Solar Powered Horses are Roaming the Prairieside

A team of silver painted, coin-operated horses run free as part of an exhibition at the Leighton Art Centre this month.

Helios at the Leighton Centre.

Photo by Amanda Koyama


[Update: This installation was taken down a few weeks early at Leighton Art Centre because of weather. Watch for what Lisa Brawn will do with the horses next.] 


Three years ago, artist Lisa Brawn cashed in her RRSPs and spent her lifesavings on a herd of abandoned, coin-operated horses, a decision she mulled over endlessly before making the purchase. "I talked myself into it and out of it twenty times before taking the leap,” says Brawn. “I tempted myself by breaking it into increments. Wouldn’t this be much better if they were just cleaned up? What if they had new wiring, how about new belts, new motors? That’s how I finally tricked myself into taking it on.”

The team, which consists of 30 coin operated horses of various makes and sizes, have undergone various transformations —  being sandblasted, painted, made to run on battery power — as part of Brawn’s work.

The metal mounts have travelled the land, appearing in unusual locations like Beakerhead in 2014 as an installation titled Invasion of the Space Ponies and on stage with Decidedly Dance Jazz Studios that same year in its Year of the Horse production. Their current home, however, sees them back in the animals’ natural element. For their latest appearance, the eight largest horses were given a silver paint job, and were converted from batter to solar power and installed in the prairie landscape by the Leighton Art Centre, just south of Calgary.

Photo couresty Lisa Brawn

Some of the horses in their original states when Brawn bought them.

Brawn says the idea of the installation, titled Helios, was to emulate the feeling of seeing wild horses in their element. “I was thinking about the hundreds of thousands of wild horses that used to roam southern Alberta and wanted to do something in the spirit of those diminishing herds. That’s how the installation at Leighton came to be quite romantic,” says Brawn.  “I was after something mysterious, and I think I came close with extreme shininess and the element of surprise. The same thrill you might feel catching a glimpse of some real wild horses today.”

Brawn says she already has plans for their next transformation and will be moving her horses to greener (indoor) pastures. “I plan to retrofit these eight horses with sound boxes so they can be programmed by visiting artists to create endlessly evolving soundscapes,” say Brawn. “Nothing invasive, just subtle heartbeat, hoofbeat percussion or walking bass, to start. I’d like them to retire somewhere permanently indoors as an interactive art installation, but I haven’t figured out where yet.”

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