Workhorse screening a fundraiser for Erin Agricultural Society

ERIN – It was a horse pull competition at a fall fair that inspired independent filmmaker Cliff Caines to embark on a three-year journey to create the award-winning documentary Workhorse. 

A screening of that film, a portion of which was filmed in Erin, will be a fundraiser in support of the Erin Agricultural Society’s Horse Heritage Committee.

“I saw my first horse pull at the Kinmount Fall Fair in 2014, which involves a series of competitors with teams of horses, just massive draft horses, like Percherons and Belgians horses, which I’d always loved from a distance,” Caines explained. 

“But just the power of these horses on spectacle and within the sporting competition I’d never heard of, it was in that instant when I saw the horses connect to the sled of 10,000 pounds and pull that dead weight, it just brought the entire history of human civilization and horses working together collaboratively, and all of the complications with that … I had to make a film about it.”

Released in 2020, the documentary was three-years in the making. It follows three people whose work and lives were deeply connected to their equine partners.

That initial experience at the Kinmount Fair is where Caines first met Mike, Kelly and Cody Wessel, of Minden, the winners of the horse pulling competition.

“They were the first people that I met that were within the world of horse pulling, and they don’t necessarily use horses for farming per se, but they certainly do it as a way to pay homage to the practice of farming with horses,” Caines said. 

“It opened up the doorway to the Laings, who have an organic farm in St. Thomas, that is powered by Suffolk Punch horses, a draft horse that was particularly bred for farming, as opposed to a Belgian and Percheron horses, which was all a learning curve for me,” Caines said. 

“Through the Laings I was introduced to Art Shannon, who ran one of the first, if not last, commercial horse logging companies in southern Ontario.”

Caine said meeting and filming these three characters in the different contexts of their work with horses was an important history lesson in how humans have relied on their equine partners.

“We have to log, and then we farm, and then as horses declined in use, in favour of machines, horses relatively disappeared from practice,” Caine said. 

“And I was very interested in finding out more about why would someone like Art Shannon, or Ken Laing, or the Wessels do this today, when it’s a certainly disappearing, if not disappeared practice.”

He continued, “And that became the premise of the film, to show that and be really immersive with these characters. So, it’s a very observational to watch their practice with horses … you don’t fully understand it until you’re there, but it’s this relationship between humans and horses … I couldn’t fully understand it until I was there.”

Art Shannon, from Grey County, is a fifth-generation horse logger. He recalls horse logging in the bush with his father from about the age of 10. 

That led to a career of more than 40 years in forestry management, the last 18 of which he was a full-time horse logger. It was a career decision Shannon made on principle, but also his genuine love of working with horses.

“Basically it was a situation where I didn’t think the large pulp and paper companies were practicing sustainable forestry, and so I came up with a system using horses as a prime mover from stump to trail where I could have as little impact as possible on the residual forest,” Shannon explained. 

His passion for sustainable agriculture is what encouraged Shannon to take Caine up on his request to appear in the film.

“I saw this film as another opportunity to reach out and express my opinion on the importance of practicing sustainable forestry and I was able to do that,” Shannon said. 

He added, “I often forget the heart part of the equation … it is also the very fact that Dad gave me a pony when I was seven years old and I had been around horses all my life … I just think they’re a wonderful animal, a wonderful being.”

At the time of filming, Shannon and his wife, Kym Snarr, had sold their farm to retire.

Filming of his section of the documentary took place over four days, three of which were shot at a horse farm property in the town of Erin owned by Shannon’s friend, Faith Kent.

The environment proved an ideal place for Caine to capture Shannon and his equine crew in their natural element. 

“I was very interested in the relationship between a teamster and the horse. It’s a disappearing skill and a way of life,” Caine said. 

“That they held all of this knowledge and just watching them, their hands, you know, on a flick, just a touch on the rein, and you felt 30 plus years of experience with these animals and the relationship that they have built.” 

Shannon understands how vital that relationship is. 

“If you work with a horse eight hours a day, 40 hours a week for 15 to 16 years, that’s a real special relationship with an animal,” he said.

“Very few people you work with that long and that close, you know, but these horses, I worked very closely with, and they’d have bad days, I’d have bad days and we worked through them.

“I got something from horses every day. The horses were very much a part of my being.”

Caine notes he observed how the horses, in each scenario, had unique personality traits. It’s something Shannon said made working with horses so enjoyable.

“The thing that’s fascinating about horses is they’re all individuals,” Shannon said. “I’ve maybe had 20 to 24 horses, somewhere in that range in my life. And no two horses have the same personality.”

Workhorse is described as a lyrical documentary. Caine describes it as a process film, with less dialogue so the images and sound present the story, supported with testimony of the men about their working relationship with their equine partners. 

“I would say it’s a poetic approach. It tries to respond to what it was like working with the horses, so it’s a very slowed down pace, very observational,” Caine said.  

“It was a privilege to be able to be with people and learning about their life … It’s not just something you choose to do. It’s the way you choose to live.”

Caine admits it was a challenge to translate the scale of the draft horses, but the choice to produce the film in black and white was effective. 

“It was actually a way to underline that presence. It allowed us to be very sensorial in the black and white. It allowed us to see the texture of the horsehair. You could even feel the texture of the leather reins,” Caine explained. 

“It was about seeing the texture of the hands that have been working together for 40 plus years.”

He adds, “It is meant to be seen on the big screen, just because of the scale of the horses.”

The public will have the opportunity to do so as the Erin Agricultural Society hosts a screening of the film on March 29 at the Centre 2000 Theatre at 7pm.

Erin councillor Bridget Ryan, one of the organizers of the film screening and the RCMP Musical Ride, says the fundraiser will support the society’s Horse Heritage Committee. 

“This committee host the Horse Heritage Hall of Fame Awards each year, bringing special attention of recognition to a person, or an organization within our region who has made a significant contribution to our equine heritage,” Ryan said. 

Caine looks forward to reconnecting with his subjects.

“I think having the film participate as a fundraiser for the Erin Agricultural Society, it’s going to be the first time all of our characters have seen the film together,” Caine said. “So, it’s going to be a bit of a reunion.”

The evening will also include a video featuring drone footage of the RCMP Musical Ride held at the Erin Fairgrounds last August. 

Shannon hopes people will come away from the film with an appreciation for draft horses in today’s world. 

“Of course, first and foremost is for people to understand that some of us that have worked with horses, that we love our horses,” Shannon said. 

“And we use horses that are willing to do what they do. They they’re not being forced into doing something that they don’t want to do. They’re born and bred to work. They’re workhorses.”

Since its release Workhorse has received critical acclaim and won “Best Cinematography in a Feature Length Documentary” at the Canadian Screen Awards in 2021. 

It has also been screened at international film festivals including Germany’s DOK.fest, and Close:Up Edinburgh Docufest.  

Tickets for the March 29 showing of Workhorse at Centre 2000 are available at Budson Farm and Feed, at 93 Main Street in Erin. 

Tickets are $10, including a drink and popcorn. Doors open at 6pm. The show begins at 7pm.  For group tickets or other inquiries, text or call 519-216-4562.

WriteOut of Her Mind