Gem’s Story

Joyce Barkhouse, February 2004

When I was born, in the year 1913, in the front room of our home in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, there were two horses in our barn. One was called “Mighty Maude,” a big old ill-tempered farm horse. The other was “Gem,” a gentle little chestnut mare. Also in the barn, up on blocks hibernating from November to May, was an automobile, called a “Grey Dort.” Those were the days before antifreeze, before snow ploughs, before paved country roads.

My father was a country doctor and in all the length and breadth of the Valley there was no hospital. All calls were house calls. My father spent much of his life on the roads, traveling between the towns of Kentville and Berwick and up over the steep, volcanic ridge of the North Mountain to the Bay of Fundy shore. He had three modes of transportation: Maude, to pull a wagon through the deep muddy ruts of spring or to struggle through the snowdrifts of winter; the Grey Dort to go roaring down the dusty roads of summer; and Gem, ready to go in all seasons, whenever she was needed.

Long after Gem was no longer alive, Father would tell stories of his brave little mare. Once when he was lost in a thick fog near the Fundy shore, Gem balked. She refused to move. When Father investigated, by the dim light of his kerosene lantern, he discovered they were at the very edge of a steep cliff. If Gem had taken a few more steps they would have crashed to their deaths on the rocky beach below. After that, Father learned to trust Gem, on dark nights, in blizzards, and in blinding rain. Often exhausted, he would fall asleep, the reins slack in his hands, and Gem would take him safely home. And so it was that I named the brave little Sable Island horse in Pit Pony, “Gem.”

Sometimes, on these long lonely drives, when the weather was fine, Father would take some of his children with him for company. Along the way he would entertain us with stories about the natural wonders of the world about us. Best of all, I liked it when he visited patients in the fishing villages along the Fundy shore.

Father knew Indian legends about the strange rocky formations and the islands of this area. These were the legends of the Mi’kmaq demigod, Gloosecap. Cape Split was Glooscap’s smashed beaver dam; Spencer’s Island was his cooking pot; lonely Isle Haute had once been a giant moose that had tried to escape Glooscap’s arrow by swimming across the Bay.

Stories of shipwrecks, stories of survival, stories of people marooned on islands, these have always held me enthralled.

The first chapter in my first school textbook of Nova Scotia made history my favorite subject forever. It was the dramatic story of Sable Island. “…About the year 1598 the Marquis de la Roche, having obtained a commission from the French King, equipped a vessel, taking about fifty convicts with him, and leaving them on Sable Island, till a suitable place could be found for them. On leaving the Island the Marquis was driven by a tempest eastward and returned to France, leaving the unhappy men…On the Island are some hundreds of wild ponies. They are divided into herds, each presided over by an old male, remarkable for the length of his mane, rolling in tangled mass over ear and eye. A number of the animals are brought yearly to the mainland, and the securing of them for that purpose provides excellent sport.” I was filled with pity and horror, emotions that have lasted a lifetime.

Now when people ask me, “When did you get the idea for your book Pit Pony?” my reply should be,

“I got part of the idea when I was ten years old.”

Joyce Barkhouse
Prepared for the Friends of the Green Horse Society, February 2004