Horses of the Country An Interview with Author Claudia Smith - theHumm December 2021
Horses of the Country An Interview with Author Claudia Smith - theHumm December 2021
By John Pigeau
It should be argued, and perhaps rather vigorously, that to liven up any boring old dinner party you only need to invite a rural historian. They are, after all, brimming with knowledge of the most delightful, interesting and often unusual facts. On subject matters that please, as well. Typically, they are gifted storytellers too — awash with charming anecdotes told only to them, and snatches of odd and little-known tales, those delicious morsels of lore and stories of times gone by that would make even the most conscientious and knowledgeable of librarians envious. All this to say, if you’re planning a small holiday gathering, you really need to invite Claudia Smith.
Claudia’s latest book, her seventh, pays homage to a big, noble and beautiful subject — majestic creatures that have enchanted and fascinated her since girlhood — horses.
In Horses of the Country, Claudia presents “a comprehensive history from the Canadian horse and pioneering sires to heavy horses steaming in the fields and light horses trotting to mill or market.”
With a storyteller’s love and flair for detail, vintage photographs, plenty of hard-to-get oral history, and her familiarity with horses, Claudia has spun a colourful and charming “horse blanket” of a book, sure to please both those who are knowledgeable about horses and those who are merely curious about them.
This book has long been in the works. Research for it, in fact, began over forty years ago.
“I have been collecting rural history since moving to Lanark County in 1980,” Claudia explains, “when a neighbour told me about an Indigenous man who had a fast horse called Lady that he took to races in Arnprior. My imagination was caught by visions of a swift horse trotting down my road — in a buggy or bright red sleigh in the early 1900s.”
“I was always interested in the farming families’ horse stories and over the years recorded a large collection that I have woven into this homage to those big, patient creatures.”
Claudia’s love of horses began in her childhood. She first encountered a horse pulling a milk wagon on the street at her grandparents’ home in Belleville.
“There were no horses where I lived as a small girl, so every summer when I visited I watched for the milkman and followed the horse and wagon down the street,” she explains. “I patted the horse whenever it stopped and loved the horsey smell on my hands.”
By the time she reached Grade 4, Claudia’s family had moved to the country, and Claudia took to visiting a nearby farm where there were horses. Her first significant interaction with horses happened on one such visit.
“I do not remember how it happened or any instruction or talking of any kind, but the elderly farmer handed me the reins of his farm team,” Claudia recounts, “and I drove the horses around the hay field and he built the load as the hay whispered up the hay loader. I have no idea if I was helping or not — but I was very proud.”
The title of the book has an interesting origin too. “I got the title from a quotation by Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe, who commented on needing ‘a horse of the country’ to be able to travel on the rough pioneer corduroy roads of Eastern Upper Canada. I presume her hardy horse was a French Canadian, so the title has a double reference for the book — the important early breed of horse in Canada and all the horses that helped farming families build and feed the country.”
Horses of the Country is filled with fascinating stories about such families and their love and dependence on horses. Claudia collected so many stories, in fact, she says it’s impossible to pick a favourite, but she does have a few favourite chapters.
“‘Horsing Around’ is about children and youths who played with foals, rode horses to go for the cows, and used buggies to go courting on summer evenings. ‘Straight from the horse’s mouth’ is about the bonds between horses, and between people and horses.”
Claudia is familiar with that bond. She hopes this book will highlight those bonds even more, and underscore how horses played such an important part of everyday life in the country, not so very long ago.
“I think people who are so used to car transportation would be surprised at how horses were everywhere in days past,” she says. “Not only were heavy horses used on the farm and light horses driven to church, mill and market, but there were horse-powered machines, funeral processions, parades and accidents. Milk cans were taken to cheese factories, pedlars and many other people travelled the roads, and people had to contend with the dangers of early horse and automobile interactions. There were toll roads and road regulations about speeding on bridges and swearing on the roads.”
Horses touch a chord with everyone, Claudia believes, and they harken back to what people think of as a simpler way of life. “The beauty and grace of the draft horse is recognized by all,” she says. “Nothing turns heads like a horse in a parade or a wedding.”
On today’s farms, a horse is almost a forgotten creature, Claudia points out. She thinks this wry comment she heard from an elderly farmer is apt: “When I was young, if you heard a car on the road you ran to have a look at it. Now we’ve been to the moon and back, and if a horse and buggy went by, you’d run to see it.”
It’s not difficult to see her point. Nor is it hard to relate to her fondness for the animals. “Horses have been a life-long love of mine,” she says, “the look of them, the smell of them, the rocking rhythm of a canter; they have taught me patience, responsibility and self-confidence, and have given so much pleasure.”
Horses of the Country is available now at Mill Street Books in Almonte, The Book Nook in Perth, and White Pine Books in Arnprior. It is also available to order at claudiasmith.ca .
My recommendation? For you or for someone you love, pick this one up and put on a bow on it this holiday season. You’ll be happy you did.
“This is a horse book for everyone who loves horses,” Claudia wants people to know. “I have tried to make it accessible to horse lovers, without over-explaining things to people who know horses well. I hope it brings back memories for elderly folk, and for younger people, I hope it sheds light on their ancestors’ way of life with horses.”
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