In the early 1880s, the ranchers of B.C. were closely watching the developments across the mountains.
When the Canadian government opened vast areas of land for ranching leases in 1881, it was obvious that a ranching industry that would soon eclipse the one in B.C. would develop. But the good news was that the ranchers there would need good quality cattle and horses.
In both of these categories, B.C. was second to none.
And, even though there was lots of livestock available in Montana, the quality of that stock was generally inferior to B.C.’s, especially the horses.
On the open range, each cowboy had eight or more horses for round-up: tough circle horses for rounding up, a sure-footed gentle pony for night riding, a cutting horse for working herds, a roping horse and a good horse for swimming rivers.
Most of all, cowboys were looking for horses that could handle large, heavy cattle and preferred the bigger B.C. stock over the smaller American cow ponies.
Drovers like Adam Ferguson and Jim Christie, who had drove horses through the Yellowhead Pass in 1874, and John Shaw, who had driven the first commercial cattle onto the prairies through the North Kootenay Pass in 1875, had proven that the Rocky Mountains were not a barrier.
By the 1880s, better trails were being developed through the mountains, particularly the Crowsnest Pass, which opened in the east to the primary ranching area. During the 1880s there was a huge influx of B.C. horses and horsemen to Alberta.
In 1882, Oscar Rush, who worked for Johnny Wilson of the JW Ranch in Grande Prairie (now Westwold), drove 150 horses through the Okanagan Valley.
The herd was then crossed into the United States at Osoyoos and given a temporary permit to cross U.S. territory on the way east.
Normally a special envoy accompanied the herd through the U.S. at a cost to the drovers of four dollars a day plus expenses to ensure that the horses were not sold in the U.S. without customs duty being charged.
Rush and his cowboys drove the herd down the Okanagon River (as it was spelled in the U.S.) to Omak Lake and then across the Colville Indian Reservation.
The herd was swum across the Columbia River and then via Spokane Falls to cross back into Canada at Bonners Ferry.
From there they travelled through the Crowsnest Pass to Fort Macleod, where they were broken.
When Rush heard that the Oxley Ranch was looking for horses, he drove them to the Garnett brothers’ ranch near Pincher Creek where he held them for inspection.
John Craig, manager of the Oxley Ranch, was impressed and bought 116 of them. Craig later noted:
“The first purchase of stock for the Oxley Ranch was a band of 116 horses from a Mr. Rush, who had brought them in from British Columbia and was holding them at Garnett’s ranch. They were a very good sort, and cost $70 per head.”
The ranchers in the area were impressed with the quality of the horses.
One wrote, “These B.C. horses, as they were locally called, were derived from Morgan and thoroughbred crosses on Spanish foundation stock. Exceptionally active, good looking mounts, they were big and tough as rawhide.”
This reputation was to make B.C. horses particularly valued in the next few years and would allow the ranchers of B.C. to sell off a large portion of their excess horses in southern Alberta.
Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch.