A.D. “Cowboy” Kean

From Riding to Writing the Range

“The wild white horse called Snowball bounded down the steep declivity… Through my glass, I could see two riders break from the dark timber several hundred yards beyond the fleeing Snowball… I watched Harris shift his position and level up his rifle just as the Wild White crashed through a brush patch within thirty yards of the spot… For an instant, the wild horse stood immobile; but that instant was long enough for Harris to take steady aim. Then the vicious report of the rifle again smote the upland silence. I saw a tuft of skin and mane – big as your hand – bounce into the air above the white horse’s shoulder; and Snowball dropped like a stone…”Poor old Snowball,’ said John in tones of lamentation. ‘They’ve killed him. I jes’ know they hev’!’… I could see Snowball struggling feebly…Harris was within three paces… Once the cowboys placed the two loops of a Spanish hackamore about the neck and jaw of Snowball, nothing would allow the animal to get free.
But I reckoned without full knowledge of the complexities of this particular horse’s instinct. He rose to his feet and I saw Harris with arms locked around the horse’s neck…Snowball shot skyward from where he stood and shook himself in mid-air. Harris clung desperately. One skyrocketing leap followed another. I could almost hear the impact of the Wild White’s thousand pounds of fighting weight… a crimson streak of blood marring his white hide.” – Snowball the Wild White by A.D. Kean, Toronto Star weekly, 1928.

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A.D. “Cowboy” Kean (on far right) with the American painter Charlie Russell (middle). The two men on the far left are unidentified.
Photo credit: Kean family archives

They called him A.D. “Cowboy” Kean. He was a true bronc-bustin’ Canadian cowboy, a real “bring ’em back alive” adventurer. Born in Emerson, Manitoba in 1886, he was raised in the British Columbian foothills. His father was a horse trader, selling and breaking horses for the Canadian and American army.
In the late 1920s, Arthur David Kean found himself in Ontario and no longer riding the range but writing and speaking about it for the Toronto Star and CBC radio. In addition to working as a reporter, he was to write over two hundred adventure stories for the weekend edition of the paper. Kean was also a filmmaker, forming a documentary company at the beginning of the century and in 1924 producing a feature film based on the novel Policing the Plains By Rev. R.G. MacBeth.
For a time, he became a celebrity in Ontario and highly prized as a dinner speaker. My grandfather, Thomas W. Bishop published an essay entitled, “The Love of a Man for a Horse” and wrote this about his friend:
“These reminiscences were dedicated Aug 6, 1944 to my good friend, A.D. Kean of Toronto, that well-loved writer and old-time exponent of western lore and horses, and rider in famous stampedes of the west. He was presented to their Royal Highness the Duke and Duchess of Connaught at the first great Calgary Stampede, 1912, and for years was announcer at this colourful institution of our west. He is Canada’s last most intimate link with the days of the Indians, the Mounties and dyed-in-the-wool cowboys. A man, who as a youth lived intimately with all these things and has slept in his saddle, and whose inherited love and understanding of the horse has bequeathed him a vivid and unparalleled gift of memory and description. He retains today in the saddle all the poise and control of the master horseman.”
By the late 1930s, he was to put down his pen. During World War II, and in his late fifties, he learned a machinist’s trade to help with the war effort. He was to try his hand at a number of occupations but it was always horses and storytelling that made Kean tick.
And that wild white horse called Snowball, that every young buck desired, with such a bounty on his head that Kean’s nemesis, the Harris Gang, were willing to shoot in order to capture it? Well, the horse thief never subdued Snowball, but in 1924, A.D. was standing on the platform of the railway station in Penticton when he noticed an old but once proud horse hitched to a milk wagon minded by a ten-year-old boy. Kean vividly recalled:
“Can he run?” I asked. “He used to win all the races in this valley, but my daddy won’t let him race any more,” replied the boy. “Why?” I questioned. “Cause,’ and the urchin flashed a smile. “He always breaks up wagons and tries to get away after Dominion Day celebrations. Last year it took my daddy a week to quiet him down; and then he ran off twice.” A thrill shot through me, for I thought I recognized the old white horse. There was the rugged welt left by the bullet of the horse thieves who tried to capture him. It was the Wild White, the one-time wildest, wild horse that ever led a chase across the grassland summits of the Northern range.
“My emotions nearly overwhelmed me,” Kean wrote. “For the rush and glamour of boyhood days seemed to fill my very being. Days twenty years agone, when rangeland had been vast, vague and inviting. Sunrise and mountain mist, dust clouds and panting herds, hard pressed and straining saddle mounts mingled together in fancy with the sounds of a horse round up in full swing and the ecstasies of those enchanted times, when ‘Snowball’ and I lived a joyous and strenuous life amid golden-hued, bunch-grass-covered slopes in the Horse Heaven Hills of Okanagan.”
A.D. ‘Cowboy’ Kean was to pass on to that great rangeland in the sky in 1961.

Tom Bishop is a 3rd generation Wild West show producer having appeared around the world including the Calgary Stampede, the Canadian National Exhibition, rodeos throughout North America and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.