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After his death, the legacy of Leelanau County's 'horse whisperer' lives on

Caroline MacGregor
Alex MacLellan drops off one of his horses at Camp Kohahna, a kid’s retreat near Pyramid Point.";

A well-known horse whisperer has passed away in northern Michigan. Alex MacLellan was the owner of H&H Stables in Leelanau County.

Alex lived his life among horses until health problems forced him to shut down. The unique setting of his ranch near Empire offered riders immediate access to Leelanau’s State Forest and Michigan’s Shore to Shore Trail, which traces its way 220 miles across the lower peninsula.

Credit Caroline MacGregor
Alex MacLellan

The trails are a flashback to the lumber era and horses that once hauled sleigh loads of logs headed for steamships in Empire. It’s familiar territory for Alex’s horses. For visitors, it was a chance to disconnect and view the area’s scenery from the back of a horse.

The ranch was the scene for many weddings and a couple of movie productions. Over the years, visitors included riders with physical and emotional disabilities.

“This girl used to bring this autistic kid out here,” remembered Alex in an interview before his death. “He was too scared to get on them but he loved to see them and touch them and stuff. He’d go out in that in that pasture; every one of them horses come see that kid, take a little sniff of him and go back to what they were doing.”

Health problems

Last year, Alex suffered a near-fatal heart attack. It gave him a taste of his own mortality.

“I don’t know what actually led to it … probably bad living,” said Alex. “But you know, I have known for a few years it’s been getting harder and harder to take care of these guys all by myself in the winter.”

Alex had to say goodbye to his horses because he was too weak to care for them. The one horse he kept was Biscuit, a chestnut-colored Mustang with an independent spirit.

“He’s got one of them open characters,” Alex said of Biscuit. “If there was a crowd of people and somebody said, ‘who wants to try this?’ Biscuit’s hand would be the first one up.”

After his heart attack, Alex was in the hospital for several weeks. He spent hours on the phone each day matching horses with new homes.

“Even though I had to close down because of my health, it was still important to me that these horses ended up in the right place, not just any place,” he said.

Adventures with Ace

Credit Caroline MacGregor
The view along the trails near H&H Ranch.

Alex was raised near Detroit by Gaelic-speaking immigrant parents. He was the high-energy kid, easily distracted in the classroom.

Alex’s first introduction to horses came one day when he was walking home from school. He discovered three Shetland ponies and a horse grazing in a field. He tried to ride the horse and wondered why it kept laying down.

A few days later, he invited another boy to tag along. The two set their sights on the ponies. 

“We’d just get on them and hold on like hell and they’d just run around in there,” said Alex. “Well, this day they were coming after us, chasing, I’m running. Just as I got to the fence that pony got me by the ass.”

The ruckus caught the attention of the property’s owner, who was a retired cop. His horse, Ace, was a member of Detroit’s mounted police. Over the next three years, visits to the barn became a regular after-school adventure.

At 18, Alex signed up for the Army. After a stint overseas, he returned to the horses, working as a trail guide. Alex had a dream: to open his own trail riding center in the country. He drove trucks to save money to buy land Up North.

“I didn’t fit in where I was born,” said Alex. “I needed to come up here to fit in because this was where I belonged.”

He’d sit for hours in his truck outside a large ranch near Chum’s Corner, owned by Glen Stafford, a horse dealer from Kentucky. Glen gave Alex a job.

“He started out cleaning stalls and ended up riding,” says Stafford. “Alex was a good horse trainer; a real good horseman.”

Glen fronted Alex a few horses and a trailer allowing him to open his first stable. In 2003, he opened H&H Farms, which later became H&H Stables.

Credit Caroline MacGregor
Curious horses at H&H Ranch.

Those who knew Alex describe his gift with horses as a relationship of trust.

“He was able to communicate with the horses and have them trust him because he was quiet and understanding with the horses,” says Linda Pouncey, a neighbor who owns Pouncey Ponderosa, a local horse ranch. 

“That is certainly what I think of when I think of a horse whisperer,” she says. “He had that quiet, calm way when he worked with his horses.”

Saying goodbye

Six months after his heart attack, Alex was diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer.

His doctor thinks it likely came from a blood transfusion Alex had after he was stabbed in a fight in his youth. The transfusion exposed him to Hepatitis C, a leading cause of liver cancer.

“I’ve knew my juice was going down, I just didn’t know why,” said Alex. “Well, now I know why.”

Treatment options were risky but Alex was a fighter. Each day he wrestled with Medicaid, mounting bills and a broken down tractor that forced him to clean horse pens with a rake and shovel.

One Sunday in late Fall, Alex stopped by Linda Pouncey’s ranch.

“He came down, big smile,” says Pouncey. “He just wanted to let me know he’d be gone for a few days … positive as usual. ‘I’ll be back. I’ll see you in a few days.’”

But Alex never came home. Within days of admitting himself to hospital, Alex MacClellan passed away.

Biscuit found a new home with a friend who shares Alex’s love of horses.

“These horses have been with me a long time, they’re like your family dog, you know?” said Alex before his death. “Even though there’s so many, you know each of them separate personalities, just like your kids, or your friends.”

H&H Stables has closed. Future plans for the property are unknown.