You don’t have to fly to Peru to see alpacas or sail around the Galapagos Islands to see rare animals. Ontario has a wide range of unique farm animal experiences, from taking an alpaca for a walk and picnicking with goats to going on an interactive beehive tour.
One unique experience is visiting endangered Ojibwe spirit horses, of which there are fewer than 200 left in the world.
“Coming to visit them is an extraordinary experience because they have this gentleness and calmness. If you’re open to it, it just sort of soaks into you and it’s really special,” says Sallianne Patch, who is a caretaker at Aspens Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary with her husband, Dale. The sanctuary is located on their 16-acre farm in Gads Hill, a short drive from Stratford.
In May, June, October and November, they open up to visitors during “open barn” events, in partnership with local Indigenous peoples. Visits can also be arranged by appointment.
“They’re pretty unique because they are a herd,” Sallianne says. The herd has never been apart, so it moves as one fluid unit.
“We’ve got the mom and dad and their two offspring, so it’s lovely to see how they work within that group and how they look after each other.”
As of mid-May, there will be a total of seven horses, including Takona (“I hold him”), father of Matchi Ijwebisiwin (“she who misbehaves”) and Minwadjim (“I bring good news”). Odamin (“I play”) is the mother and herd leader. Matchi is due to foal this May. Anangoose (“Little Star”) joined the sanctuary in 2021 and recently had a foal.
Sallianne sees herself as a caretaker; she doesn’t “own” the horses.
“Part of our mandate is to protect, promote and preserve,” she says. “We’re doing whatever we can to get the word out about these horses.” A visit to the sanctuary also comes with an educational component in which visitors learn about the dramatic rescue of the last four remaining Ojibwe spirit horses.
Spirit horses were used as service animals by Indigenous peoples in Ontario and northern Minnesota for such tasks as checking trap lines and hauling logs and ice. But the horses were never held in captivity; they lived freely in the boreal forest. They were also considered a spirit animal, which is seen a spiritual guide that comes in the form of an animal. But, during colonization and when horses were eventually replaced by cars, these horses were often caught and sold for dog meat and glue; some were used during the gold rush.
By 1977, there were only four spirit horses left in the world, due to be destroyed. In a dramatic heist, five men from Bois Forte and Lac La Croix rescued them in the middle of the night by loading them up in a trailer and driving across a frozen lake to Minnesota, where they launched a breeding effort. When they became too old to look after the horses, the men contacted Heritage Canada. Since then, a caretakers program has been developed, and now there are just under 200 horses, of which about 80 are breeding animals, although they’re still considered critically endangered.
Just like the spirit horses, goats are also gentle, kind and curious, and Ontario has a number of goat experiences on offer – and not just goat yoga.
Casey and Steve Howanyk moved to The Perth Farmhouse in 2018 and never looked back. Since that time, they’ve welcomed son Mason and daughter Alice – and seven dwarf goats. The family has since opened up their farm to visitors, located in the New Hamburg area, by offering a “goat social” experience, where guests can tour the charming 1860s farm, visit the restored barn and meet the goats.
It all started when Casey saw cute baby goats on Instagram – and the rest is history. After acquiring their own goats, friends and family started coming by to visit the goats, so they decided to open it up and share the experience with the public.
But they wanted to truly make it an experience. “So there’s a chandelier in the goat barn. We have a neon sign and photo opps, and we also provide a picnic at our pond by our vineyard. It’s an upscale farm experience with goats,” Casey says. “We encourage selfies here.”
Visitors can book an experience online via the farm’s website or on Instagram. The farmhouse will also host events such as birthday parties, baby showers and even dates.
“You name it,” Casey says, “because everything is better with goats.”
There are two goat experiences. A winter Mini Goat Social allows visitors to play and cuddle with baby goats on the farm (and meet the bigger goats). In spring and summer, a private 60-minute experience allows visitors to take the goats out to pasture to play. It ends with a picnic by the pond and vineyard, with baked goods and refreshments included.
“You’re in a very bougie barn and then you’re out in the pasture with them; it’s not through the fence like in a petting zoo. It’s a very private, interactive experience because our goats are friendly and sociable and they love attention,” Casey says.
“So I get excited for them when someone books. Each of our goats has their own unique personality and usually everyone leaves with a favourite.”
Animal lovers visiting the region can also head to TLC Alpaca, run by Fred and Faye Glauser, to meet their alpacas by appointment.
“We got into the business because of our grandchildren,” Faye says. “Now, of course, they’re grown up and gone – and we still have alpacas.”
The grandchildren wanted a different type of animal on the farm, and so the Glausers acquired two alpacas. After a few years, Fred began shearing them using a customized hydraulic shearing table he made from scratch.
Now retired, the couple still operate the 150-acre farm just outside Mitchell, and continue to run TLC Alpaca with nine alpacas. They also sell products made from alpaca wool, from hats and mitts to shawls, dryer balls and insoles.
A visit includes walking the alpacas down a country road, with an opportunity to feed them back at the barn. Visitors can book an appointment through TLC Alpaca’s website, Facebook or Instagram.
Animal experiences in Central Counties
Central Counties, a region north of Toronto that encompasses York, Durham and Headwaters, has numerous farm and animal experiences the whole family will enjoy this summer.
- Ontario Honey Creations is a family-owned beekeeping business with hundreds of hives in the rolling hills of Mulmur, about a half an hour drive from Barrie. Their honey is raw and unpasteurized and visitors can don a bee suit and experience beekeeping up close. The resident KuneKune pigs are also keen on getting belly rubs.
- Ganawendan Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Beaverton, works to educate and encourage interest in Ontario wildlife. They offer wildlife talks and let visitors experience bird watching on the hobby farm. You can snuggle with bunnies, see alpacas and learn about turtles.
- Heartwood Farm and Cidery is a 42-acre ecological farm northwest of Brampton where they raise cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and bees, and grow apples, maple trees, and other fruit and nut trees. They have overnight accommodations that let you connect with nature and spend time with the animals.
- Downey’s Farm in Caledon is open for the season and has dozens of activities for kids, such as wagon rides, mazes, a giant sandbox and human-sized hamster wheel. Animal residents of the farm include chickens, goats, sheep, alpaca, donkeys, cows and rabbits.
- Pathways on Pleasure Valley in Uxbridge offers peaceful trail rides on horseback for riders of all experience levels through more than 225 acres of breathtaking scenery.
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