Sands’ Healing Journey Visits Spirit Horses

By Ian Kennedy

Bill Sands pointing at the Indigenous Spirit Horses at TJ Stables – Photo by Ian Kennedy

Standing in a pasture at Chatham’s TJ Stables, Bill Sands undoubtedly looked like any other visitor. He was dressed in a blue checked shirt, jeans, a ball cap, and leather boots. In one arm was his grandson, his other arm was outstretched pointing at the spirit horses.

Many have heard stories about the rescue and breeding efforts to save these rare horses who roamed wild in massive herds on Walpole Island for centuries, but few people remember actually walking among those wild horses of Bkejwanong. 

Bill Sands is one of those people.

As a child, Bill’s dad, and his brother Butch, would corral the wild horses and break them. On his walk to school, Bill and his friends would often have to climb trees to allow the herds to pass beneath.

Sands and his brother were also part of the famous pony races at the annual Walpole Island Fair, which would draw spectators via steam ships from Sarnia, Windsor, and Detroit.

“I used to be in those pony races, my brother Butch won most of them. He was quite a horseman. You’d see herds of horses. It was quite a life, we’d walk to school, no one had cars, we’d cut through the bush and come out right at the school, the horses had paths all through the Island, and we’d get on their paths. A herd of horses would be coming and we’d all jump in trees, they’d go by and we’d get down and go on.”

Until this week, Bill hadn’t seen a Walpole Island horse in over 50 years. The last of the wild ponies were killed and removed from Walpole by the 1970s. As the land was domesticated, and agriculture continued to increase on Walpole, it was decided that the horses needed to go. At first they were sold off, then they were rounded up for slaughter at Darlings in Chatham, and then the final horses were hunted.

“It felt good to see them again,” said Sands.

At TJ Stables, Terry Jenkins and her husband John, who is Metis, found a small herd for sale, ancestors of four rescued horses from Walpole Island, and they bought them. Since then, it has been a lifelong goal for Jenkins to breed and return the ponies to Walpole Island.

Having people like Bill visit TJ Stables is an important part of this path.

“It is an honour having an opportunity to speak with the elders from the communities such as Bill Sands and listen to his stories,” said Terry Jenkins.

“It’s wonderful that he took an interest to come to TJ Stables to see these little horses and tell of his family’s adventures when they roamed wild on Walpole Island.”

When he returned from residential school, Sands embarked on a sixty year career as a hunting and fishing guide, having guided for the likes of Steven Speilberg, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Cher, and Paul Martin, among others. 

So much has been taken from Walpole Island over the years, including the children of the community who were brought to residential schools, enduring unimaginable trauma in a cultural genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government and churches. Bill Sands was one of those children.

At the age of 11, he was taken by Walpole’s Indian Agent, and brought to residential school at the Mohawk Institute near Brantford. He survived four years, that he calls the worst of his life, at the facility before returning to Walpole. Like many youth however, the trauma of residential school came with him. Since then, Sands has been on a journey to heal.

His daughter Alyssa, who visited TJ Stables with Bill, and recently acquired a hunting lodge of her own to run a land based learning facility on Walpole Island believes moments like her father had at TJ Stables will help with that healing.

“For as long as I can remember my dad talked about the horses,” she said. “It was an emotional experience for me to see him reconnect to something that brought him so much happiness as a little boy. I think about his childhood, being stolen and taken from a good life – and then I think about my own son, even myself, my dad’s history impacts three generations today. Watching and walking with him on his healing journey is helping all three of those generations heal. He’s taught me so much about being resilient, and I’m so proud of him, facing an unimaginable past can’t be easy.”

There is much to learn from listening to storytellers like Bill, and to see the healing power of the horses at TJ Stables. Hopefully soon, Bill will again hear the hooves of these horses on Walpole Island, and his grandchildren will tell stories of climbing trees to allow the ponies to pass beneath their feet.

Bill’s full story will appear in the upcoming book, “On Account of Darkness: Shedding Light on Race and Sport” by Chatham-Kent’s Ian Kennedy. Published by Tidewater Press, it will be available in 2022 everywhere you get your books.

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