Most of recorded human history involves the critical assistance of the horse. I am viscerally aware of this as intense summer heat swells off a loam and clay field that Lloyd Smith is seeding with his four-horse team. The 8-foot seeder is a bare-bones mechanism of gears and wheels. Wide hooves thud the ground and metal clangs against metal. Above this working harmony, the breathing of horses and the voice of the driver echo off trees at the field’s edge.
Smith is plainly thrilled to be driving. I have watched him drive his team down a steep snowy creek bank with a sled full of Christmas revelers. Somewhere, I have a handful of pictures from a day of horse logging he put in when the early spring wasn’t as wet as it has been lately. But this day is special.
“We dragged the seeder out of a swamp,” Smith says with head-shaking disbelief. “We had to tear it right down. But it works!”
The machine yard is lined with horse-drawn implements. Plough bottoms, rakes, and wagons stand in various states of restoration. The Smith farmstead is nestled into shallow coulees with well-treed surrounding hilltops. The 20-acres that are being seeded by horse are ideally scaled for the task. The furrows roll over well-worked contours and around natural obstacles that no one has seen the urgent need to remove. Farming with horses yields an agility that the industrial age can function without.
Seeding and harvesting with horses may be esteemed only as a hobby but Francis Bourque would allow no such fate for the saddle horse. Bourque was not quite born on the range, but he was raised there. His childhood home stood on central Alberta grazing land. In 1950, his father started working for the Old Frontier Grazing Association and Frances joined him as a very young man. What he learned was quite simple and he maintains that it’s still true: where you find cattle, you’d better find horses.
“I learned to ride by riding my horse to catch the school bus,” he says. By the time he was 12, Bourque was steer riding in amateur competitions. He was winning, too. When he turned 16, it was time for saddle broncs and bulls. “I never did ride the bulls too much,” he says. “With them, it’s not a question of if you’re going to get hurt. It’s when and how bad.”
Ironically, he makes this observation while recovering from a fall that sent him for emergency surgery to set a broken neck. A routine day herding cattle turned dangerous, as any cowboy knows it can. “This is the worst injury I have ever had,” says the 62-year-old Bourque. Not that he avoided the very real risk of injury.
The lure of competing was too hard to resist for Bourque. At the age of 16, he and a friend took an uninsured Volkswagen Beetle and drove it without licenses to Dawson Creek, BC. They came up with wins totaling $3,500, bought a new car, and drove it home.
Between 1967 and 1984, Bourque took top-ten status in Canada six times and won two under-21 titles. He won money in every major rodeo in the nation. But it was the horses that kept him anchored. Breaking and training horses was his first working experience and the one to which he always returned. He had learned horse training the old school way—the way the army wanted it done. “In those days, if you wanted to sell a horse to the army, you had to train it according to the army method. Charles O. Williamson wrote the book on that. My dad worked for him in Montana for a couple of months. That’s the method I learned.”