Great F.A.S.D. Horseback Ride Across Canada

by Bruce Ritchie


Before the Beginning

From Halifax, NS to Victoria, BC, the Great F.A.S.D. Horseback Ride Across Canada promotes awareness of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. The Ride began May 17, 2007 and arrived in Victoria on August 20, 2007. Additional events were attended on the return journey to Bright's Grove, ON, arriving September 1, 2007.
The Ride has returned to Home Base for 2007 but the 2008 season is already in the planning stage.

Bruce Ritchie

February 2007
Bright's Grove, ON


Steve Thomas with Shannia
    The Great FASD Horseback Ride Across Canada began with a phone call from Steve Thomas to Bruce Ritchie in Bright's Grove, ON at FASlink Fetal Alcohol Disorders Society. Steve, a cowboy from Donald Station near Golden, BC., had a dream to cross Canada on horseback to raise awareness of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Three years earlier he had met a tiny, young girl. She was afraid of horses. He asked her caregiver about her. She told Steve about FAS and the impact it had on children and families. With care and patience, Steve managed to get the little girl over her fear of horses.   

That night was the anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. She was known as "the People's Princess". Her charitable work had had an impact far beyond herself as an individual. Steve greatly admired Diana and wanted to do something in life that would have an impact on the world larger than himself. The idea of riding across Canada to raise awareness of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders was born.

But he could not do it alone. He would need sponsors and logistical support. After three years and writing a book about the idea, he found FASlink and dialed the phone number.

As a long-time entrepreneur, to me the idea sounded like a great opportunity to make a national impact for FASD awareness and to raise the profile of FASlink. The projected start of mid-May was a rather short time frame, but possible. Canada is a vast country and a quick calculation showed it could take over 200 days to cross on horseback.

  The real unknown was Steve himself. He was a voice on the telephone from the wilderness, some 3,500 km away. He had never been on the FASlink Discussion Forum and was an unknown to all our members. He described himself as a cowboy, retired from the National Park Services where he had worked primarily in avalanche control. He was currently driving a team of Belgian horses pulling a tourist wagon at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. His knowledge of FASD was limited, but his experience on horseback was legitimate. He could certainly do the ride but his knowledge of FASD would have to improve dramatically. His financial resources were extremely limited, but he had hopes of support from local friends and businesses.
Notice that Dash does not require a bridle. Steve guides him almost entirely by his seat position in the saddle.

Steve E-mailed the manuscript for a book he had written about a fictional crossing of Canada on horseback from West to East. He joined the FASlink Discussion Forum. His initial letters rattled the chains of some of the more conservative members. I checked out his references and he proved to be legitimate and sincere in his goals. However, that did not satisfy some of FASlink's members.

Dash is a quarterhorse / thoroughbred mix - Extremely fast in the 1/4 mile sprint and has endurance for distance.
Some feared he was a loose canon that could ruin FASlink's reputation and set back the cause of FASD and even destroy FASlink itself. FASlink is supported by voluntary donations. Most members do not contribute financially. Several who subscribed to monthly donations threatened to withdraw from FASlink completely. Some of the discussions became vicious. However, while I do listen to the various opinions, ultimately, the buck stops here. FASlink is not a democracy. I personally provide the bulk of the financial and other support to keep it running. I don't take kindly to threats by anyone. The result was that a few high profile members cancelled their financial subscriptions and left. On a positive note, by the end of the Ride, FASlink's Discussion Forum membership had increased substantially. The naysayers and Nervous Nellies were wrong........

"Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero." "Even as we speak, envious time is running away from us. Seize the day, trusting little in the future." from a Latin poem by Horace (Odes 1.11).

Carpe diem. Seize the day.

This would be the first national FASD Awareness Campaign in Canada. In spite of millions of tax dollars being spend on FASD, none was making it to the grassroots level, no changes had been made in our education curricula and there was still huge ignorance among the population, particularly among young, fertile, people. Children with FASD are being born at an ever increasing rate.

After many, sometimes heated, discussions on the FASlink Fetal Alcohol Disorders Society listserve, I made the decision to support the adventure. Preparations began. The Ride would leave Halifax, NS on May 17, 2007 and arrive in Victoria, BC on September 10, 2007. International FAS Day would be observed in Nanaimo, BC.

Several FASlink members jumped on-board and began to work on various tasks. A major concern was still "Steve". What if after all the work and preparation and corporate fundraising, Steve did not show up? What if he found crossing Canada was too big a chunk to bite off? What if he became ill and/or quit? After all, he would be traveling through all types of weather from cold heavy rain to stinking hot barrens, through clouds of black flies and mosquitoes, Canada's national birds. What if, what if? And Steve had his doubts and "what if's" about us too.

"What if's" are good. They make you think of the risks and the ways to minimize them.

Logistically, Steve would need food and lodging along the route. Much time would be spent under canvas. But what about the horses? Who would drive the support vehicles? What if this was a Relay Ride involving riders across the country? Then the entire burden of riding would not rest on one person.

The Internet has been an incredible blessing. We contacted saddle clubs and riders across Canada by E-mail. The horse community is very well connected on-line and very quickly jumped on-board. In fact they were more enthusiastic about the project than the local FASD groups. Households with disabilities are always in "survival mode".

I have listened for years to people in FASD groups complain about the lack of public awareness of FASD and limited funds and opportunities to raise awareness. "Would you like cheese with the whine?"

The Great FASD Horseback Ride Across Canada was a tremendous opportunity for local groups to raise their own profile, get media coverage (media love horses) and fundraise. Groups could plan whatever type of "event" they wanted. A barbecue in a local park would be ideal. Invite local media, politicians (they love photo ops) and groups and organizations that are impacted by FASD, such as foster parents, teachers, social workers, and medical and legal professionals. Free food, a good show and a great cause. What more could one ask for?

Claudia Julien (Bioclyde) in New Brunswick became our Ride Coordinator and took on the task of contacting people by E-mail and phone to get them to organize an event as we passed through their town. Roberta (Yukon Roberta) in the Yukon designed the logo for the Ride as well as some graphics for a Ride web page. Ken Price in Burlington began contacting large corporations for sponsorships. I continued to contact companies, planned the logistics and developed the web page, along with a thousand more details. Other members contributed name tags, leather tobacco gift pouches for First Nations events, and money. Errin Weigel, owner of Prairie Majik Arabians in Saskatchewan and a long time FASlink member, joined in and helped tremendously in planning routes and events in the West. After she met Steve, she offered the use of two of her young saddle-broke Arabians for the Ride. Steve would train them on the Ride as well as deliver a third Arabian to her client in Deep River, ON. Later she also donated an Arabian foal for a draw for riders who would join us on parts of the trek. WOW!!!

Endless hours and days were devoted exclusively to doing in a couple of months what some organizations would take 3 years to plan. We had heard about a group who were planning to ride across Canada in 2010 for the Olympics.

In the meantime, on-line sniping continued on FASlink. Frankly, there were times when I was ready to pull the plug on FASlink or arbitrarily unsubscribe some of the "mosquitoes with E-mail". The negativity of some members was at times very discouraging. And the most vociferous were often those who contributed little or nothing to the support of FASlink. For some families, FASlink is a critical lifeline. For others, it seems to be a free coffee-clache. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Someone is always paying the price.

In the preparation process, it quickly became clear that I would have to go on the trek too. I could not provide a support role from the comfort of my office. That decision created additional logistic challenges and family conflicts.

I had spent years expanding my waistline sitting in front of a computer. Yes, I am an experienced camper, but most of my camping in the past 20 years has been limited to a week or two at a time. And my son, David (age 17) was still in school and would not be done until June 22nd. And what about being away from my teenage daughter, Jessica, for 4 months? And who would cut the lawn, etc.? How would the FASlink website and discussion forum be maintained in my absence? What if a server died? How would the daily costs and bill paying be covered when I was gone? Why would I exchange my creature comforts for 4 months under canvas? In 17 years, I had not been away from my son for more than 5 days, and that was when he was 2 years old.

It would have been easy to quit before starting. Very easy. Such a harebrained idea doing such a huge project on no money with such a short lead-time with people you have never met face-to-face. Idiotic. The home front resistance was substantial, but finally subsided, somewhat. The trek was going to happen, regardless. Carpe diem.

Our fundraising efforts were generally ignored by government and major companies and in many cases they would not contribute unless we had a Charitable Donation Tax Number. FASlink had never needed one and the timing was too short to obtain one. So we approached a number of charitable organizations to see if they would partner with us. None did, for a variety of excuses. It certainly put a new perspective on my future support of those charities.

 So we reverted to using our CD's and T-shirts as fundraisers.   

They would be given as free "Thank You" gifts for larger donations. In a past life (aka previous business in the early 1980's) I had owned an advertising and awards specialty company, specializing in photo imprinting on metal and fabric. When I sold the company, I kept some equipment including a T-shirt heat press. Computer technology has evolved dramatically over the years and we can now print heat sensitive transfers on colour photocopiers and computer printers.

I printed 220 T-shirts to begin the ride and duplicated 100+ FASlink CD's. More could be produced enroute as needed.

Public Health Agency of Canada

At one point the Public Health Agency of Canada considered financial support for the Ride but withdrew when I would not promote their statistics. They claimed the incidence of FASD was 1% in Canada. Their number is based on 5 old studies (10, 15, 20, 22 and 25 years old) of tiny, remote First Nations communities - no studies of non-native communities, as if white folk don't drink. In every case the study authors cautioned against applying their statistics to any community outside the specific study community. Each of the studies was conducted before the FASD diagnostic criteria were set in Canada.

In their infinite wisdom, PHAC / Health Canada bureaucrats decided to apply the statistics to 33 million people in Canada. However, the attitude in government and promoted by the media, was that natives had a huge drinking problem and FASD is primarily a First Nations issue. WRONG!!!!


Reality is that it is probable that about 15% of Canadian children are sufficiently affected by prenatal alcohol exposure that they require special education in the school systems.

My research paper, published in February 2007, used Statistics Canada's Canadian Health Survey drinking behaviour sections, as well as concurrent birth and population statistics to calculate the percent of babies prenatally exposed to various levels of beverage alcohol.

Summary of Exposure Rates

In Canada, 79% of babies are exposed prenatally to alcohol. More than 37% of babies have been multiply exposed to binges of 5+ drinks per occasion in the first trimester, often before the girl knew she was pregnant. Another 42% have been exposed to multiple sessions of 1 to 4 drinks per occasion. All will be affected to some degree. Meconium studies show 15% to 18% of pregnant women continue to drink throughout the pregnancy, 4% at elevated levels.

According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and Statistics Canada there are 720,000 registered Indians in Canada. The total Canadian population (all cultures) is about 33,000,000. This places registered Indians as 2.2% of the population. Yet 79% of Canada's babies are prenatally exposed to alcohol, 37% to binge drinking of 5 or more drinks per occasion, multiple times. Guess who is doing most of the drinking? Certainly not the native population. But biases and bigotry die hard, as does learned helplessness.

Medical Conditions

Prenatal alcohol exposure has been linked to more than 60 disease conditions, birth defects and disabilities. Damage is a diverse continuum from mild intellectual and behavioural issues to profound disabilities or premature death. Prenatal alcohol damage varies due to volume ingested, timing during pregnancy, peak blood alcohol levels, genetics and environmental factors.

Incidence in Children

Approximately 20% of Canadian school age children are receiving special education services, most for conditions of the types known to be caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.

As FASD is a diverse continuum, issues range from almost imperceptible to profound. It is somewhere in the middle that the issues attract the attention of parents, educators, medical and social work professionals, and eventually the justice system. Most of the issues that attract sufficient attention are behavioural and performance issues.

It is probable that about 15% of children are significantly enough affected by prenatal alcohol exposure to require special education. As they become adults, FASD does not disappear but the issues of youth translate into ongoing problems in family relationships, employment, mental health and justice conflicts. The cost to the individuals affected, their families and society are enormous and as a society, we cannot afford to ignore them.

As at this writing, September 27, 2007, PHAC / Health Canada have still not provided any funding to defray the costs of the Ride.

In preparation for the trip, I enlisted the help of Alexander McKenzie Secondary School in Sarnia. They modified my box trailer to carry my tepee poles in side tubes and changed the tailgate to a more practical design. They also built in 4 flag holders at the corners. Their multimedia department loaned us a DV digital video camera to produce a documentary film. By the end of the trek we had more than 7 hours of video and 2700 still photographs.


David's High School, Northern Collegiate and Vocational School, held a hat day as a fundraiser for the Ride.

Claudia was on the phone constantly with event and contact details about the Ride. She also planned to bring her Golden Retriever, Tobby. However, she was very insistent that Steve not bring his dog, Duchess.

Yukon Roberta decided to join the Ride with her daughter, Plum. During the course of planning, there were conflicts between Roberta and Claudia over control of the event planning.

Initially Roberta was to drive from the Yukon to meet Steve. She and Plum would drive with Steve in his truck. Then she decided she didn't want to do that. Plum is a native adoption and Roberta is her non-native caregiver. Her ex-husband, the former Chief of a Yukon First Nation, is Plum's adopted father. Roberta has been Plum's defacto mother / caregiver for many years but is not her adopted mother with legal status.

Roberta decided to drive to Sarnia, leave her car, and drive my second van to Halifax. She wanted her hotel and other travel costs covered by the Ride. The car became an issue in how she would get it to return to the Yukon. The additional fuel and lodging costs would be prohibitive. So I suggested she fly from Calgary to Sarnia and pick up her car in Calgary for her return to the Yukon. That was not acceptable to her. She refused to fly. Then I realized she could be using the ride to escape from the Yukon with Plum and had no intention of returning there. She has family in southern Ontario.

FASlink could be caught in the midst of a custody / kidnapping battle, such as the recent case of Myriam Bedard. Bedard was charged after she went to the United States in October 2006 with her daughter without the consent of the girl's father, Jean Paquet. She stayed there for nearly three months. The former Olympic gold medallist was found guilty of breaching a custody order involving her daughter and at this writing is awaiting sentencing. Our trip was planned for 4 months duration.

When asked about this possibility, Roberta became enraged and ceased all communications with us, until she showed up without Plum, unannounced, at our campsite in Brandon, Manitoba.

This is beginning to sound like a TV soap opera.

As the date drew nearer, I organized our camping gear, purchased an additional pop-up tent and made arrangements for dozens of details to be handled while I was gone. The trailer was packed and re-packed several times as priority decisions were made about equipment.

May 10th was the target day to leave Sarnia to rendezvous with Steve in Ottawa.

I was interviewed by the Sarnia Observer just prior to leaving and the story was published while I was on the road. Excellent article. :-)