Chasing wild horses: a Cariboo adventure

Esther Darlington MacDonald recounts the early days of rounding up wild horses.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

They thundered over the hills and dales of our Cariboo country in herds of two dozen or more, a stud horse with a harem of mares, the sound of their coming, quickening the senses, and the response, involuntary, irresistible.

“Chasing horses” was a major entertainment for range land families from Hat Creek to far into the Chilcotin. Maybe, it still is.

Few have described the adventure of the chase more vividly than the late Helen Kerr of Clinton whom I interviewed in her cottage acreage in the early 1980s.

“Some of these horses were descendents of the freight wagon teams and saddle horses of the horse drawn transportation era. They were heavy boned, with hairy legs. We used them for ranch work, haying, pulling wagons. But we also used them as pack horses and saddle horses. We used them for just about everything.”

Helen told me that in the early days the Indians did a lot of packing. That is, used the broken wild ones as packing horses. They’d move from hunting to fishing areas on horseback. You could pack a lot on those big heavy animals weighing 850 pounds or more. The usual feed for horses was wild hay or swamp grass. After the winter snows had melted and by early summer, the horse teams and the mower were used in the cutting. The hay was hand stuked in the early days, and the method had gone by way of the horse and buggy, by the 40’s, Helen recalls, but Mary and Ron Curnow of Spences Bridge still hand stuked their corn in early fall. I remember that field beside the Nicola River, golden in the sunlight, a sight to behold. And I remember the stukes in the field. The Curnow corns was the tastiest in the area. People came from miles around to buy it.

Helen says the Indians hayed the wild meadows for the ranchers. The older Indians had their own teams and would contract with the ranchers, and the Indians often sold the hay to dude ranches as well.

Helen describes the method of capturing wild horses. It is not a tale that conjures up romantic images, by any means. The methods were as violent as a Roman chariot race and once captured, the horses were not spared. No “Horse whisperer” methods were employed. The breaking of these wild ones was brutal.

“A group goes to an area with their axes and they build a jackpine corral. The corral was located in a well treed area, along a trail or some place between the meadows, or where the horses crossed a creek, or near the edge of a meadow. Two corrals about 40 feet in length would be built, with a short 10 foot entry into the corrals. “Wings” were made with a variety of materials, including cheese cloth, or lodge poles.”

“The cowboys who lead the chase after these wild ones had to be damned good riders, because they had to ride through timber.  As any greenhorn rider knows who has ever ridden a horse in the woods, a horse can heartily resent someone who doesn’t know exactly what they are doing, and it will try to rub the rider off, or better still, run them into an overhanging branch that knocks the rider right off the horse.”

Now you have to have a good deal of saintly patience to look for wild horse herds to chase down. But once spotted, one rider would go halfway down the wing and wait. The herd might be as far away as five or six miles. The other riders rounded the horses up, and drove them into the wings.

Some of these hide and seek horse chasing episodes might turn up empty.  But the thrill of the search was worth the time and the energy. And actually spotting a herd and directing some of them into the corrals was the proverbial cherry on the sundae.

According to Helen, mid summer was the best time to chase wild horses. Some years  back, probably in the Dirty 30’s, when cash was hard enough to come by, some ranchers convinced the government that the wild horse herds were destroying the range land. So the government set a bounty on wild horses. Literally thousands of horses were killed as indiscriminately as the buffalo had been years before.  Chasers got $2 a head for mares and geldings, and $2.50 for stud. Wild horses were also chased to be sold to meat plants for half a penny a pound, and since most of the horses were heavy fleshed, this could provide a fair bit of change.

Helen said a group chasing wild horses might be gone for two weeks or more. It took a week or so to build the corrals and the wings, and another week would be spent searching for the herds and chasing them down. She admits the methods used were violent. It was he method and the attitude of the time. She said some of the horses were roped by their front feet and pulled down.

“It took two men to pull down a horse.”

The whole exercise was anything but romantic. It was a wild violent exercise that tested not only the riders but those herds that had roamed free on our range land for generations. There was little pity for the horses. Any method to catch them was used without restraint.

Some of the horses captured were familiar. Runaways from ranches having a brand on them.

Maybe they are still chasing wild horses in the Cariboo and other remote areas of the country. But maybe, the desperate need for a few dollars, and the heady excitement of the chase has long since petered away. Let’s hope so.