HISTORY

A PONY AND A PRAYER

A daring trip revealed Canada’s dangers, and its ‘generous heart’

BARBARA RIGHTON August 14 2006
HISTORY

A PONY AND A PRAYER

A daring trip revealed Canada’s dangers, and its ‘generous heart’

BARBARA RIGHTON August 14 2006

A PONY AND A PRAYER

HISTORY

A daring trip revealed Canada’s dangers, and its ‘generous heart’

BARBARA RIGHTON

The journey was not only incredible, it was foolhardy in the extreme. In the spring of 1949, a young woman saddled up an old horse and left a farm near Montreal for the coast—the West Coast. She took only $100 in her pockets, a .22 rifle in a makeshift scabbard, and three maps to guide her across 6,400 km of lonely country punctuated by muskeg, mosquitoes and men on the make. But more, she had good instincts, a profound love for nature, and a steadfast belief in the goodness of strangers. Now age 78 and a veterinarian in Alberta, Barbara Kingscote has reconstructed that long-ago adventure in her first book, Ride the Rising Wind, written with the wisdom of hindsight and the help of a dog-eared collection of diaries. It is an unvarnished and haunting tale of the trail, the times, and the discovery of what she calls “the generous heart of my country.”

What prompted the naive 20-year-old to embark on the daunting journey was a simple combination of opportunity and economics. Friends in Mascouche, Que., owned the aged mare, a sturdy Canadiancross named Zazy. They were moving to B.C. and couldn’t afford to ship her by rail. When Kingscote blithely offered to ride her out, she said in an interview, her parents were disbelieving. Still, they knew she was happy in the company of animals. They watched her ride away, praying she could take care of herself.

Canada in 1949 was a nation of farmers and loggers on the verge of mechanization. People understood horses. From the gatekeeper at a Quebec estate once owned by Joseph Papineau to a grandmother who had lived through the dirty thirties on the Prairies, the resettled Germans, Finns and Ukrainians she met on her 16-month trip were as ready with hay and oats as they were with biscuits and eggs. In general, they were a hardscrabble lot, worn out by the elements. “I guess we’ve seen too much to turn anyone away,” one old woman told her. Kingscote never boasted to them about the enormity of her trip. “I was not presumptuous,” she says.

But riding to the Pacific took more than just trotting up farm lanes come nightfall. Kingscote and her sensible horse travelled in a boxcar through the Agawa Canyon and on

a steamship from Owen Sound to Sault Ste. Marie. Many nights they bivouacked under trees and rock faces and once outran a twister, streaking past an astonished farm family for shelter in their barn. At least four times, Kingscote escaped would-be molesters by firmly refusing their advances and tacking up in a hurry. The horse was her salvation, wheeling away from bad guys, quicksand and rattlesnakes. Untethered at rest stops, Zazy never left Kingscote’s side. “She was strong-

ly bonded to me,” Kingscote explains. “She knew I had an oat bag tied on the saddle.” During the winter, Kingscote stopped to work as a cook at a logging camp in northern Ontario. The boss had the mare trucked off to a winter pasture 30 km away. In less than a day, she found her way back.

The two made a well-matched team, ploughing from the boreal forest to the plains, but inevitably they both began to tire. Zazy developed painful saddle sores and demolished her shoes. Kingscote—who often bought food in small towns with money her parents sent her-was at times reduced to a dinner of condiments and water. She began to understand the

perils of her plan. Fresh new mornings turned into days where, she writes, “the unmarked continuum of highway wore on me. The aging afternoon unsettled me... I bemoaned the idea of riding an unshod horse... another four hundred miles to the prairie.”

At the same time, the rewards were immeasurable. “Lying on the living ground of native prairie,” Kingscote writes, “I simply knew the presence of God, up between the stars and infinity, down here around a mote like me, as present to me as Zazy, who dozed by my side.” In a strange twist of fate that upsets Kingscote to this day, Zazy went lame in Chilliwack, less than a two-day jog from the Pacific Ocean. Kingscote borrowed another

horse, just to say she’d made it. Then, leaving Zazy with her original owners in Lytton, she took a train to vet school in Guelph, Ont.

In 1953, she paid for Zazy to come back to her by rail. The mare lived to be 28. Woman and horse each had two children.

The trip changed Kingscote profoundly.

“It taught me to live wide,” she says. And wild. Today she lives in a house trailer near Red Deer and is planning a second book, about her years of studying reindeer in the Far North.

She is also planning another ride—this time to the East Coast—on a young Canadian-cross like Zazy. It is tempting to tell her to be sen? sible. Then you think, why bother? M 0