. They are unique horses that have resulted from domesticated stock being exposed to decades of natural selection.
The intelligence and instincts of the Block Horses are being passed on to their offspring. It’s in there so deep they don’t have to learn it. What took place on the British Block will never be completely known. We now know that Mother Nature did indeed do some great things in the production of the Block Horse. Our goal is to preserve them in their natural state. These horses were always referred to as “the horse on the Block” or the “Block horses,” in the area of southeastern Alberta, Canada, where they originated. Hence the name Block Horse. These horses can never be called a breed under the Pedigrees Act, Agriculture Canada, due to the obvious fact that they are a mixture and combination of many breeds. In conformation, there are differences, but in intelligence and strengths, there is consistency.
Under the guidance of David Trus, head of Agriculture Canada, Livestock Division, we have been advised that when we prove that these horses breed and hold these strengths and their intelligence, we can be recognized as a Historical Horse with a common denominator: the British Block.
Sage and Savvy from the McKee Ranch
by Arnold McKee of Oyen, Alberta, Canada
The beginning of another year – 2002! New models on the horizon and we hope all of our [Block Horse] Breeding Programs have worked, and the best colt crop is on the way for all of us. This is what it is about – to produce the best we can, in all aspects of the working horse world.
I had occasion to study my textbook on Breeding Science again, which I do from time to time, to try my best to get the Golden Cross or Mother Lode in a breeding program. The reason for diving into this was mainly because of the Suffolk Punch Newsletter. In the recent copy, was an article on the genetics of the Suffolk Punch Breed. They have discovered that the Suffolk Punch have a 71% gene diversity, even though it was, and is, rarer than the other draft breeds, which are at 50-55%. This has occurred through what is referred to as the Bottleneck, and various other factors. It is unusual, when it was found that individuals in the Suffolk breed are very close-bred. One must assume that they have had a Mutation Explosion in the Gene Pool.
This apparently happens in wild species as well, and with any weaknesses in the wild, Nature dictates that the strong reproduces. Even though this happens in close-bred individuals and broadens the gene pool, there is still the factor that creates deformities, or other weaknesses, and a percentage of matings will still mix wrong.
This is how this particular article ended:
“However, estimates also indicate a higher level of inbreeding in the Suffolk, and while they show Gene distance and variation, there are numerous individuals who show the reverse, and have every little Gene variation. This suggests that while many Suffolks are inbred, there is enough genetic variability to reduce detrimental inbreeding effects, if managed effectively.”
The key words are managed effectively. Nothing to get scared about, it only means teamwork, and a lot of common sense. Our [Block Horse] numbers are not high, but neither were the Suffolks or the Canadiens or the Newfoundland Pony or the Morgan, etc. It means that the Foundation Stallions that we have must have sons and daughters to go on. It means that the few Foundation Stallions that we have left, have to be kept breeding till they die or are too sick to breed. The Foundations that we have are excellent individuals and have good minds. We cannot afford to lose any more, but if we do, lets all hope there is enough young descendants of each particular one to go on to the Future.
In the same context, as you will see in two other articles that we put together and included in this newsletter, we still have to be practical in aiming for a using horse. There is no sense in keeping a line that may have the potential for producing a line of cripples, deformities or airheads. This does not lead to making this a great Block Horse, wanted by everyone. I had a cripple born from a great, gentle, strong Foundation stallion and one of my near-perfect mares, “Sunrise.” This filly would have died on the Block, but made it long enough to let the Gods have her later on. I had an airhead born from a mating to two others. I have never in my life seen anything so insane as a foal. It made it long enough for the Gods to get later on. Both would have died on the British Block but both were mares and actually could have raised foals. My choice was the same as the Gods: stop the bus and let them off. Change the stallion and these mares are now producing great offspring.
As to all of us breeding these horses: odd happenings have to be evaluated and dealt with. All we have is same color, same conformation and the odd one who doesn’t even look alike, producing an inferior offspring. We have to work from there at the moment. Breeding palomino to palomino is a risk, sorrel to sorrel, black to black, and so on. It can still be a risk going with different color, as in my case, but then the breeding can always be changed.
Now into the breeding of the first generation after Foundation, we have Pedigree Records starting that we can work on. It means that we have to build numbers and breeders, and also our careful part-blood program will come into play if we need it down the road.
I never stop trying to find a group or someone to take these Block Horses and do a study of their genetic markers. This has to be done, and could be, so that the cost is affordable to each member, even the ones with one or two horses. I have tried labs, vet colleges, universities, and have not had any success yet. When we get a number of using horses out into the Horse World that are on top, then it can happen. I suspect that at that time there will be any number of people stepping forward to do it. Already two people have found out about us through Agriculture Canada so we are still on the right road. It would be nice to have a genetic study that reveals all the genetic markers in these horses, it probably would be unbelievable. To do this, it is imperative that blood be taken and the DNA system, along with the blood. Otherwise it is only a direct parent result. We would have to have the whole study or not at all.
The Block Horse has to be evaluated different than if you were breeding other established breeds but we still have to use the working line. Now, I pass this on in hopes that it can help all of us and I admire the colts that everyone is producing. It looks great for all of us. The Suffolk Punch guidelines can be used to help us as well as the Canadien, and we already have what we need in place. Hope this is found as interesting as I find it and that it can help us achieve the day when 40 to 50% of our production is on the top of horse activities in all aspects.
In closing this chapter, as I see it, I salute everyone who is dedicated to these horses and just ask that you share all happenings and questions with everyone. It will keep us going ahead. We have all actually come a long way as the Block Horse, even though it seems slow going. Nothing solid was built fast and it is always best to start at the bottom of building, and put in a good foundation, and then make the top. We are climbing.
I had two “quotable quotes” or philosophies, passed on to me. I am real pleased with these as I didn’t have to tax my small cowboy brain to think of a proper Campfire Philosophy. It means to me that people must read and enjoy my ravings in this newsletter. Everyone should send in a story.
Onwards and Upwards!
Never approach a bull from the front;
never approach a horse from behind;
do not approach a fool from any direction!
There is no “I” in team.