After surviving several Indian attacks while living on the Humbolt River in northwestern Nevada, Matt Joyce, my great-great-grandfather on my Mom’s side, moved his family and livestock to what would become Owyhee County in southwestern Idaho where silver was discovered in the early 1860s. In 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act and by 1865 the Joyces proved up, and were granted a homestead on Sinker Creek.
Starting out, the Joyces provided meat, dairy, poultry and vegetables to the booming mining town of Silver City. Later, after the mining slowed down they depended on the land and livestock they had built up — several thousand head of horses and cattle, and over 11,000 deeded acres along with the outside range to run the livestock on.
Meanwhile my great-great-grandfather on my Dad’s side, James Black, moved his family to Bruneau, Idaho, where other family members had already settled. Like the Joyces, the Blacks supplied goods to the gold mining town of Tuscarora, Nevada. They trailed their cattle from Nevada in the summer to Bruneau for the winter. As the mines of Tuscarora played out, the Blacks summered their cattle closer to the Owyhee Mountains.
In 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, giving ranchers a way to market their stock to more than just the local markets. During this time the large herds of cattle started coming out of California to graze the grasses of the Great Basin. My great-grandfather, Joe Black, was a young boy growing up on Battle Creek back then. The California Vaqueros who trailed the California herds were a strong influence on him. His father and older brothers owned mostly horses and some cattle, and they shared range and camp grounds with six different vaquero wagons — each with around 20 men.
As the Joyces and the Blacks increased their horse numbers, they supplied the growing West with horses and shipped several carloads at a time to the eastern markets. In 1908 when the Cavalry Remount program went into effect, both families participated by crossing army-supplied Thoroughbred stallions with their range mares to provide horses for the US army. After the army took their pick, the families marketed the top horses to local markets and the rest to European militaries. During the Remount era my grandfather, Albert, and his brother, Paul, grew up starting horses for their father, Joe. Later they had their own business starting and selling horses to the army and other markets.
The Joyces always ran about equal numbers of horses and cattle, while the Blacks had as many as 5,000 horses to only a few hundred cattle. When the Remount program ended in the early 1940s, the Joyces were forced to cut back on horse numbers, which left them with mostly a cattle operation. Along with what horses they did have left, they ran a herd of pure bred Herefords.
In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act was passed. It stated that grazers of open range must have base property to support their herd for a period of time. This gave the homesteaders more right to the range than the cattle barons and led to the decrease of California cattle in the Great Basin.
In the early 1940s, the Blacks delivered a group of green-broke horses to the new owner of the TS Ranch in Nevada, Mr. Hill, who asked Paul, my uncle, to be his cattle foreman. Paul recruited young boys from the Bruneau area to work for him while in Nevada. Many of these boys went on to become top bridle-men, influencing generations of horsemen to come, including myself.
In the late 1940s and early 1950, Albert was in joint-venture ownership of the Gamble Ranch in northern Nevada, and Paul was the cow foreman. After a few years they returned to Idaho. With the sale of the Gamble Ranch, Albert was able to help his children and Paul begin their own ranching operations.
My father, Asa, was a young buckaroo for Paul on the Gamble Ranch and later owned a 1500-head cattle ranch in Owyhee County. Growing up on the family ranch there wasn’t really much of a “first time “of anything. I don’t remember my first ride, first horse, or the first time I roped something. In the environment I grew up there wasn’t a big production when we did something. It was just expected of us.
Both my parents and all my siblings rode and worked the cattle. Some of us spent more time with the livestock, and some spent more time with the equipment and haying, but we all did everything. From when I was about eight years old I spent most of the time with my oldest brother in cow camps with the cattle. My dad mounted us on horses we raised and ones that he traded for.
We had a neighbor who ran a slaughter house, and when horses came through that he thought may have potential, we would see how they worked on the ranch, Some wouldn’t stay sound, some were soured, some were okay until they got bothered and bucked or ran off, and a few were alright. Most of them, we would learn, had history. Some just needed another chance. We were the test pilots; we evaluated them, and learned to survive crash-landings and not to let them hurt us. After riding those horses, starting colts and riding them was like a cake walk. Before I got into my teens, I started and rode colts, and we always had a job for them to do.
During high school, when the evenings were long in the fall and the cattle were still in the mountains, there was a month or two when I would start colts — some that we had, and some for the neighbors. This was my first taste of “training for hire”. It was in the early part of this period that Charley and Bill Van Norman were wintering cattle in the Bruneau area. With Charley being an old friend of my granddad’s the door was opened for me to get around these two, good, old-time bridle horsemen. That led to meeting Bill’s father-in-law, Ray Hunt. In 1974 my mother organized one of the first clinics Ray did in the Great Basin area.
From then on I committed to look for opportunities to learn from the horsemen in the Bruneau area and to get around the ones in Nevada when I could. By the time I was out of high school I had spent a lot of time with Bill, Charley and Ray, and some time with Gene Lewis, Melvin Jones, Tom Dorrance and Tom Marvel. After high school I worked on different ranches in Nevada to spend more time with some of these horsemen. After the cattle were gathered in the fall, I’d go to California to work with Gene and Ray for the winter.
In 1984 I took a job that started out as cow boss and ended up as superintendent of a million-acre ranch, with over ten-thousand cattle and four-hundred horses. There was a lot of freedom to improve the horse program, and I wasted no time breeding better-quality horses and having Tom Dorrance come to the ranch in the summer to help guide us in the colt starting, preparing our older horses for the horse shows, and whatever other odd problems there may have been.
After being there eight years the ranch sold and I went into riding horses for the public out of Homedale, Idaho. I had started showing cow horses and rodeoing in high school, and with my contacts from breeding and selling horses all my adult life, I got to know plenty of people in the horse business. This set me up good for starting colts in the summer at home and also in the contract colt-starting business that had me traveling coast to coast starting 500 horses a year for awhile. As more people got exposed to what I was doing with horses, I moved into the people-schooling business more, and the horse schooling less.
I still like to contract around 200 colts a year so I continue to learn from a number of different horses and don’t get stagnant with my program. I try to keep a balance of what works from the beginning phases, to the high performance end also. We now have a ranch in Bruneau, Idaho, where we operate schools from and have students ride with me. I feel blessed to make a living doing what I enjoy and being able to share this with other people that are like minded.