Balky Horse Stories

This is Story # 8 in our Harry Forbes Remembers series.

After my parents purchased the Dick Plain Place, our land increased from five quarter sections to 15 quarter sections, or three and 3/4 sections. We mixed farmed with deeded, leased and rented land and were raising cattle along with the grain farming.

We also had 20 head of horses and I became the horse wrangler. I had to rise at 4:30 AM, saddle my pony and head out to gather the horses while Dad and Palmer Groble, or our other hired man, milked eight cows and put in feed for the horses. When the horses entered the barns, they all knew and went to their own stalls. Now, along with the men, I helped harness the horses.

One time our neighbour’s billy goat got into our barns and left a smell. That morning the horses went into the barns, caught the smell of the goat and came tearing out again. A couple of them ran a mile away and I had to bring them back. We had a hard time trying to get them back into the barn.

Six horses came along with one farm that Dad rented. The older mare was the mother of the other five. She was a natural balker; two of her gelding foals were also inclined to be that way. If you hooked the older mare up to an empty buggy, she might start off, but all you had to do was get behind the buggy, grab hold of it pulling backwards, then she would stop and balk. I later drove her in a six-horse outfit on a gang plow. For the first half mile in the morning she would almost sit back on the plow. The next half mile, coming back, she would step up a bit still barely pulling. The second round she’d start pulling a bit to start pulling her share. She would then be good for the remainder of the day.

With one of the balky geldings and a sister mare that was okay, I was supposed to take a load to Maple Creek. I would get a short way from home almost to the top of a little hill when the gelding would stop and balk. I would back down the hill, make a circle around, come back, and the gelding would balk again. I don’t know how many times I did that before I finally got over the hill and got going.

Another time I was taking a load of grain to Bill Carrol, 4 1/2 miles away. I had Queen, one of those same horses who sometimes balked, and a good horse with her. About 3 1/2 miles from home we had to climb a fairly long hill. When I would get near the top, Queen would stop and go no further. Each time I would back them down the hill and try again; the same thing happened. There were burrs, or large nuts on the ends of the wagon axles to hold the wheels on. All that backing up made them start to come undone and I would have to screw the burrs back on. After a number times, I finally got the team over the hill and was on my way.

During the ’30’s, I worked for different people including two Scotchmen, Mike McLean and George Sutherland, when they needed help. Later I was mostly at the Dixon Brothers’ Ranch where they raised 250 head of Hereford cows and 250 horses.

We would break 50 horses each winter, mostly teams for the farmers. Even though we thought they were well broke, some of them, both saddle and teams would come back badly spoiled because the owners were afraid of horses, or the animals just would not work for them.

We didn’t know what the problem was with one that came back. The boss, Reg Miller, was away. Vick Oddan and I hitched that horse and another one to a wagon. When we started out, he took one big jump, lay down and wouldn’t get up. We got ropes, tied his feet all together so he couldn’t get up, and put the other horse back in the barn. The time would have been about 11 o’clock. We went in, made dinner, ate leisurely, took our time and then returned to the horse at 2:00 o’clock. We untied him and he stood up and the other horse was brought from the barn. They were hitched to the wagon and they were fine. That horse never bothered again. I guess he didn’t like being tied down. This was just one of the horses that was brought back.

Sometimes there was nothing wrong with the horse. If the horse jumped, the man would jump harder making the horse jump worse, so the men were afraid of them. A little bay saddle horse came back. She was a real man-eater and would kick, strike, bite or whatever she could do.

 Another one, a grey, just liked to buck. I was riding the grey mare to the Dixon draw camp seven miles from home, trying to corral some horses. We were riding through a bunch of large rocks when she ducked her head and her ear bridle came off. I wasn’t anxious to get bucked off on one of those rocks with no bridle, so as soon as I saw a clear place, I piled off and let her go. Vick happened to be coming home from the Sand Hills camp; he roped her for me, saving me a seven-mile walk home.

The boss was heavy on the ear bridles and I hated them. As soon as you pulled up hard on the reins, the bridle would get slack and pop off that one ear.

After the ranch sold, I still worked there. I got the bay mare to re-break to ride. For awhile, until she got to trust me, I used a double breeching on her, which is a sort of block and tackle deal. With the two breechings you could pull their four legs together so they couldn’t even move, only bite you. After two weeks she was okay to ride and wouldn’t bite or kick me. It made one wonder what some people did to those horses.

One team horse, that had been spoiled, would bite, strike, kick or do anything to defend himself. The boss always roped and choked him down to catch him. The horse just hated the boss; he chased him out of the barn once before we were able to tie him up. That horse was sold at the sale, too. Vick and I got along alright with him but we used a more friendly horse-breaking approach, not the heart-breaking, choke-’em-down method that made them hate you.

Dixon Brothers Ranch was twelve miles north and three miles west of Maple Creek. In the winter of 1939/40 I bought four horses from them for $50.00 each. That fall they sold their ranch to the PFRA and had a sale, selling all their horses. A spoiled saddle horse that was a real bucker went to Walsh, Alberta. I would have liked to see the ride the first guy got who rode her.

In 1936, I went to Carmichael and Gull Lake to find a job threshing as there was a fair crop there. Of course, the last man hired got the poorest equipment. I got a little grey and brown team, about 1230 pounds, no breechings nor martingales for holding back. When I got to the field, my bundle rack was loaded. I hitched up the team, climbed up on the load and noticed all the guys around the engine watching me. When I picked up the lines and spoke to the team, they gave a little pull, and then stopped. I tried them again; the same thing happened. I tied up the lines, took the fork, unloaded 2/3 or 3/4 of the load, picked up the lines, spoke to the team and we went to the machine. I unloaded what I had into the machine, went back, loaded up what I had thrown off, and unloaded that into the machine. After that they hauled and pulled just as big a load as anyone else and I had no more trouble.

Those three guys watching the team were probably waiting to see if I was going to beat the team. I suppose I disappointed them. My dad had told me to never beat a balky horse; it just makes them worse the next time. You have to do something to get their mind on something else or be patient until they finally give up.

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