For Smiths Falls and District Collegiate Institute student Teaghan O’Grady, saving endangered horses is a family tradition. While her parents, Gaelin and Larry, have spent over 15 years helping raise and preserve the rare Canadian Suffield Mustangs – the last of Canada’s free-range horses – O’Grady is fundraising $6,000 for a journey to Mongolia to help ensure the successful return of another endangered horse to its original mountain habitat.
During the two-week June trip, 16-year-old O’Grady will live in a yurt, accompanied by equine photographer, family friend, and former Ottawa radio host Sandy Sharkey. They’ll work as citizen scientists to observe and document the habits of a group of Przewalski horses. Named for the scientist who first wrote about them in the 1870s, the horses, which have never been domesticated, are known to Mongolians as “takhi” (worthy of worship).
“We’re going to study the horses so we can figure out ways to help them survive,” says O’Grady, who notes that monitoring their relative proximity to watering holes, for instance, will be valuable information to share with scientists on the ground. During weekends, O’Grady will travel to Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, to teach local children English.
Having grown up with horses, O’Grady admires both their intelligence and compassion. “Horses are really smart,” she says, noting that she has easily trained horses on her family’s farm for activities like English bridle riding. “When I walk in the fields, my horses will walk up to me for a pet,” she says, because they recognize how much she cares for them.
The Mongolia journey is facilitated by Animal Experience International (AEI), a Barrie, Ont. firm that matches volunteers of all ages with global opportunities to work with animal sanctuaries, hospitals, conservation areas, and wildlife rehabilitation centres. Run by wildlife veterinarian Dr. Heather Reid and volunteer coordinator Nora Livingstone, AEI offers a wide range of experiences from an elephant rescue centre in Thailand to helping such endangered species as Nepalese street dogs, European dolphins, and sea turtles in locales as diverse as Costa Rica and Sri Lanka.
Sharkey, a self-described “horse fanatic,” stumbled across AEI while web surfing for opportunities to photograph Przewalski herds. When she mentioned the Mongolia trip to the O’Grady family, “Teaghan immediately responded and just ran with the idea,” Sharkey says.
O’Grady researched the history of the Przewalskis, which faced extinction when hunting and livestock competition reduced their known numbers to a dozen by 1945. A dedicated captive breeding program saved them from completely disappearing, and now over 200 live freely in the Mongolian mountains. By studying how they behave in their ancestral home, scientists will be able to determine what they need to avoid the near-extinction that has threatened them throughout the 20th century.
Sharkey says the journey is a win-win for AEI and O’Grady. “Teaghan is an amazing person who wants to do something that really makes a difference, who loves animals, who is so sensitive and caring,” she says. “Going on this trip will be a life-changer for her, and she’ll be part of the eyes, ears and hands recording vital scientific data.”
Sharkey notes that O’Grady brings to the project a “remarkable ability to break down barriers with horses. Her intuition and connection with them is so deep that horses follow her and nudge her, grabbing at her jacket, almost like little dogs.”
Facing climate change and daily animal extinction tallies, Sharkey says “we need success stories of people who come together and care enough to make a difference, to have an animal come back from great peril. We can rejoice that people like Teaghan are making this happen.”
To contribute, go to O’Grady’s GoFundMe page. Each donor is entered into a draw to win a $400 original Sharkey portrait of one of O’Gradys horses, Cobalt.