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What Would Will James Do? | Starting Colts In The Highwood Valley

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

The other day, I was digging through my book collection and came across a copy of "Ride for the High Points - The Real Story of Will James.” This was a book that I acquired a long time ago, and I had almost forgotten that I had it. I have shelves and shelves filled with books, and it’s easy to forget what is and isn’t in them.


Jim Bramlett wrote the book, and the forward is by Dick Spencer, the publisher of the Western Horseman magazine at the time. It’s an excellent read and gives a wonderful account of the life of the famous cowboy author and artist "Will James."


Why I bring this book up, besides it being a great recommendation for those that love the western lifestyle and rodeo, is because leafing through its pages took me back to one special summer when I got to live the authentic cowboyin’ way of life. That summer is one that I spent up the Highwood Valley many, many years ago.



In the book, Jim Bramlett shares the lyrics to an Ian Tyson song, “Will James.” In the last verse of the song, Ian Tyson sings,

“I remember up on Deadman’s Creek

Back twenty years or more.

I was hired on to break colts

Which I’d never done before

A city kid, I asked myself

Now “what would Will James do?"

And you know it was the damnedest thing

But it kind of got me through."


This song has always been one of my favourites of Ian Tyson’s and reminds me of the summer when Steve Hoar, a local cowboy artist and good friend of mine, used to have a colt starting contract with a polo horse outfit out of Dewinton, just south of Calgary.


Now, these folks played high-level polo both in the Calgary area in the summer and down in California and Florida in the winter. Every year they would have about a dozen three YO colts for us to start that they had raised in their own breeding program.


I ran into Steve at a neighbour's branding and we got to visiting about what I

was up to for the summer. I told him I had no solid plans at the time and asked what he had in mind. Steve asked if I would be interested in starting some colts for him and spending the summer with him putting miles on polo prospects. We’d be starting them and getting them ready to head south to California in the fall, where they would start their formal polo horse training.


Well, that sounded like the best offer a cowboy like me could have gotten and so while earnestly trying not to show my great excitement, I told him I was his man. Well, a deal was struck and we were to start the next week. Steve told me he would call and let me know what day we were to begin, and I waited excitedly to hear from him.


The following week Steve gave me a call and said to meet him at his corals early the next morning and we would get started on our summer of colt starting! When I arrived at Steve’s corrals, he had a couple of horses caught up that we were to use to gather up the “wild bunch.”


The colts had been turned out with some other saddle horses, as the outdoor arena had been too wet to get them going, so rather than forking them hay they had been turned out to graze in a big pasture that bordered the Highwood River. This pasture was expansive and filled with hills and trees. A real paradise for the colts.



Well, we struck out and made a big circle and discovered many places that the herd wasn’t and none of the places that they were. It wasn't until well after lunch, which we didn't stop for, that we finally found them hiding out in a little meadow down by the river. That made sense as it was getting plenty warm by then and they were hiding out in a nice spot where they could have a drink and feel a nice cool little breeze coming off of the water.


We got around them and pointed them in the direction of the trail that headed to the corrals. The saddle horses in the bunch knew the way to the corrals and since this sounded like being put to work were not keen on the plan. After a little brush popping and catching up the bunch-quitters, we got them pointed in the right direction and headed down the trail to the jingle pasture and corral system.


Once on the trail, they moved along pretty good as the Highwood River bordered the trail on one side and there were some steep hills on the other side. By the time we got to the corrals, it was getting later in the afternoon so we decided to just spill them into the jingle pasture, where they would be easy to gather the next day, and we put our saddle horses into the corrals.


I remember Steve's corrals well, I’d go as far as to call them a functional work of art. They were made up of big round pens about eight feet tall, crafted from big posts and heavy 16-foot pine rails. Joining this large pen was a smaller pen made of pine rails as well as a handmade pine-pole squeeze chute built into one side.


This pen opened up into a sorting pen that had a gate that joined it to the jingle pasture. I have been an admirer of good livestock handling set-ups, and these were as good as I have ever seen.


So, we forked our horses some hay and stored our gear in the tack shed, and made plans to meet back at the corrals the next morning and start the work on the youngsters.


More next week on what Will James would do…


-- KJS

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