“There’s nothing I like to see better than a dark dappled grey or a shiny black team,” said enthused legendary horseman Tom Wraight, reflecting on his eight-decade relationship with Percheron draft horses. “Over the years, I’ve enjoyed their spirit, their wonderful disposition and their unequalled willingness to please,” Tom explained of his love for the animals that grew into a lifelong passion.
This past August saw the 90-year-old teamster back at Pioneer Acres near Irricana, Alta., for the 27th straight year, lines clenched in his weathered hands, driving a team for a ploughing demonstration.
“Fred McDiarmid and I made it there for another year. Fred has some great horses, and it is a lot of fun, even though I can’t throw the harness up anymore,” he chuckled. “Those horses get taller every year.”
But not as tall as they must have been through his eyes when he first drove a team on the family farm near Veteran, Alta., at nine years old.
“As a boy in the ’30s, I had a great love of animals, especially the grey team of Trixy and Daisy. When I was 14, I quit school and went to work for a neighbour. I felt quite important when he trusted me to cultivate with his six grey Percherons,” Tom said, adding that he and schooling never did mix all that well. The horseman said he learned a lot from his dad and watched and learned from everyone over the years.
When he was 16, Tom went further afield, working for a farmer south-west of Coronation. Some years later he purchased the operation and ran a tight outfit for decades.
“I farmed and ranched there for many years, and horses were always part of the operation: seeding, haying, harvesting — right until the late ’50s. Winter feeding was always done with horses, hauling loose hay 10 miles round trip, square bales and finally large round bales spread with a homemade bale roller,” he explained of his younger days as a rancher.
On the ranch, they raised and broke their own saddle horses and working teams, and Tom is quick to proudly state he never had much excitement with the green stock.
“I’m no bronc rider,” he laughed. “I’d snub ’em to a post for a day or two and then they usually just went, nice and quiet. Usually. I only got bucked off a time or two, but any horse that didn’t get it ‘left home,’ even though any trouble was probably negligence on my part,” he stated matter-of-factly, adding that his most exciting ride was with a team of six on the [seed] drill.
“We were on a gravel road with the drill chains clanging on the rocks when a horse pulled the bridle off and took to running. They didn’t get up to chuckwagon speed, but they were close for a few minutes. I knew the two older horses wouldn’t keep up the pace, and they got things slowed down again. But, boy, did that outfit bounce,” he said as his laughter sent a tear rolling down his cheek. “It got my heart going for sure.”
On another excursion, Tom was the passenger in a half-barrel wagon with a pair of young horses pulling and a young fellow along to do the driving. “I had a cast on my arm, but that’s a different story I won’t get into, other than to say I learned something from it. We had a big dog in there, too, and had gone quite a ways when all of a sudden one horse shot straight up in the air and away we went, thundering down the road. The lad was yelling, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ I told him there isn’t much you can do… keep the reins tight, and keep straight on the road. That one horse is going to run out of wind and go down. When I say PULL ’EM — pull them off the road into the ditch,” Tom related of the frantic scene he was caught up in.
As the team slowed climbing a hill, the teacher gave his student the go-ahead to pull them, and they rolled to a stop in the grassy ditch. No damage done, but a lesson learned. “The dog was wagging his tail and ready to do it all again,” but that was enough for me and the young fellow,” Tom said with a smile.
“For the most part, working with horses on the ranch was kind of like playing, but in October of 1951 we had a surprise blizzard that was about all we could manage to get through,” Tom recalled, the smile disappearing from his face. “We had left the team overnight where we were thrashing, and the next morning it was snowed under. We rode with two saddle horses, put four horses on a sleigh and had to lead the recovered team along to break trail coming home. We did get the cows rounded up and had to move them cross-country on the higher ground to get them home, cutting fences along the way. I’m not sure how cold it got, but when we got home just at dark, the cows walked right into the fence — their eyes were froze shut.”
Tom eventually sold that place and bought a farm three miles north of Coronation. That was more than 30 years ago, and hundreds of trail rides, parades and ploughing demonstrations have passed like the wind through a field of tall prairie grass over this period of time. That is also where he ran into a tall, lanky fellow who was to become his long-time travelling companion — Fred McDiarmid.
“Fred was starting out with his draft horses when we moved to just north of Coronation, and I was able to help him a bit,” Tom modestly offered. “Fred and I have been to more events and parades than I can count. And in all that time on the road, or working demonstrations together, we have never had an argument. We didn’t always agree on everything, but we never had an argument.”
Whether driving a team on one of his wagons or riding his saddle horse, he has participated in countless parades. “During one special celebration in Coronation, I had four outfits of draft horses pulling in the parade. I was so busy getting things organized that I had no time left to change into the special parade clothes my wife had sewn for me — just for the parade. I got into a lot of hot water over that,” he recalls with a smile betraying his mischievous side.
He also revealed a secret: he still — sort of — owns one horse, despite selling the farm and moving into an apartment in town years ago. “I kind of gave Doc, my saddle horse, to a granddaughter. We share him — he stays at their place and they feed it, and I get to ride him when I want to. At my age, that’s a good setup!” he chuckled, adding that he still likes to ride at local parades, or saddle up and strike out across the prairie with the grandkids.
Even though formal schooling didn’t agree with him as a farm kid growing up, Tom has since packed in a lifetime of learning and passes along his knowledge and experience to countless other horse enthusiasts who view him as a mentor and somewhat of a guru with a cowboy hat.
Reminiscing over many adventures with various teams taking in hundreds of events, Tom said it is hard to find just one highlight. “Heck, there were so many great times with some wonderful horses and good people, although taking part in the Calgary Stampede Parade (twice) was pretty exciting, and the thirty-horse hitch at Pioneer Acres always come to mind. But you know, when we were north of town (Coronation), kids — about nine or ten years old — would come out from the school every year to see the horses and watch them work when we would be thrashing. Their faces would light up like a beacon when they stood beside the huge animals, and they were so excited and thrilled. That’s probably the biggest highlight for me,” he said quietly. “Seeing a bunch of kids — like when I was nine years old — full of enthusiasm… that’s hard to top!”