RANCH TALES: Taming the wild

During early 20th century, cowboys tame wild horses to meet increasing demand

During the early years of the 20th century, B.C. experienced a tremendous population growth and newcomers to the province moved into all the areas that could possibly be used for farming.

The increasing number of farms and ranches sparked a demand for horses and prices reflected the growing value for good stock. For many of the young cowboys, the wild horses found in the remote areas of the interior looked like easy money to be made during slack time at the ranches. The horses were considered fair game and, as long as they did not carry anyone’s brand, they were “slick ears,” a name more properly referring to calves with no earmark or brand.

However, it was not a task for an amateur. Catching wild horses in the rough backcountry required a sure-footed saddle horse, knowledge of the terrain and a combination of determination and luck.

The South Okanagan was home to large bands of wild horses. As early as 1833, David Douglas had referred to the “River of Wild Horses” in the South Okanagan.

He probably meant the Marron River as the term “marron” comes from the French meaning “feral or wild.” Wild horses roamed the area from Marron Lake past Aeneas Lake on both sides of the valley. The country provided excellent bunchgrass range as well as watering holes and salt licks for them. Many of them were fine horses, descended from stock that had escaped from immigrants or local ranches.

Further south, at Kruger Mountain, there were hundreds of wild horses in the years before the First World War.

At Tule Lake on Kruger Mountain, there was a huge corral, built from good-sized logs with wings extending half a mile in each direction to funnel the horses into the corral. Springtime, just after the snow had melted, was the accepted time for wild horse round-ups before the tough little animals recovered their strength after pawing through snow for their feed all winter.

Mounted on sure-footed cow ponies that had been well fed all winter, the cowboys tried to run the wild horses into the large log corral.

Wild horses also abounded east of the Okanagan Valley along the Dewdney Trail in the Kettle Valley. The McMynn family ranched in the Midway area and frequently hunted wild horses. One particular band was led by an escaped stallion that, unlike the small, stocky wild horses, stood 16 hands high and weighed about 1,200 pounds.

Every attempt to corral this magnificent stallion had failed. Each summer, Billy and Jim McMynn organized a horse hunt and, on one occasion, managed to corral the stallion, whose vision was so obscured by dust that he did not see the corral. He was trapped along with about 200 head of wild horses. The McMynns offered 20 head of horses to anyone who could break the stallion so Arthur Kean and his brother, Albert, thought they would give it a try.

They drove him into a small corral. There they roped his forefeet and tumbled him to tie him down then saddle him. Arthur Kean mounted him and went for the ride of his life.

The stallion bucked and reared and turned his head to try and bite Kean’s feet, but he stayed on, with his brother herding the horse to keep him from hitting the corral fence. That first ride lasted about an hour and a half before the exhausted horse and rider called it quits.

Several months later the stallion was fully broken and turned out to be a superb saddle horse.

Ken Mather is curator emeritus at O’Keefe Ranch and a Spallumcheen-based author.