With 109 years of farming, ranching, developing horses and making the Canadian prairies home, history runs deep at the family-run Rocking Heart Ranch (RHR), located near Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta.
But, says Marc Garner of his family’s legacy, “Quite frankly, it isn’t unique.” And, while that may be true when compared with other long-standing Western Canadian clans, the difference may be found in the RHR’s straightforward motto: “Where foundation and reputation matter.” It not only reflects the Garners’ deep roots, but also how their ties to tradition guide their current breeding and training operation, both practically and philosophically.
Marc, 44, has made it his mission to document the family’s past. And one of the most significant threads running through the genealogy is how horses have impacted on the past and present members of the family.
Marc’s great-grandfather, Joshua, emigrated to Red Pheasant, Saskatchewan from Nottingham, England in 1905 at the age of 20 with his wife Isabel. He came to help his sister Jessie whose husband died when he fell down a water well. They built a sod shack, began farming and started a family.
As was the case at every farm at the turn of the century, the family’s horses were multi-taskers, used for working the fields, herding cattle and even providing a welcome lift to school and back for their children Bill and Jesse.
“We didn’t have purebred Quarter Horses then, obviously. They were all Mustang, Mustang-Quarter Horse crosses, a lot of draft horses for the heavier jobs. And most were purchased from nearby First Nations reservations,” said Marc.
The farm was sold in 1932 after Joshua and Isabel split up. At the time, Marc’s grandfather, Bill, who was old enough to move out on his own, went to a small town about 25 kilometres west of Red Pheasant called Wilkie, taking some of the horses with him.
To earn extra money, Bill trained draft horses to deliver rural mail. Showing the family’s inclination toward invention, which endures today, he fashioned a homemade sleigh complete with stove for warmth and a bench for comfort. To travel the bumpy spring roads, he used a Model T Ford axel and built a cart that could withstand some of the jolts.
Of the several horses he used over the years, Bill’s favourites were his blue roans, Buster and Babe. Marc says these two draft horses in particular are the models behind the Garners’ founding principle: producing horses the whole family can use.
In addition to delivering mail, Bill also ran a garage in Wilkie with his wife Lillian. But, after about three or four years, he decided to begin farming again and bought property outside Wilkie. He took his horses with him and purchased more Mustangs, Appaloosas and equipment from local reserves.
Around 1950, Bill suffered two heart attacks and was in the hospital for about a year. His son, Jim, dropped out of school at the age of 15 to help operate the garage and farm. Eventually, Jim ran the farm exclusively. ‘My dad developed a love for horses back then and was an amazing cowboy all the way into the 1970s,’ said Marc.
Rocking Heart Ranch was established after Jim married Angel, a nurse from Valleyfield, Quebec in 1967. They produced Aberdeen Black Angus cattle and then Texas Longhorns. In 1982, during a vacation in Fort McLeod, Jim and Angel fell in love with Alberta. They bought and moved their family of five to a piece of property bordering what Marc calls ‘the most beautiful place in on earth,’ the Waterton Lakes National Park. Here the family continued raising cattle.
“We all had a love for horses and it spread out from there,” said Marc, who along with his younger siblings, Brad and Melody, spent much of their lives on horseback – first honing their riding skills on a tiny black Shetland pony, and graduating – like their predecessors – to horses that were mainly Quarter Horse-Mustang crosses. That is, until Jim and Angel bought their first purebred Quarter Horse, Smokes Holiday, the top-seller at the 1984 Canadian Western Agribition in Regina.
The Past Meets the Present
“I remember even as a boy hearing the names of Joe Hancock and King, Grey Badger, some of those old, old foundation bloodlines that we, to this day, carry in our herd. And we still feel that those bloodlines got us through a whole bunch of tough times and they were dependable, they were versatile. The whole family could use them. That’s why we feel so strongly about keeping those bloodlines like we have them today,” said Marc.
Although today’s RHR horses are bred with more refinement, ‘their attitude, their disposition is the same. We haven’t altered any of the characteristics of the horse herd since 1905. Those characteristics stuck with us,’ he said.
The ranch’s foundation program produces the RHR specialty, “family-friendly horses” that harken back to the type of animal that carried his grandfather to school in 1922, but are also able to work in the fields. “They’re versatile, they’re dependable. You can put your kids, even your grandparents on them. And they do everything,” said Marc.
RHR also has a smaller performance line of horses produced for barrel racing, cutting and other western performance sports. This line mainly stems from Silver Gun, the 2005 AQHA world champion heeling horse, sire to Guns n Pep, an RHR-bred stallion who Marc had to put down last spring due to a leg injury.
The number of horses on the ranch stays between 55 and 75 to keep the operation on the manageable side and allowing it to continue being family run, explained Marc.
And RHR is definitely a family affair. Jim, who is 70, and 68-year-old Angel still live at the ranch. They take care of day-to-day feeding and maintenance when their children aren’t on hand. Melody is the ranch’s marketing professional and Marc himself handles the operational side of things. Spouses and children are also involved. ‘We’re all kind of a big team. We all love the horse thing. We all work hard,’ he said.
This summer everyone will come together for the ranch’s 60-day Colt Starting Challenge and Sale on August 16th in Taber, Alberta. This is the second year for the unique event, which gives 10 young trainers 60 days to train a two-year-old colt before being judged on various riding and groundwork skills. One of the core concepts of the challenge, said Marc, is to educate horse people and the general public alike about what horses can do when they are properly trained. It’s also intended to showcase the talent of the up-and-coming Canadian trainers and to get kids excited about horses, agriculture and ranch way of life.
While the Garners hoped 50 to 100 people would attend the inaugural challenge in 2013, more than 300 people came through the doors. “It went well beyond what we ever could have possibly hoped for and it is for that reason that we’re doing it again this year. It’s not so much focused on Rocking Heart Ranch, but on the industry, which quite frankly, needs our help. Not just our help, but many operations coming together,” said Marc.
“We don’t just feature our own horses, we have horses from other reputable, responsible breeders in Western Canada who are also a part of this and it would appear that people find value in this and so we’re going to continue to do it.”
As a testament to their commitment to carrying forth RHR traditions, the family convenes for monthly transition meetings. “We’re not afraid to talk about the folks dying and what needs to happen with 109 years of history,” said Marc. “As generations take over, it’s important to make sure that the work of those previous generations, their blood, sweat and tears, isn’t for nothing. It’s important that our kids understand where they came from, what it took to get here and, more importantly, what it’s going to take in the future to maintain it,” said Marc.
If the future RHR leaders are anything like Marc, the business will be in good hands. A master electrician, he also works at Lethbridge College as an instructor in the trade. His ‘time off’ in summer allows Marc to focus on starting and training RHR horses out of his own 10-acre farm just outside the city.
“I love what I do,” he enthused. “I’m kind of living a dream life in many ways and I thank the good Lord for that every day.”