People & Culture

The cowboy exclaims: The ballad of an ageing vaquero and his troubled horse, Bunny

The ultimate goal of vaquero horsemanship is to produce a “finished” horse: an exceptionally responsive animal that is a true partner to its rider

Cowboy Doug Walsh trains his horse, Bunny, on his ranch in Alberta’s foothills. Walsh’s horsemanship style is heavily influenced by the centuries-old vaquero training method.
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When I arrived at his Millarville ranch, Doug Walsh was digging trenches with a tractor in the soft sod along his property line. It was June 2020, and Walsh planned to plant a few rows of windbreak trees, along with some chokecherry and Saskatoon bushes for the local birds. The morning was hot, even for spring in the Alberta foothills, but Walsh kept the sleeves of his plaid shirt buttoned. He wore blue jeans and a battered cowboy hat. Walsh looked lean and spry. Only the slightest stoop in his back betrayed his 70 years.

I’d come to Walsh’s property because I wanted to learn about vaquero horsemanship, and Walsh is one of the few practitioners in Canada. But mostly I wanted to meet Walsh himself. And I wanted to meet Bunny, his horse.

Vaquero horsemanship originated in medieval Spain. Vaqueros from Mexico brought the tradition into California and Texas at the end of the 16th century. The word vaquero is a Spanish transliteration of “cow” — or vaca — and “man.” (In Spanish, then, cowboys are actually cowmen.) For  centuries, the vaqueros have been admired for their riding and roping skills. The ultimate goal of vaquero horsemanship is to produce a “finished” horse: an exceptionally responsive animal that is a true partner to its rider. Finishing a horse can take years.

According to Walsh, the vaquero tradition might have disappeared in North America were it not for the efforts of famed Oregon horse trainer Tom Dorrance. “He just rejuvenated the whole thing,” Walsh told me. Walsh first met Dorrance at a clinic hosted by the Willow Springs Ranch west of Nanton, Alta. Walsh was in his 30s at the time. Dorrance was 83 and a legend. “I thought I knew a little bit about horses, and I did. But, man, when I saw what that guy could do with a horse,” Walsh said. The soft feel Dorrance demonstrated with his horse seemed like something spiritual to Walsh, something much deeper than simply training an animal to be a mode of transportation. “Whatever it was that Tom was doing, I knew that I needed that. I spent the rest of my life trying to get it.”

Walsh introduces Bunny to groundwork exercises on his ranch.
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I followed Walsh from his property line to where Bunny, a black and beautiful quarter-horse, nibbled on pasture grass. Walsh placed a blue halter over Bunny’s head and led her into a round pen built of hand-hewn logs. Walsh didn’t mount Bunny, but stood in the centre of the pen holding the end of the lead loosely in his fingers.

Then Walsh led Bunny through a series of exercises in the ring. A vaquero-trained horse will react to nearly imperceptible cues. Walsh never tugged on the rope at all. His movements were so subtle I almost missed them entirely. But Bunny didn’t. A slight lift of Walsh’s arms set Bunny off on a trot. A light swing of the rope and Bunny changed direction. Walsh made a tiny lateral step and Bunny stopped altogether. I marvelled at how she so deftly responded to the smallest of signals. There was something almost magical happening. A human-equine telepathy.

Then Walsh and Bunny did something I won’t forget. “Marcello’s over there,” I heard Walsh whisper to Bunny. “He’s a pretty good guy. You’re a pretty good horse. I’d like you to go and say hello to him.” With another gentle sway of the rope, Bunny turned to face me. She stepped slowly forward until her face was a few inches from mine. Then she put her nose over my shoulder. I felt my breath catch, amazed, and as I stroked Bunny’s forehead, I could feel Walsh smiling at us. 

Walsh, shown changing a record at his ranch, finds peace in music, literature, poetry and leatherwork.
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Walsh was nine years old when he decided to be a cowboy. It was the winter of 1959, and he had just come home from the outdoor rink in Calgary’s Elbow Park where he’d played “50 million games of shinny. No breaks.” After taking a hot shower, Walsh sat down in front of his father’s stereo system and laid “Cool Water” by the western group The Sons of the Pioneers on the turntable. “Then I flopped down on the couch. I listened to those old songs and said, ‘I gotta have that.’”

Walsh did not come from cowboys. His birth mother was the privileged daughter of a Montreal steel magnate, and his father a bohemian artist who bartended for beatniks in San Francisco during the late 1940s. Neither was parent material, at least not in 1950 when Walsh was born. His adoptive parents weren’t horsepeople either, though Walsh’s father did work as the team physician for the Calgary Stampeders football team.

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After completing high school in the city, Walsh enrolled in a geology program at the University of Calgary. He worked on the big oil rigs in Alberta’s foothills for a few years and mined coal near Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. But his cowboy dreams never left him. “When I was working in the mines and on the rigs and roughnecking and everything, I was hoarding every penny I could get my hands on,” Walsh said. “And I didn’t waste a penny. I didn’t go drinking and I didn’t go gambling and I didn’t make trips to Hawaii.” By the time he was 27, Walsh had saved enough to pay cash for a quarter section north of Waterton, Alta., with the intention of starting a horse ranch. He bought his first horse, a paint mare, two years later.

Walsh didn’t get down to Waterton as much as he’d hoped, though. “It is too far away,” Walsh said. “So I started looking around for another piece of land.” In 1982, he bought the 16 hectares he has now in Millarville, Alta. He built a log cabin by hand on the property with plans to bring it down to Waterton, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The cabin now houses Walsh’s hand-hewn longbows and arrows, and his impressive collection of Scotch whisky. About 50 bottles, most with only an inch or so of whisky remaining, line the cabin’s shelves.

Walsh eventually married “a great gal,” but they’ve since divorced. They had a daughter, Montana, who’s 27 and lives in the village of Hussar, about an hour and a half east of Millarville. Now Walsh lives alone.

I called Montana and asked if she thought her father was lonely. “I honestly don’t,” she told me after a pause. “I think he enjoys the life of solitude. That’s why he’s out there in the first place.”

I didn’t understand why Walsh persevered with a horse as difficult as Bunny. He had other horses, after all.

Walsh doesn’t know how or when Bunny lost half her tongue, but he has a theory. When she was a two-year-old colt, and before she belonged to Walsh, someone probably rode Bunny with a snaffle bit. Then something spooked her. “She is so sensitive,” Walsh said. Bunny likely threw her rider, ran off, stepped on the reins and pulled back. This would have sliced her tongue. “I betcha anything that’s what happened.”

After Walsh bought Bunny, he “cowboyed off her pretty hard” for a couple of years, working her in rough country and in the pens. She proved to be a reliable horse and never threw anyone. Something, though, wasn’t right. The emotional damage caused by her mysterious injury lingered. “I could feel trouble,” Walsh said. “I always felt there was something there.”

Then, three years ago, Montana visited the ranch and decided to take Bunny for a ride. “I was alone ’cause my dad was at the lake,” she said. Knowing Bunny was “a bit of a spooky horse,” Montana called one of Walsh’s neighbours to ride with her in case something went wrong. Something did; Bunny bucked Montana off within two minutes.

Montana wasn’t hurt, but Bunny came undone. That one incident surfaced all of Bunny’s buried trauma. The next time Walsh put a halter on her, Bunny bolted. “We were going from here to Texas nonstop. She totally lost her mind,” Walsh said. “So, Montana did me a favour. I didn’t realize what a dangerous horse I was riding.”

Walsh teaches Bunny to move in sync with him.
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Walsh decided he needed to start over with Bunny. He started training her as if she were a colt who’d never been ridden before, not an adult mare he’d been riding for two summers already. “If a horse has had one bad experience, it might take you 20 good experiences to undo that one bad one. Or it might take you 2,000. I don’t care. I got to get there,” Walsh said. “I am trying to get all that baggage out of the old noggin.”

But Bunny is a gifted horse. “She’ll track. She’ll side pass and roll back,” Walsh told me, assuming I understood his horseman’s lexicon. “Her leads are perfect. She’ll transition nice.” However, Bunny doesn’t do well outside the familiar confines of the pasture. Walsh can sense her fear. “You can see it in her head position. Her tongue. She’s looking for something to jump at and spook at.” When her natural sense of self-preservation kicks in, Bunny panics. And a panicked horse is dangerous.

Tom Dorrance taught Walsh that to effectively train a horse in the vaquero tradition, a cowboy must break all the horse’s problems into pieces and work on them one at a time. One of Bunny’s primary issues is that she’s “troubled under the chin.” Sensing anything unfamiliar in the space below her head causes her stress.

Walsh showed me how he is trying to solve this problem. He laid a plastic feed bag on the ground beneath Bunny’s head and gently coaxed her to step on it. Bunny resisted. The colour of the bag and the sound of the plastic under her hooves made her anxious. Eventually, though, she took a few tentative steps onto the bag. After a few tries, Walsh decided she’d had enough. “That’s the secret,” he said. “Don’t ask for too much. Get out when things are good.” Walsh worked with Bunny for 100 straight days before she stepped on the bag the first time. Patience is key in the vaquero tradition. “The vaqueros have a saying,” Walsh told me. “‘For the horse, there is always tomorrow.’”

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Walsh and Bunny work cattle at a friend’s ranch in Foothills County, Alta. Bunny’s confidence is fragile and one wrong move can throw out several weeks of careful training.
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I returned to Millarville a couple of days later to watch the beginning of an annual cattle drive.

Three hundred head from nearby ranches, ears tagged, waited in pens to be driven to the mountain grazing lands where they would spend summer and fall. The bulls, whose low rumbling resembled the distant thunder we expected that morning, got to ride in trailers while the 250 cows would be escorted down Highway 762 by Walsh, Bunny and a gathering of local cowboys and cowgirls.

Earlier that morning, I helped Walsh load Bunny onto her trailer — which is to say I held the trailer gate open while Walsh led her inside. Then I watched him unload Bunny in front of the cattle pens. Families from nearby ranches arrived. Their dogs dashed about while the cowboys passed around cartons of Tim Hortons doughnuts and morning cream sodas. The penned cows moaned their complaints. Bunny snorted, unsettled by the clamour, and Walsh looked worried. She’d thrown him during last year’s drive, and Walsh hoped she’d be calmer this year — bolstered by all the work he’d done with her the past several months.

Late in the drive, though, Bunny threw Walsh again. He’s not sure what spooked her. Walsh wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t angry. He was heartbroken. “It’s just the fact that she didn’t feel good enough about me to get her through that, whatever it was that troubled her there,” Walsh told me later. He likened the feeling to giving a troubled friend advice that they decide to ignore. “They just go on and do something completely different. That’s what it felt like,” Walsh said. “You feel abandoned by the horse and disappointed. You’re just doing everything you can to help them out, and they throw anyway.”

Regardless of the setback, Walsh believes he can finish Bunny. And he won’t stop working with her. “A lot of people would probably normally give up or ask for help,” Montana told me. “I think it’s a good representation of his character. He hasn’t given up on Bunny.” Still, she worries about her father sometimes. “He’s not really a spring chicken anymore,” she said. “It’s not that great for a 70-year-old man to get bucked off a horse like that.”

Walsh's horses silhouetted in the early morning light inside the arena at his ranch.
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I felt I was missing something. I didn’t understand why Walsh persevered with a horse as difficult as Bunny. He had other horses, after all. Walsh told me he didn’t know Bunny’s challenges when he bought her, but once he started working with her, he was determined to carry on. “I’m not gonna let this go,” he said.

But there was something else, too. Bunny is a special horse. “You should see her run,” Walsh said. “It’s like her feet aren’t even touching the ground. She is so elegant and free, and her mechanics are perfect. It is a sight to behold. I’ve written poems about her. Maybe I should show them to you.”

Three weeks later, a manila envelope full of handwritten poems arrived in my mailbox. Walsh doesn’t have a computer or internet connection at his home, so he couldn’t email me. “I’m gonna need those back when you’re done,” he told me on the phone. “I want to show them to my mother.” Some of the poems were in French, which he studied in grade school, and Spanish, which he learned during the year he spent drilling wells in Patagonia. “I dabble in both languages,” he said. “I try to keep it going.”

Among the pages, I found an ode to Bunny called “The Cowboy Exclaims.” And in it I found the heart of the connection between an aging cowboy and his troubled horse. After describing her gait as “an actual piece of the sky,” Walsh wrote:

N’ ever’ time I see it,
After I’m thru,
    Bein’ choked to the point of tears,
I start to get Greedy
    N’ I Hunger, for just a piece…
…Gawd, I need a piece of that,
    to fill up my last few years.
I don’t need to possess it — contain it.
    Don’t want to ever own it outright.
But dang.
If it could just be a piece.
    coerce it
        seduce it
            be one with it
— embrace it
    — with every bit of my might
Then maybe she would make me
somethin’
    Somethin’
        I’d completely like
Then maybe,
    just maybe, I too,
(Cuza’ her; n’ with her)
Could be somethin’
    Somethin’ that is …
        …JUST RIGHT

This story is from the March/April 2022 Issue

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