By the early 1900s, countless wild horses inhabited the Chilcotin, especially on the ranges north of the Chilcotin River.
Alexander Gillespie, who worked as a rider for the Gang Ranch, recalled a wild horse round-up in the spring of 1903 when a Mr. Hawden, of Duncan, purchased 250-head from the Gang Ranch, to be rounded up and delivered to Ashcroft. Hawden confidently expected to find a market for the scrubby wild horses in Toronto, so the Gang Ranch agreed to come up with them.
All of the Chilcotin natives in the neighbourhood participated in the hunt with the local ranchers, all expecting to make a few dollars for their efforts. The drive began at daylight because the horses were in the open then, usually seeking the protection of the timber during daylight hours to avoid flies and predators.
A large group of cowboys under the leadership of an experienced hand would surround one of the small open valleys common in that country where there would be one or two bands of horses feeding.
The surrounding had to be done with the utmost caution, as the mere breaking of a branch would send the spooky horses into the timber where it would be impossible to move them. Cowboys were placed at the head of the trails into the timber to turn back the horses into the open valley bottom when the main group of men appeared at one end of the valley.
Then the chase would begin, with everyone riding at a full gallop as the wild horses were headed out into an open area where they could be surrounded and held until they settled down enough to be manageable.
The whole herd would be driven off towards a huge figure-eight-shaped log corral where they could be sorted out, with the branded horses either being taken away by their owners or turned out to range again. The wild, unbranded “slick ears” were run into the adjoining corral and held there.
The hunt for wild horses lasted for nearly a month and, when the required number of horses was obtained, they had to be driven to Ashcroft.
The cowboys assigned to the drive had their hands full, especially on the first day which involved crossing the Chilcotin River. At first, the horses refused to enter the water and began to mill, threatening to stampede.
Eventually, the lead mares were headed into the river and the rest followed. After a few days, the horses settled into the routine and were relatively easy to handle as they kept together and did not try to break away.
The drive proceeded down the Cariboo Road for 10 days, encountering freight wagons and pack trains along the way. The horses churned up thick dust and covered horses and riders alike with a uniform coating. At Ashcroft, the horses were put into stock corrals and then run up a chute into the cattle cars.
Fifteen carloads of horses left Ashcroft and headed east under the careful eye of Mr. Hawden and a few cowboys who stayed to handle the horses at the end of the railway trip. As it turned out, Hawden decided to sell them in Calgary and received a good price for them from Alberta ranchers hungry for good mounts.
The cowboys who had stayed with him from the beginning received the sum of $90 for their efforts.
Ken Mather is curator emeritus at O’Keefe Ranch and a Spallumcheen-based author.