RANCH TALES: Wild Horse is a true legend

Edward Johnson was one of the last old-time horse breakers in B.C. and Alberta

One of the cowboys who drove the JW horses with Oscar Rush through the Crowsnest Pass in 1882 was a young man in his early 20s named Edward Johnson.

He had been born in Hampshire, England, and left home at the age of 14 to work for the largest horse-breaking and sales stable in the south of England.

After a couple of years there, he worked as a deckhand on the full-rigged sailing ship Selvedere and arrived in Valparaíso, Chile, where he secured a job breaking horses for the Chilean army. After that, he took a boat north to Victoria, B.C. and travelled to the Interior.

He soon got a job breaking horses for a ranch in the Ashcroft area before getting a job with the JW Ranch in Grande Prairie (now Westwold) in 1881. Johnson’s extensive experience in breaking wild horses inspired someone to give him the nickname Wild Horse.

After driving the JW horses to Alberta, Johnson decided to move to Alberta in 1887.

At that time, there was still a demand for quality horses and Wild Horse and his friend Charles Berry contracted with J. Dean, of the Herd Ranch on the Elbow River, to go back to B.C. and capture 500 wild horses and ship them to Calgary.

By then, the Canadian Pacific Railway had been completed and made livestock shipping a simple matter compared with the pre-railway days. But catching wild horses was not a job for the faint of heart.

Johnson and Berry travelled to the Big Bar Creek area along the Fraser River where there was an abundance of wild horses on the open ranges. The two men arrived on the range in the early spring when the wild horses were at their weakest, having scratched through the snow all winter for feed.

In the spring, while there was still snow on the ground, a big, healthy, grain-fed horse could outrun the wild horses. Johnson and Berry built a stout corral.

Then they located a band of wild horses and drove them for miles until they could be funnelled into the corral. It took nerve and a fine horse to drive a bunch of wild horses through the brush and timber, and bruises and scrapes were guaranteed.

Once the horses were in the corral, came the job of breaking the horses.

Slowly but surely, the wild horses were “green broke” so that they could be trained into tough, hardy saddle horses but their wild horse instincts remained.

They were carefully herded into Ashcroft where they were loaded into stock cars bound for Calgary. Johnson and Berry returned with the horses and delivered them to the Herd Ranch.

The two men then headed back to Calgary to spend some of their hard-earned money and where Johnson met Mandella Midthrone, who he married in the fall of 1888. That winter, the newlyweds travelled to B.C., where Wild Horse drove a B.C. Express stagecoach on the Cariboo road.

The Johnsons returned to Alberta in the spring of 1888, and Wild Horse worked for the Oxley Ranch through the summer and during fall round-up.

In 1903, he moved to Midnapore, Alta. where he built the Dominion Hotel which he ran for a few years. But his first love was horses.

So, in 1913, Johnson leased a small place west of Okotoks where he could raise his family and indulge in his favourite activity, raising and breaking horses.

He and his two sons, Sam and Bill, who were also cowboys, helped to organize the first rodeo in Black Diamond in 1915.

Wild Horse later moved back to Midnapore where he finished off his days. He died in 1949 at the age of 91, one of the last old-time horse breakers.

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


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