A small sign marking “Cundell Stables” hangs over a laneway between a tea shop and a row of brick houses. Across the street is a whiskey bar, calmly waiting for evening to envelop the ByWard Market. The sound of whinnying fails to compete with the rumble of cars driving up York Street. The sign provides the only suggestion that a horse stable sits metres away.
As I approached the address John Cundell gave me, a small boy appeared at the door. Three-year-old Koleson, who may one day be the fifth generation to run Cundell Stables, trotted back inside to tell his grandfather I had arrived.
“We’re part of Ottawa’s history,” Cundell told me as we sat down in his living room, surrounded by family photos and a bounty of horse show ribbons. “People come in here all the time to look at the stables. They can’t believe we have a stable in the back. When you go out to the front, you’re in the city. It’s like two different lives within thirty feet.”
Cundell’s grandfather started dealing horses on George Street in the ByWard Market in 1890. The stable moved to York Street in the 1940s, but the business has been family run since the start. Today, Cundell keeps two Belgian draft horses and six miniature horses in a stable tucked behind the only home where he’s ever lived.
“My grandfather sold horses to the fire department. We had the garbage contract in 1918. We plowed the streets and removed snow from the sidewalks. We used to dig foundations so that people could build their houses. Back then, everything was done by horse or man. They built the Parliament Buildings with horses,” Cundell said.
The business has adapted as the ByWard Market continues to change and expand. While their heritage is labour, Cundell’s horses lead carriage rides through the market and are popular for birthday parties. Cundell regularly takes them to visit seniors’ homes and local fairs. This weekend, a group took the horses out to celebrate an 80th birthday.
“Some people have a hard time in life and they go and touch a horse’s nose and they leave happy. You can have a corvette car, and you can touch a corvette car without being happy,” Cundell said.
“We give rides in the wintertime and even when it’s cold, people want to get on,” he said. “They wait in line for half an hour to an hour, and they still want that ride. They’ll tell you ‘I was on this wagon when I was a kid.’”
The stable precedes bylaws written when the City of Ottawa was amalgamated. This means Cundell can keep horses in the ByWard Market even though it wouldn’t be possible to obtain a permit today. Between discussions about the past and future of the business, Koleson poked his head into the living room. “What’s your pony’s name?” Cundell asked his grandson. “Rosebud,” Koleson shyly replied.
“Koleson’s going to be a horseman too. He’s already big and strong,” Cundell smiled, as Koleson excitedly began listing the names of his family’s miniature ponies.