Francis Bourque has spent his life around horses. He has managed horses and livestock on many movies for the big screen and television.
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.”
Starting in 1982, Bourque followed a little further in his father’s horse-training footsteps. He took out a permit to catch wild horses in the foothills around Sundry, Alberta. Over the next 20 years he built a herd of horses with the wild stock. “You have to track them the way you hunt moose,” he says. “You have to go 50 to 75 miles a day to catch two horses. And you take whatever you get on your rope.”
In 2002, when he moved to Saskatchewan with wife Linda to start their ranch at Pelly, they brought 70 of the wild-mixed mares with them.
As horses, or more precisely ranches that relied on horses, started to disappear from the cattle landscape, Bourque found himself in demand as a horse and cattle expert on movie sets. What was waning in real life, the adventures of the cowboy, has been flourishing in the movie industry since cinema began. Bourque has worked with stars like Robert Duvall, in Daughters of Joy, and on The Englishman’s Boy for television that came out in 2008.
“A movie set is different than when you’re working,” he says. “On a movie set you want it exact. It is always a test of your skill. If you can’t get it done, you’re gone.” That’s very true. A horse and cattle handler like Bourque is hired because shooting is expensive and re-takes with animals take time. But that doesn’t mean a little serendipity doesn’t help.
“I got a call from T.J. Bews [horse handler for Theatre on the Hoof featured in the Summer 2012 issue of PN],” says Bourque. “He had a list of horses for me. He wanted one that turned back left, one that turned back right, one that kicked, one that bucked, and one that crashed fences. I had the first four but I had no idea where to get the last one. In a couple of days a friend called who had a problem with a fence-crashing horse to see if I could train it outta that habit! After we did the movie I brought the horse home and cured it of fence crashing.”
At the moment, Bourque is having the time of his life. His sons, Chance and Chase, are third generation saddle bronc riders and his youngest, Cole, may not be far behind. He is finally both cowboy and ranch owner, something he dreamed of for years. The land he bought at Pelly will support 400 head of cattle so the current 120-head herd has room to expand. He’s still training and selling his own horses, and takes on horses to train for individual clients.
“People think being a cowboy is glamorous.,” he says with a smile. “Well, the cameras ain’t always runnin’ when you’re out there. You’re gonna get pretty lonely some days. All I ever wanted to be was a cowboy,”
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