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The story of a breed of tiny horses is one of those greatest stories rarely told

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A breed of tiny horses once faced extinction and is now recovering. The Lac La Croix pony, also known as the Ojibwe horse, is found mostly in the thick forests along the U.S.-Canadian border. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker reports on the effort to keep it there.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Inside a barn on a farm in the rolling hills outside River Falls, Wis., stand six small, sturdy and very friendly horses.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

KRAKER: They're Ojibwe horses.

EM LOERZEL: This is Mino, short for Mino Bimaadiziwin. So that's our word for a good life.

KRAKER: Em Loerzel is a descendent of the White Earth Nation in northern Minnesota. Earlier this year, she created a nonprofit called The Humble Horse to raise awareness about the breed and to help revive it. Mino is one of only about 180 Ojibwe horses remaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE BREATHING)

LOERZEL: He's, I think, just one of the sweetest guys.

KRAKER: Loerzel says the breed developed a few ways to adapt to the harsh Northern climate.

LOERZEL: Hi, sweetheart.

KRAKER: She pries open Mino's nostrils to point out a small flap inside.

LOERZEL: It's this little kind of, like, inside flap that you see here. It helps protect them from cold air. And then you probably noticed his really small fuzzy ears. It also protects them from the cold, but it also protects them from black flies.

KRAKER: But the Ojibwe horse almost wasn't able to survive its greatest threat - people. In the early 1900s, they were killed to make products like dog food and glue. By 1977, there were only four left on the Lac La Croix First Nation in Ontario, just north of the U.S.-Canada border. Word spread that the Canadian government planned to exterminate them, so four men from the Bois Forte Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota launched a rescue mission. Heather O'Connor, a Canadian author who spent five years researching Ojibwe horses, says it was dubbed the heist across the ice.

HEATHER O'CONNOR: They piled in a pickup truck, hooked up a horse trailer, drove across, like, beaver dams and portages and frozen ice in the middle of February.

KRAKER: Norman Jordan was a young boy at the time living at Lac La Croix. He says the ponies would roam in the woods near their homes and help with tasks like hauling wood. He remembers watching the men lead the horses away.

NORMAN JORDAN: I'm wondering if this is the last time I'm going to ever see those horses. I don't know if they'll ever be back again, you know, because everybody was so attached to them in a deep, spiritual way.

KRAKER: But those four rescued horses allowed the breed to survive. Slowly, their numbers increased. Then in 2017, almost 40 years after those four horses left, Jordan helped bring a small herd back to the community.

JORDAN: It's almost like when they left, there was a piece of my history that was leaving - a piece of me, like a void that I've had for all these years. And then that night they came back, it's like that piece that was missing was back now.

KRAKER: But advocates for the Ojibwe horse say its survival is still tenuous. They say more people are needed to maintain breeding herds - more people like Em Loerzel, who just welcomed a new baby to her small herd in Wisconsin.

LOERZEL: It's time to go out. Come on.

KRAKER: Loerzel says the Ojibwe horses' story is a parallel to the story of Ojibwe people.

LOERZEL: They were forcefully removed from their families. They were almost exterminated by the government. The population dwindled, and now we're coming back. And now we're thriving.

KRAKER: Loerzel says the Ojibwe people are horse people, too. And she hopes these horses help her people reclaim that heritage.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in River Falls, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL SONG, "SILHOUETTES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Kraker