RANCH TALES: B.C. horses were popular

Historian Ken Mather provides some insight into the early days of the Interior

When word got back to the B.C. Interior that there was a good market for horses in the North-West, others were prompted to get involved.

In the spring of 1883, William Roper Hull, who had come to B.C. from Somersetshire, England, in 1873 with his brother John, decided to try driving horses to the North-West.

The brothers purchased 1,200 head of horses, a number of them from the BX Ranch in the Okanagan Valley.

They drove them south along Okanagan Lake and through Washington Territory, then back across the Tobacco Plains and through the Crowsnest Pass to the Prairies.

When they arrived at Fort Macleod, the herd was greeted with enthusiasm.

Out of the herd, 300 horses were sold to Fred Stimson, of the North West Cattle Company that ran the Bar U Ranch southwest of Calgary.

While the horse drives seemed like a way to earn easy money, they weren’t always simple.

As straightforward as it may sound, driving horses is far from easy. Usually a large band of horses included mares in foal or with colts, making travel slow.

If mares foaled on the trail, they usually wanted to stay where they were and had to be urged along.

Occasionally, the entire herd would grow homesick and head for home, making night herding essential.

Cowboys had to ride around the herd at night and turn back horses if they headed back down the trail. The horses’ tendency to want to return to their home territory was accentuated when the herd had to swim across a river or on a rainy night, making the cowboy’s life miserable.

Most old-timers agreed that a herd of horses was much more likely than a herd of cattle to stampede.

The merest whiff of a cougar or whisper of an unfamiliar sound could send the herd into a mad panic and woe betide the cowboy who got in their way.

The influx of B.C. horses continued and, even after the railway was completed in 1885, there was a demand for B.C. horses and cattle in the North-West.

William and John Roper Hull, after driving horses into the North-West for several years, decided that they would set up a butchering and livestock-trading business in Calgary.

That spring, the first consignment of stock ever shipped into the North-West by rail from B.C. arrived in Calgary.

By the end of the year, they had brought in from B.C. 500 horses and 3,000 head of cattle.

That same year, Senator Matthew Cochrane travelled to Ashcroft, B.C., and met with Thaddeus Harper, who was looking to liquidate his assets to cover a growing debt load. Cochrane was interested in Harper’s horses, located on the Gang Ranch, with the intention of selling them to the British cavalry.

He ended up purchasing 500 of them and had them shipped to his newly incorporated British American Ranch Company.

The Gang Ranch horse herd, referred to as the Harper Band, was considered “one of the finest in the West.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the British cavalry did not purchase the horses, but the Bow River Horse Ranch, with the Harper Band as part of its foundation stock, operated successfully until after the First World War.

Interest in B.C. horses continued for some time.

But, in 1890, the Canadian Pacific Railway shipped 66 horses from Alberta to the B.C. market, indicating that the tide was beginning to turn.

However, for the better part of 10 years, the ranges of the B.C. Interior had provided horses and horsemen to the fledgling cattle industry in the North-West.

In the process, many of the horse-breaking techniques and much of the horse equipment of the west coast had been imported as well.

Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.