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Aaron Stelkia has devoted his life to caring for horses that live in B.C.’s Osoyoos desert, but wildfires and past personal tragedies have filled the years with sorrow

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Wild horses roam late last year on the land of the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C.Photography by Kate Helmore/The Globe and Mail

A lone horse stands on an icy hillside in the heart of the Osoyoos Desert. Sun rays collide with stunted trees and form tiger stripes of light and shadow on the late-winter snow.

The horse is still. Slumped, it stares at the ground. The bones of the hips and withers are jagged peaks. Its ribs press hard against the flesh. Its mane is tangled with burrs.

A pickup truck cuts through a field, lumbering toward the horse. It nears the animal, slows and then stops. A man climbs out, his cowboy boots crunching on the snowpack. A .22-calibre rifle hangs at his side.

The snow is thick but weak, and with each step it cracks and caves. The horse does not look up.

When he is within grasping distance of the animal, Aaron Stelkia presses the cold steel muzzle of the rifle to a point in the centre of its forehead, two centimetres above its eye.

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Aaron Stelkia considers it his mission to care for the 300 wild horses that roam the Osoyoos Desert.

Aaron Stelkia does not play music while he drives. No talk radio. A 63-year-old cattle rancher with a permanently sun-and-wind-burned face, bushy mustache and piercing blue eyes, he likes to sit in silence whenever he has the chance. The cab of his Ford F550 pickup truck is strewn with Tim Hortons coffee cups, candy wrappers and lassos. It smells like manure and hay.

On a sunny day in October, he’s driving on Highway 3, an asphalt snake that winds through the reserve lands held by the Osoyoos Indian Band, one of the seven Okanagan Syilx communities in B.C.

The land is rolling mountains and flat plateaus, the soil is dusty, scattered by the remains of sagebrush and ponderosa pine now burned black. It’s a dry landscape, part of the rainshadow belt that stretches from southern B.C. down to Mexico. The sandy, valley-bottom flats are covered by a fragile lichen crust that holds trace amounts of water.

Mr. Stelkia, who some people in the area call the last Syilx cowboy, is as much a feature of this land as the lichen crust. He travels these roads regularly to tend to the 300 wild horses who live on Osoyoos Indian Reserve. The horses are part of his lineage, fostered and bred by his grandmother and mother, and it’s his responsibility to preserve them, he says.

On drives like this, he surveys the herd, tracking their size and health. He looks at the grass, the sagebrush and the leaves, calculating how long the forage will last. When horse numbers grow too high or when the climate turns and threatens starvation, he makes the painful but necessary decision to cull them.

Mr. Stelkia’s life revolves around the horses. He focuses on the Osoyoos herds, which are split among about 35 groups of between six to 10 horses each. A couple hundred more roam Penticton Indian Band land, the reserve adjacent to Osoyoos to the north. Each herd is composed of a stallion and a few females. Members of the herds often stay loyal to each other for decades.

To ensure the herds stay strong, Mr. Stelkia lures stallions into round pens to breed with the best mares, sending their babies back onto the land. Other times he adds new blood, releasing horses from other places onto the reserve. His mother, Jane Stelkia, was the first to introduce the American quarter horse to the Osoyoos desert, where they mixed with the herd to produce offspring that were fast and beautiful.

Mr. Stelkia also breaks, trains and sells some of the horses. Sometimes he keeps the trained ones, and uses them in the trail-riding business he owns. Other times, he and his mother, sister and other extended family members saddle up just as the sun peeks from behind the hills and, with a mastery passed down through generations, drive their cattle herd into the mountains.

But he always leaves horses on the land.

The horse has been used since time immemorial by his people, he says. It was used for moving camps, hunting, fishing, berry picking, war and racing. The horse was even a babysitter. When Mr. Stelkia was a baby, his mother would strap him into a woven cradle that hung like a saddlebag from the flank of her horse. Its gentle roaming lulled him to sleep.

The word Syilx means to take a many-stranded fibre and roll it together to make a rope. Mr. Stelkia believes that the horse and his people are precariously intertwined, only free when the other is too. “There is no Indian without the horse,” he says. He is proud of his heritage, and of the word Indian.

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Horses walk along NK'Mip Road on the Osoyoos reserve.

But wildfires threaten this symbiosis. In August 2021, the Nk’Mip Wildfire ravaged the Osoyoos desert, burning more than 17,000 hectares.

Mr. Stelkia estimates that 70 per cent of the range burned, destroying grass, bush, and leaves – the majority of the wild horses’ winter forage.

As he drives deeper into the mountains, the gravel road turns to a bed of needles scattered with fall leaves. Gradually the colour ebbs away – it is like entering a black-and-white movie. Trees are sheared in half, they are jet-black trunks in ashen grey earth.

The sun is descending when he spots two horses running alongside the highway. He slows and looks at them through the passenger-side window. It is a mother and her colt. The colt is young – his legs are gangly and he runs awkwardly.

“Look at their necks and their chest. Look at the flesh hanging. They are skinnier than they should be. They are not normally this skinny until February,” says Mr. Stelkia. He stares straight ahead. “They will not make it through the winter.”

The colt runs away from the road and into the barren woods. Mr. Stelkia hits the gas and drives on.

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The desert flats of Osoyoos territory as they looked last October. A few months earlier, the Nk’Mip wildfire swept through this area, destroying vegetation that wild horses forage in the winter.

After humans crossed into the Americas after the Ice Age, they hunted the wild horses in the American grasslands into extinction – according to Western paleontologists and archeologists, that is. These paleontologists and archeologists claim the horse then returned to the land of their origin in the 16th century, when Spanish explorers arrived in Mexico.

Mr. Stelkia believes the horse crossed the land bridge from Asia to the Americans along with his ancestors 20,000 years ago and never disappeared. Syilx storytellers agree, and the horse is featured in origin stories alongside the Syilx forefather, Coyote.

In the 1850s, settlers arrived and, greedy for more grazing land, established ranches and pushed the Syilx off their territory and into reserves. The largest ranch in the B.C. grasslands – the Gang Ranch, in B.C.’s Chilcotin region – was 1,562 square miles, 520 times larger than the largest Indian reserve.

The settlers overgrazed the land, which led to a plague of grasshoppers, and when their attempts to destroy the pests by dousing the ground in arsenic and DDT didn’t work, they blamed a new villain for the destruction of the landscape: the wild horse.

In the eyes of the cattle ranchers, the horses were a resource drain. They consumed grass rightfully owed to cattle. One 1885 report from the federal Department of Indian Affairs described the wild horse as “a worthless beast” that “did incalculable damage,” according to John Thistle, a researcher at the University of Victoria.

A campaign of destruction began. In 1901 the Vancouver Daily Province reported an “organized effort” by settlers to round up wild horses in B.C.’s Nicola Valley for use by the Imperial Army during the Boer War. A J.B. Hayne appealed to the “sporting tendencies of Englishmen” and suggested shipping in 100 of his aristocratic countrymen to drive the herds of wild horses to the centre of a lake, where they would be shot or “disposed of otherwise.”

But few schemes were as effective as that sponsored by the Crown. In the 1920s, the government made it illegal for anyone to have horses on Crown range – lands outside of private ownership – between January and May. Horses caught breaking this curfew were shot by bounty hunters who were, according to documents from Indian Affairs, paid 50 cents for every scalp.

According to historical records from the Grazing Branch, around 13,420 horses were shot across the British Columbian grasslands between 1924 and 1955.

While the legislative change did not specifically target Indigenous horses, it was undoubtedly biased, argues Mr. Thistle. Native people relied on Crown land for feed since their horses, unlike their cattle, could paw through the ice and snow to get at the grass buried below. Without Crown land, the Indigenous peoples would have no range.

Cattle ranchers and government land managers argued that the horse held the “savage Indian” back from achieving the spoils of the capitalist system. One petition recorded by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1926 suggested eliminating the wild horse would rid Indigenous people of their own “fond curse” while also “enforcing” them to become cattle ranchers.

Even today, the wild horse, despite roaming the Okanagan grasslands for centuries, is not categorized as wildlife or protected by any governmental body. This is in contrast to B.C.’s neighbours: In the United States, wild horses are recognized under the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which mandates that wild horses be treated as integral to their natural ecosystem, while in Alberta they are managed under the Stray Animals Act.

As a result, when wild horses cross fence lines or wend their way into backyards and gardens, where they tear apart flower beds and lawns, there is no one to call. The consequences can be fatal: Wandering horses often end up as roadkill.

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Many wild horses have come to Mr. Stelkia's ranch in search of food and water and stay there alongside the trained horses he keeps. This wild horse has been broken.

On a sunny but frosty day in mid-November, Mr. Stelkia enters the round pen at his ranch, a collection of corrals and trailers at the foot of a hillside near the southern edge of the Osoyoos reserve.

About 100 wild horses have come down from the mountains to the ranch, seeking hay and water. They mingle with the trained horses Mr. Stelkia keeps, jostling with each other for a chance at the trough. They are free to leave; most, however, do not.

Since the wild herds have limited space and limited forage, every year Mr. Stelkia coaxes some off the landscape. This year, he hopes to break as many as possible. Those that are broken will then be sold for $450 each, a low price that gets them homed fast.

In the centre of the round pen stands a wild stallion with auburn hooves and a white, fleckered torso. His hind muscles twitch and ears flicker from side to side and he paws the ground with his hooves. From his nostrils, heavy breaths turn white in the crisp air.

Mr. Stelkia starts to walk around the pen, pushing the horse to his left side. He mutters to the horse under his breath. It starts to run faster until it breaks into a canter, its auburn mane rippling in the wind. In one swift motion, he tosses his lasso and catches the front left hoof of the running horse, then pulls, gently forcing it to lay down.

He talks quietly as he approaches. Slowly he reaches down and starts to pat its neck, running his hands across its jaw and chest. “Letting him know I’m here,” he says. Then he covers the horse’s eye with his hand and pulls back its lips, counting the teeth to determine the age. Wild horses up to five years old can be broken; those six and older cannot.

“Six, coming seven,” he says. “Too old, I don’t wanna mess with him.”

He’ll feed it for a week more, he says, then take it to Alberta to be slaughtered.

The decision to slaughter makes him a controversial figure – he’s dubbed a “horse killer” by some in the equestrian community. But he says these decisions are part of his responsibility, and based on knowledge passed on from his mother and grandmother, who were forced to make the same choices.

Burnt and barren land can support even fewer horses than normal. “I do not like it, but either all horses starve to death or some are sold for meat,” he says. “What choice do I have?”

Mr. Stelkia was in a saddle before he could walk. He has ridden barely broken horses for weeks on end across deserts and through pinewood forests. He knows that horses raised on the land, in rocky ravines and on steep hillsides, are more balanced and sure-footed. He thinks that a horse kept in a stall, covered in a blanket and only fed – never foraging – is a weaker, unhappier horse.

But he worries that when he is gone, no one left will see things the way he does, the way his family has for centuries.

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'My legacy is the horses,' Mr. Stelkia says.

He had a son once: Shaun, a natural horseman, a cowboy who could inherit his father’s legacy. Before he was five years old, Shaun spent days up the mountain on horseback. He broke his first horse at 12.

Mr. Stelkia’s favourite of all the horses Shaun broke was a colt called Joker. He’d given the horse to his son after finding him on a range near Kamloops. Fast and driven, Joker was head of the herd, but also gentle. He was a “berry picking horse” said Mr. Stelkia, a term he uses for horses so gentle a mother could leave her child strapped to its back while she foraged.

But he cannot remember those days without also remembering the phone call he got on April 28, 2014. It was 7:30 on a Monday evening. He remembers jumping in his truck and breaking every speed limit on the two-hour drive to Kelowna hospital. Shaun, 29, lay in a bed there, his lungs filled with the water of Wood Lake. An unexpected current had taken him under.

After Shaun died, Mr. Stelkia descended into a deep depression. He stopped breaking horses and hosting rodeos. He gained weight and a heart problem. He got divorced, his house burned down. The property that he grew up on was ruined by a flood. In need of cash, his family leased their land to Osoyoos Cottages – a 285-unit housing development – at $2 million for 100 years.

“If I didn’t have wild animals to work with, if I couldn’t catch those wild horses, I would have probably gone crazy,” he says today. He would put a saddle on Joker, he recalls, and stroke his mane, ride him up into the mountains and, underneath the clear, starry skies, sob uncontrollably.

Gradually, Mr. Stelkia put his life back together. He returned to the round pen and started working horses. He is gentle with them, giving them space as he reads their bodies – everything from their flickering ears to their darting eyes. Within an hour he can get a wild horse to a place where it is no longer afraid of him, but instead comforted. In those moments, Mr. Stelkia feels important, like his life has meaning.

If all the horses died tomorrow, he says, he would find new ones and put them back on the range. “Look at me,” he says. “What else do I have to live for? I lost my kid. I’m by myself. My land is gone. My legacy is the horses.”

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'If I didn’t have wild animals to work with, if I couldn’t catch those wild horses, I would have probably gone crazy,' says Mr. Stelkia, shown on a cattle drive.

As the weather turns colder, Mr. Stelkia does what he can to keep the horses alive: feeding them as much hay as possible, chasing them from farmers’ fields, breaking and training as many as he can – selling them and then using the profits to buy more hay. But on a cold day in January, he walks to the corral and considers the horses gathered there. So far this winter, about 150 have wandered onto the ranch, while the remaining 150 roam wild on the flats, starving, chewing on barn doors or trespassing on territory where they are not welcome.

Grey clouds cover the sky and threaten rain or snow. Mr. Stelkia rests his hands on the wooden slats of the corral fence and looks at the horses. He knows he does not have the hay to keep feeding them all. He doesn’t have the time or the resources to break, train and sell as many as would be necessary to provide enough food for the remainder. Especially this year, when the high price of hay has meant that no one wants to buy a horse.

He knows he must send more horses to slaughter. Osoyoos land is a finite resource: Too many horses will overgraze the parts that did not burn, leading them all into starvation.

Mr. Stelkia has already culled the inbred, weak, infertile and old. Now he inspects them all again. The horses that remain are young and healthy, but not all of them can live. He starts selecting based on the clarity of their eyes, the shape of their hind, the feel of their mane. Traits that, in any other year, would not matter. This year, those traits are the difference between life and death.

After a while, he decides to leave the decision to another day. He walks away and climbs back into the truck. Tonight, he will play poker until the early hours of the morning. Maybe he will win some money, and maybe he’ll lose everything: It’s a game of chance he is familiar with.

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Mr. Stelkia says he doesn't enjoy having to slaughter some of the wild horses, 'but either all horses starve to death or some are sold for meat,' he says. 'What choice do I have?'

The lone horse stands on the icy hillside.

Mr. Stelkia presses the cold steel cannon of the rifle to its head. He pulls the trigger, and it drops in a single heartbeat. The ground seems to swallow it up. Blood gushes from its nose and sears a deep hole in the snow.

He walks away and slowly climbs into his truck. He does not know it now, but most of the 150 horses still running wild will survive – many more than would have survived without him.

Few mares will make it through the winter; the demand to provide milk for their babies will eat at their reserves. But many young horses will make it through, and they will start to run through the forest again. They will be skinny, but some will not be as skinny as he’d feared. By late April, the first spring grass – lush and green – will shoot up through the charred earth. The horses will cross back over the fence lines, leave behind the highways, backyards, Mr. Stelkia’s ranch, free to roam across the desert again.

Back in his truck, Mr. Stelkia breathes slowly.

The horse that lies dead was old. He had been a wild horse in his youth, then carried children on his back for 28 years. But he was skinny and tired. Keeping him alive would have meant feeding him hay that needed to be saved for those who were young and would strengthen the herd for years to come.

All these arguments go through his mind as he sits in his truck. The lines of reasoning will flood into his brain in the coming weeks, but they will pale when compared to the sinking feeling he gets in the pit of his stomach when he remembers the horse’s glassy eyes against the bloodstained snow and wonders what will happen when he’s gone too.

Mr. Stelkia turns the key in the ignition and puts the stick into drive. He pulls onto the highway that snakes across the Osoyoos desert. He is on the hunt for more hay. Behind him, he leaves the carcass of Joker. In a few weeks it will dissolve into a skeleton, its flesh pulled apart by crows and coyotes. It will feed the wildlife and the land to which it belongs.

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