The horse was brought to North America in the early 1600s and was quickly adopted into the aboriginal culture, becoming known as a symbol of power and wealth. The buffalo hunting Plains tribes saw the horse as sacred, with supernatural powers to help in hunting, medicine, and other aspects of tribal life. Cree First Nations Elder Jerry Wood, from the Aboriginal Student Services Centre at the University of Alberta, commented on how the horse replaced the dog.
He jokingly admitted that the horse became more valuable than the woman, who was responsible for making and moving teepees. The horse eventually took over the task of transporting teepees, which allowed the Plains Tribes to follow the buffalo with greater ease. Elder Jerry Wood also spoke of the “Sundance Horse”, a poem dedicated specifically to the horse. This poem shows that the horse was respected, honored, and loved because the horse helped the people to live and to continue on for generations. Nevertheless, with the arrival of settlers and the buffalo herd collapse, the traditional Plains tribal life transformed dramatically.
The use and symbolism of the horse diminished—their monetary value decreased due to a sudden increase in the horse population and they became inadequate for use in the hunt. The use of the horse increased among the settlers, and their main purpose was to improve farming techniques, where they proved to be more flexible, faster and easier to handle than the oxen used previously.
By the 1900s, horses were used for everything, from riding into town to powering large machinery like reapers and threshers. Such horse-powered machines multiplied man-hour production of wheat eighteen fold! However, the time it took to care for the horse limited its efficacy, thus farming proved laborious and demanding for the farmer and his horses. Furthermore, World War I demanded farmers to increase production, which led to the rapid replacement of horses with such horsepower equivalents as the tractor. To help the transition, the Canadian government contracted to buy 1000 2-plow tractors and sold them to farmers at cost (about $800), thus further expanding the popularity of the tractor. Unfortunately, farmers were becoming anxious about the now un-saleable horses eating their valuable grass. In 1943, the end of the horse in horsepower was signaled by the shipment of roughly 100,000 horses from Alberta to the Chicago killing yards. Although horses remained for odd jobs unsuitable for the tractor, their numbers continued to decline throughout the 1950s.
Today, the tractors used in agriculture dwarf the tractors of old. With the plethora of luxuries found in them, you would be hard-pressed to find farmers returning to the old standard of horse-driven power. Presently, Lewis Farms Ltd. has a couple of horses, which Corrie Lewis states, “are used just for pleasure riding and occasionally for moving cattle,” and other farms have horses for this use or no horses at all. Nevertheless, the term “horsepower” does stem from the very thing that neighs; yet today, it is used for the very thing that roars, a tractor, which has replaced the standard horse.
– Kelsey Bourgeois, Abrya Suthendran, Alexia Hoy, Julie Mitchell, Robyn Thrasher and Gina Vivak