Richard Stoneman – Canadian Horse Riding Hero

richard "stoney" stoneman - tl bar ranch alberta circa 1981

The other day, I came across an article in The Globe & Mail about a Brazilian who had made an “epic ride” on horseback from Alaska to Calgary this year. It seems that it is not the first epic horseback ride that Filipe Masetti Leite has made, and according to the article, once traveled on horseback on a journey that was about 16,000 km in length, between Calgary and São Paulo, Brazil.

I am not going to take anything away from the tremendous accomplishments of Filipe Leite, but his accomplishments reminded me of another long ride on horseback, back in about 1981, and the rider was in his 80’s when he did it. Richard “Stoney” Stoneman was his name, and I had the privilege of bunking and working with him during my own time on the TL Bar Ranch, located in the Badlands along the Red Deer River, near Trochu, Alberta.

I don’t recall if anyone ever took an interest in Stoney’s story at the time, or if he was written about in any major newspapers. He should have been. After reading about Filipe, I thought I’d share my own personal memories of Richard Stoneman.

Parry Sound, ON to Trochu, AB – 3,000+ Km On Horseback

I am not sure of the exact route that Stoney took, but back in about 1981, he rode all the way from Parry Sound, Ontario, before arriving at the TL Bar Ranch near Trochu, on the back of an Appaloosa breed of horse named Joker. If he had traveled strictly the Canadian route, north of Lake Superior, it would have been a journey of around 3,120 km. I’ve done it by car (although the first time I ended up on the ranch, it was a flight from Toronto to Calgary, then a bus ride to Trochu). I can’t imagine doing that journey at 80 years of age, on the back of a horse.

Even if he did not take the northern route and had gone through the US, south of Lake Superior, the journey still would have been just a few km short of 3,000. But I’m fairly certain Stoney stayed within Canada on his journey. Admittedly, I don’t recall many of the details he shared with me, back then – I was 17 years old and that was 39 years ago. However, there are a lot of memories of Stoney, and his horse Joker, and my times spent with him.

Room & Board For Pay As A Cowboy

I honestly cannot recall any personal details that Stoney told me about his life before he ended up on the TL Bar Ranch. I do know he had a great deal of experience with horses, and when he arrived at the ranch, his experience was widely respected despite his old age. And, despite his age, he was a strong man that could still put in a day’s work. He is actually one of the men that I’ve been influenced by, over my own years – the idea of hard work, being strong as you can, within reason, and his hope to simply earn his living by getting food and sustenance and a place to sleep.

And to be honest, while the idea of being a “cowboy” might sound romantic, it’s not, and the pay is not great. I  went out there myself, not expecting any great pay, but for the experience, the room and board, and whatever they wanted to give me. Back when I was 17, I guess I had some values that aligned with Stoney’s, and we got along great, despite the age difference, and while bunking in the same room – basically the basement which was made into a space for some beds, but it did have a nice basement walkout that faced the river.

Room and board was pretty much all Stoney wanted, and help with any clothing that he might need to replace. And that was about the same terms I had, but I also received an envelope that contained $400.00 cash when I finally left, about 12 weeks later. A  rate of pay that today, would probably be illegal, but I didn’t care. And neither did Stoney. Life experience can be far more valuable than the amount of dollars you’re given.

There was one thing though that Stoney wanted to do, if he could… and that involved his horse:

Stoney And Joker The Appaloosa Entertain Crowds

I’m not really sure how old Joker, Stoney’s horse, was. I do know he was not young, however. And, he was pretty smart. And Stoney loved to show off just how well trained Joker was. The ranch owner, Tom Lynch (a subject of another post some day – another amazing man and who at the time was in his 60’s but was in better shape than most 40 year olds today) would ensure the trailer was hitched up to the big 4 door crew cab Ford F150 on days where we could go to a nearby rodeo and Stoney and Joker could perform for the crowds.

I was pretty shy back then (believe it or not), but was honoured to go along as “Stoney’s Assistant” after he had me well trained in the routine that he and Joker would perform. Joker would obey a lot of commands, and would do a lot of things, including standing on small blocks, turning around, and a whole bunch of things I’ve actually forgotten. But I recall Stoney with his microphone, speaking to both the crowd and Joker, and talking about how on their long road trip, they’d have to end their travels for a day, and on queue, Joker would lay down on his side, Stoney beside him, and then Joker would put his head on Stoney’s chest as if it were his pillow.

Joker would also give “kisses” to Stoney while the old man held a carrot in his mouth, and they’d break the carrot in half. Well, Joker broke the carrot in half with his teeth, while giving Stoney a big “kiss” with his big horse lips.

My job at these performances was just to make sure Stoney could talk through the gig, and have the props all ready. And he along with Joker were always a big hit.

Stoney And Breaking In The Arabian – Phase I

I started this post with a photo of Stoney, and he was obviously injured. I actually have other photos of Stoney (or I used to), and one included him in his injured state, with his big black eye, and holding a fist like he was a “tough guy” that just finished a fight. I hope to find the other photos some day and share them. But getting back to the big black eye and injuries…

While it wasn’t a big fight that Stoney was in, it certainly was an event that only a tough man could endure – especially a man in his 80’s.

I don’t know the whole story about compensation for work – so I’m going by the recollection that I have, and it could be partially wrong. But I recall having some conversations with the ranch owner, Tom, about the fact they really appreciated Stoney being on the ranch, but there wasn’t a whole lot of cash around to pay him. At the same time, they wanted him to stick around, for his work ethic, and his willingness to do whatever he could, and they really cared about him.

Now, the ranch itself was a cattle ranch, but also raised quarter horses. It was the quarter horses we rode every day, and would take trail riders from the city on, when they’d come up to try to experience some horseback riding in the Bad Lands. But, they did have this young Arabian horse that was high-spirited and no one really wanted to “break” the horse. But, they knew that horse could be an awesome horse, and we all watched as Stoney kept an eye on it.

So, the offer was made to Stoney – that he could take the horse, do what he could with it, using his great experience with horses. It would be his horse. Stoney was up to the challenge, and believe me, it was a great challenge for anyone, let alone an 80 something year old man to work with that horse and break it in.

When we weren’t busy working, we’d all watch as Stoney would put a lead with a bit on the horse, and for quite some days, simply take the horse out with him, while riding Joker. Stoney believed that Joker, being a much older horse, would pass on “knowledge” to the Arabian, and “teach it” how it was supposed to act. There may have been something to this, because the first time, the Arabian was not very pleased, but in time, it settled down, and often with some nudging from Joker, as the Arabian would walk not quite behind, and not quite beside Joker while being ridden by Stoney.

Breaking The Arabian – Phase II

After several days, sometimes consisting of many hours of riding Joker with the Arabian on a lead and going through the Badlands, Stoney decided it was time to graduate the Arabian to knowing what a saddle felt like. I was there to help Stoney just in case, but Stoney managed fine, helping the horse get over some nervousness, as he put blankets over it’s back, and then the saddle, loosely fit. And again Stoney, while riding Joker, rode off while the young Arabian was attached to a lead and bit.

This went really well. Even Stoney was surprised at how well it went, and well his young but high spirited horse took to having a saddle on.

The ranch owner and I would watch, and I’d listen to Tom remark at how well things were going, in his mind. So, Stoney decided to go to another step beyond, and try to get the Arabian used to feeling weight on it’s back. While that young horse had shown a high-spirit that was quite a bit rebellious, it seemed Stoney had really made a lot of unexpected headway.

Now, how to make the horse feel some weight? We found some old rubber tires. That was just what Stoney wanted. Two of them were attached together with a rope, and gingerly, after saddling up the Arabian, they were hung on either side of the horse, with the tires hanging down on each side of the horse. And again, Stoney, while riding Joker,  took the young one out for a long ride. Everything went well!

Stoney did this for several days, until he decided both he and the Arabian were ready for a real horseback ride. Tom was a bit nervous. We were all a bit nervous. Yes, lots of progress had been made, but we still could see that “spirit” in the horse, when it was out of the barn, and in the pasture with the other horses. Would it be ready for an 80 year old man to stick his boots in the stirrup, and then lift his body weight into the saddle on the back of the horse?

Phase III – Who Broke Who?

The day that Stoney finally decided it was time to actually get on the horse was a day for us all there, to be really nervous. Tom, one of my co-workers Lisa Munro, and a couple of others along with myself, stood outside the barn, but very close by, just in case. The Arabian snorted a few times, as Stoney took his time, putting his left foot into the stirrup on the left side, waiting for what seemed like an eternity, before swinging his other leg over the horse’s back and slowly settling his rear end into the saddle.

Nothing happened.

The horse just stood there, as Stoney sat on top, holding the reins. I don’t know what the other bystanders were expecting to see, but I was ready for the horse to go a bit wild. He didn’t. Stoney gave the horse a tiny little bump in the ribs with his heel, and the horse started walking, as if this was the most normal thing in the world! It was amazing to see. Stoney didn’t stay on the horse for a long time, but long enough to walk around the yard a bit, while talking gently to his ride.

Later, after Stoney successfully dismounted, took off the saddle and blankets, we all gathered around, wondering what Stoney’s next move would be. He thought he’d just continue this for the next few days, slowly getting the horse used to feeling him in the saddle, while just walking around the yard a few minutes, for a couple of days. And indeed, this is what happened – and all seemed good.

But on about the fourth day, things did not go so well. Something spooked the Arabian when Stoney was in the saddle, and the horse just… took off like a rocket, right toward the barn.

Now to give you an idea, this was not like a big barn you might see in Ontario. It was.. a stable, that could fit perhaps 7 or 8 horses on each side with a middle area, that we would walk through. The barn had no doors on either end. And the top of the doors was not very high. It generally, didn’t need to be as we would never ride the horses into the barn/stable. We always dismounted outside, and then walked them in.

But on this day, the Arabian took off, and ran to the barn, while Stoney was sitting on top. Stoney could do nothing and ended up having his head smashed into the top of the frame opening of the stable, ending up falling off the horse, while the young Arabian continued on through to the other side and exited the stable.

I couldn’t believe it! There was Stoney, lying on the ground, in some obvious injuries, and called for help. Others arrived, and we did whatever we could to try to figure out if there were serious injuries – like first of all, making sure he was alive, and conscious. He was. But in pain.

Stoney was eventually rushed off to the hospital in Trochu, while the rest of us waited to hear about his condition.

The photo above the above explains it all well. He was injured, had some serious bruises to his head, a broken finger, and if I recall correctly, a broken rib. But that did not stop him.

The next day, he was out, walking as best he could, and talking to his horse, and getting ready for the next time…. which would come sooner than anyone of us recommended.

It would be just a few days later, that Stoney would get back on that horse… and after that, he, Joker, and the Arabian would wander around, and without any incidents.

I’m honestly not sure whatever became of Stoney, Joker and his Arabian – as life would have it, I returned to Ontario (although I wanted to stay), and life went on for me in other ways. But, I never did forget Richard Stoneman and his incredible feats at such an age.

Richard Stoneman – Tough But Gentle

In 1981, Richard Stoneman was already in his 80’s.  He had done some pretty amazing things in his life, and the fact that he had gone through the experience I described above, and I witnessed that, gave me a lot of respect for older people, even if they did not always have the exact same values that I had, as a teenager. It was a weird time of life for me, actually – it had not been that long when I had spent some years confined to bedrest, and was a pretty shy, and not quite sure of myself person.

I was trying to figure out things, and Stoney and I would have some great conversations about life, following dreams, and that often, experience is far more valuable than money in the bank. It’s the way he liked to live. He’d done a lot of stuff in his life, and yet there was a big softness about him – he was even a very soft spoken person. He also wouldn’t put up with nonsense that he saw  – I think that is one of the characteristics that the ranch owner, Tom, liked. Tom was the same way.

I remember one time though, when Stoney really shocked me – with his being adamant that I was not being a “gentleman.” Today, it might seem weird, and even back in 1981, it took me aback, at the time. It was a very hot day on the ranch, we had been hard at work doing a lot of things that required muscle, energy, and hard work. Beside the barn/stable, there was a very large water reservoir that horses could drink from after we had brought them back from a ride. The water in it was always fresh. It stood about  2 1/2 feet high I guess… I don’t remember, but had a large diameter. The water in that reservoir was always cold.

One of the persons I worked the closest with was a girl named Jill Munro – very petite, and for her size, she worked harder and could do more work than many men that are my size. She never stopped. Sometimes though, we would play practical jokes on each other – as far as responsibilities on the ranch, we both had them and took them seriously. Jill and I would often, in fact almost every day, take out and be responsible for a dozen or more amateur horse riders on trail rides, and as teenagers, would sometimes have to correct adults who thought they knew more than we did, and were going to do something dangerous. “We want to gallop the horses” was something we’d sometimes encounter, and we’d have to both be firm, work as a team, and make sure no nonsense of unsafe stuff was done.

Anyhow, on this very hot day, I thought I’d go pick Jill up and throw her into the water reservoir. So I did. Jill thought it was hilarious. It wasn’t anything…. that back then, we’d think was “bad,” – didn’t involve wet t-shirts (our normal clothing was GWG Jeans and Denim shirts, with cowboy boots) and it was simply an act of a practical joke on a hot day.

Mr Richard Stoney Stoneman would not talk to me for the rest of the day. I had no idea why. He would not look at me, he would not respond to me, and when we retired to our room that we shared, he refused to say anything to me that night. I had no clue in my mind at the time, what might have been bothering him.

The next day, I demanded to know of him what was going on with this change of behavior.

Wow, did he let me have it!

“That was a horrible thing you did yesterday, and you are no gentleman to ever do that to any lady!” he exclaimed out loud. “I watched you pick her up and throw her into the water, and it was a bad thing to see!” And he went on and on, about how bad I had been.

Well, Jill and I had laughed and laughed about, with warnings from her that somehow, someday, she was going to get me back… for the practical joke. But to Stoney? It was a horrible thing to do!

Stoney got over it, in a day or so, and we would get back to being great friends and co-workers again, but it always made me realize that sometimes, values can be a little different, and to this elderly man who had lived quite the life, he saw something he did not like to see. He was a tough man in experience, but mostly a gentle speaker,  but who still held high his own ideas about what a “gentleman” should do or not do.

Richard Stoneman’s Life In Perspective

Richard “Stoney” Stoneman lived a life that spanned more than 80 years, and he was born in the early 1900’s. I never really learned a lot about his life, but I do know he lived through the news of two world wars (he may have even served), and he was born in an era when cars were not the norm. He went through news about Polio epidemics. He went from likely being amazed at train travel, to watching man land on the moon.

In the 1980’s, neither the internet or cell phones had been invented. And a lot of young people today, I think, don’t even fathom what that was like.

We actually wrote letters; long distance phone calls were expensive. Sometimes, news would take awhile.

Sometimes, people would take a job, just for the life experience, and not care about the pay. Working alone might be common, without any contact, and you had to know things, if something went wrong and could not get in touch with anyone. Richard Stoneman saw a lot of progress in his life yet, nothing like what we have today.

He rode a horse 3,000 KM or more, from Parry Sound to Trochu, Alberta, without the benefit of what others today, wanting to do something similar, would have, to make it easier.

He’s a hero and his story should be told. I have no clue, as I did not google his name, if anyone else has also told their stories about Richard Stoneman. I just wanted to tell my own, as I remember him, from 39 years ago. When he was in his 80’s, and me, a teenager of 17 looking forward to experiences, in life.

In his 80’s, Richard Stoneman was still open to life experiences, and doing things. And that to me, is a life well lived.

3 thoughts on “Richard Stoneman – Canadian Horse Riding Hero”

    1. Hi Paul – not sure if you happen to be the Paul Thomas I know and played soccer with – if not, pleased to make your acquaintance!

      Thanks for the links – I will check them out shortly!

      P.S. Apologies your comment went into the moderation queue – it’s set up to do that with comments that contain more than one link.

    2. Just read clicked through to the links you provided – Wow! That’s awesome to see that!

      I guess some of the details in my own memory were a little bit off – I had thought at the time he had done the ride in the very recent past, before I arrived at the ranch. But, hopefully I can be forgiven for missing some of the details back then when I was 17 🙂

      Anyhow, yes, he did make an impression on me, and I’ve never forgotten the man. I always appreciated his kindness toward me, and the fact that we worked together. It was more than an honour for me when he asked me to be his “assistant” at his performances with Joker.

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