Culling controversy recreated in recent Heartland episodes

On the wide-open plains of the Stoney reserve, the bustle of a television production is underway.

Two white horses dance with their trainer while cameras follow their every move.

Heather Conkie, head writer for CBC’s Heartland, looks on as the crew runs back and forth with film equipment.

As Conkie works, she notices something that starkly contrasts with the frenzy of filming.

A dozen wild horses have emerged on a hill above her, standing as still as statues.

Strong and proud, each subtle flicker of their ears provides a brief glimpse into their spirited curiosity as they observe the busy production scene below.

The cast and crew pause to marvel at their presence, but with no camera capturing the moment, the memory of them is as unharnessed as the horses themselves.

The horses remain as onlookers until the director yells, “Cut!” and the day is finished. Then, in one fluid motion of freedom, they run.

Conkie still recalls their presence vividly, even though this was four or five years ago.

“It always stayed in my mind,” she said. “They’re just so gorgeous.”

Her encounter with these wild horses is part of what inspired her to represent their beauty in the recent back-to-back Heartland episodes, “The Pike River Cull” and “The Heart of a River,” which aired in December and January.

In the Williams Creek area of Alberta, three wild mares and a yearling are watching the conflict between two stallions

Photo courtesy of Duane Starr Photography

These episodes responded to the Alberta wild horse culls, which had sparked a controversial debate centered around complex political, economic, and environmental issues last spring. This debate was highlighted throughout the media, including a Calgary Herald article where Leah Hennel explains how the wild horse captures “fuelled tension between protesters, ranchers and police.”

The culls – the most recent of which announced in early February of this year – were intended by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development to manage the population of feral horses in order to protect ecosystem health and prevent overgrazing.

However, advocates argue the culls are inhumane, because they can result in captured horses being sent for slaughter, and unnecessary, because the actual count of the wild horse population has been disputed. One advocacy group, “Help Alberta Wildies,” stated in a Facebook post that they “conducted numerous aerial counts in the last month and have a much lower count than ESRD.”

Heartland took a more personal approach to the issue in recent episodes, using its fictional platform to provide an emotional outlet for its viewers and create a safer space for discussion.

Conkie acknowledged the culls are a complicated issue, and says she doesn’t want to take sides on it. But, she also knows it is an issue of great importance for Albertans and horse-lovers, who make up a large portion of Heartland’s audience. As a result, she wanted to represent their feelings and concerns while raising awareness about the situation.

“I just wanted people who maybe didn’t know about it to find out, and then maybe they can form their own opinion,” said Conkie. “I wanted to do service to the horse-lovers out there who would absolutely rather see [the wild horses] rehomed.”

The episodes follow Heartland’s protagonist Amy Fleming as she fights to save the wild horses in Pike River from a capture that would send them to the slaughterhouse. Fleming and others on her side argue that the recent flood and harsh winter are naturally managing the wild horse population without the need for a cull.

Heartland fans can relate personally to the plight of the characters as they fight against a wild horse cull. Heartland cast members, from left to right: Shaun Johnston as Jack, Graham Wardle as Ty, Amber Marshall as Amy, and Nick Campbell as Will.

Photo by Andrew Bako

This is also an argument that has been used by real-life advocates. In a Habitat for Horses article, Virginia Fisher wrote, “Our wild horses were struggling trying to paw through belly deep snow to find grass and many new foals were lost.”

Conkie and the Heartland production team recreated many elements from the real wild horse culls in Alberta, such as the conflict over capture permits, the welfare of the horses, and the ecological aspects of the debate. Fisher discussed these elements in her article and felt that herself and other advocates “were being lied to” about capture permits.

Communications experts believe that as a fictional drama, Heartland was able to tackle this issue in a simplified way in order to connect with its audience’s emotions, rather than focusing on which side is right or wrong.

Caitlin Turner is a PhD candidate at Carleton University currently studying activism in communication technology who said, “Because it is such a complicated issue, with so many stakeholders, sometimes that oversimplification is a good place to start a very complicated conversation.”

They also believe that because fans often connect personally with the fictional reality of the show, it has the ability to resonate with viewers, helping them deal with their emotions and engage in conversation about significant local events.

Emily Hiltz, another PhD candidate in the Communications department at Carleton University currently studying the process of fictionalizing real events said, “I think this speaks to the producers’ desire to tap into causes and concerns that the audience really cares about and include elements of real events that many viewers can relate to and recall.”

Karen Barker, a devoted Heartland fan who has been advocating to save the wild horses, agrees with Hiltz’s view. She was deeply touched by the episodes, tearing up when talking about the fictional portrayal of the culls in Heartland because it resonated so strongly with the emotional reality of wild horses.

“Of course, you’re rooting along for the horses all the way. I mean, we didn’t know what could happen in the end, Heartland could have very easily put in a different ending. You’re rooting along like it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” said Barker. “Sometimes we just need a feel-good episode like that.”

This band of wild horses in the Williams Creek area is one of many that advocates are fighting to defend.

Photo courtesy of Duane Starr Photography

Not only does the fictionalization of real events provide an outlet for emotion, Hiltz and Turner agree that it also creates a safe place for people to wrestle with heated and controversial issues.

“By bringing it in through the show, you’re allowing people to have these emotions and have the conversation at the same time. But if you’re going to be in a town hall, discussing this with your local representatives and things like that, that emotion is seen as a negative,” said Turner.

Although Barker has spent a lot of time on the frontlines of the movement to save the wild horses and has grappled with the politics of the culls, she also appreciates the safe space that the Heartland episodes provided. On her big comfy couch, with a bowl of popcorn and a warm quilt, she could pour her heart into the episodes while laughing, crying, or yelling at the TV as needed.

As fans look forward to more episodes, including the season finale in March, Conkie hopes that Heartland will continue to impact its audience in a way that inspires them and resonates with them.

“That’s huge for me and for all the other writers,” said Conkie. “I think the biggest thing for me is to connect with the people on a very emotional level.”

eholloway@cjournal.ca