By Ken Mather
Vernon Morning Star
From the first days of ranching in the North-West, as the Canadian prairies were known in the late 1800s, ranchers and cowboys alike recognized and acknowledged the superiority of the horses bred west of the Rockies.
Fred Ings, who had worked as a cowboy on the 1883 round-up and later owned the Midway Ranch, wrote in his memoirs, “We needed good horses and big ones; we never rode small horses like the American cowboy.
“Our cattle were larger and we needed the size and weight.” This need for larger horses to handle the large purebred cattle that were being brought into the North-West was recorded in the 1913 book, The Range Men.
“The range stock of the South-West, of Texas, New Mexico, and Old Mexico, is quick, light, and as speedy as most horses, while the range animals of Alberta and Montana are grade shorthorns and herefords, huge, clumsy, well-fed brutes, whose best gait is a lumbering gallop, and whose agility compared with that of the Mexican steer is as a tortoise to a hare.
Canadian stock was half as big again as the South-Western range beasts, twice as slow, and not a quarter as agile.
A Canadian rope-horse was picked for strength and weight to oppose the weight and strength of the heavy steers; the Arizona and Texas and other American steeds were picked for speed, sure-footedness, and dodging ability.”
The B.C. horses brought in from across the Rockies fit the bill for strength and weight and were universally accepted as the best horses on the southern prairies.
Not surprisingly, along with the horses came horse-breaking techniques. The use of the hackamore, derived from the Spanish jaquima, was widespread in B.C. and spread to the North-West.
The method of breaking horses with a hackamore can be traced back to the vaqueros of California.
The use of a hackamore was considered by most California buckaroos (as the term vaquero was pronounced by the English speaking cattlemen) to produce a soft-mouthed horse, responsive to the reins.
Once a horse was trained with a hackamore, it was usually replaced with a bit. This technique was unheard of on the Great Plains, where a bit was the standard piece of equipment in horse breaking.
So it would seem that the California methods of horse breaking travelled to the North-West via Oregon, Washington State and B.C.
In the area of horses and horse equipment, the influence on the cattle culture of Alberta from B.C. and the Pacific Northwest was pronounced.
The large, tough horses of these regions were just what were needed for the improved breeds of cattle that were larger and slower than the Texas longhorns that had come as far as Montana, with few of them making it into the North-West.
Along with the horses came certain aspects of the buckaroo horse culture.
Certainly the methods of breaking horses seem to have been readily accepted in the North-West and the use of the hackamore was very popular.
Other aspects of the horse culture, namely single-cinched saddles and braided rawhide ropes, were less prominent.
Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.