It can be said that horse people, while deeply attached to the trappings of our West, are not overly nostalgic about many things, except perhaps a favorite horse, faithful dog, or particularly memorable run down the pen. Maybe it’s the cowboy in us. We seem to lay our courses through the decades, nodding fondly to good old horses when they leave us, and acknowledging with great respect the work of our kin in the industry, yet always with an eye to the present, and moving on down the trail. Much in the way an old cowboy on the range would bury a good friend who may have come to an untimely end, offering up with a kind of direct sincerity a quote from the Good Book or memory, before swinging himself back into the saddle to complete the day’s journey.
But when it comes to Bill Collins, it seems even the toughest of the cowboys among us can get teary-eyed and wax poetic on the subject of our personal acquaintance with this iconic figure of our West. Perhaps it is rightfully so, as our love affair with Bill has spanned over decades and even generations of our collective western roots.
Bill was born in 1924 into a ranching family and grew up working cattle and horses north of Drumheller, Alberta. It was a neighbor, Phil Bischoff, who became Bill’s mentor, teaching him the nuances of livestock trading, and taking the wide-eyed young man to his first Calgary Stampede in 1945. Soon after, he began to compete in calf roping, winning several Canadian championships in the 50’s, as well as trying his hand in chuckwagon racing, as both an outrider and driver. But it was in 1955, when fate appeared to step in – in the form of a friend who asked him to help out at a cutting demonstration in Bassano, Alberta.
The rest truly is history. The stuff of legends.
Bill’s legacy in cutting spanned over half a century, and he may very well be Canada’s most unanimously considered hero of the sport of all time. It is simply quite unimaginable what the sport might be today, had it not been for Bill’s devout hand in it. As one of the country’s esteemed trainers of today, Gerry Hansma tells it, “There will never be a more devoted man to the sport of cutting in Canada.”
Longtime cutting enthusiast, and much admired for his work with Canada’s pinnacle western performance events, Dave Robson enjoyed a steadfast relationship with Bill over many decades. He recognizes, “Bill made several contributions to the cutting industry. Firstly, he truly was a pioneer to the sport and worked very hard to become good at it. He fostered relationships with many of the greats in the industry to advance his knowledge. Secondly, Bill had a very strong value system. His integrity and passion for the sporty was unwavering. And anyone who deviated from these areas would be dealt with directly or indirectly.”
Bill and his wife, Pearl are largely credited for bringing cutting to the Calgary Stampede in the mid ’70s, while a decade prior, his cutting escapades with Prince Philip and the 1964 Royal Cutting Horse Tour in Great Britain are well documented.
As profound as his influence on the sport was, he remained a steadfast critic of the three-year-old futurities in Canada. Any spectator sitting next to Bill and Pearl in the stands of a cuttin’ might soon find him or herself on the receiving end of a tremendous insight – or as Pearl would teasingly call it, with a twinkle in her eye, “Bill’s lecture.”
At the heart of his objection to the Canadian three-year-old futurity stood the athlete. Bill didn’t believe our young horses could stand up to the same pressure as their Texas counterparts, and there were several facts of climate and country supporting his side in this philosophical debate. He explained them in this excerpt from the 1990’s book by author Maggie Glynn-Jensen – Alberta’s Best.
“The three-year-old futurities are one of the biggest disasters we’ve ever had in the country. Tom Fox and myself and several of the older cutters fought the three-year-old futurity in our country for so long that finally the younger people come on and voted us out. If you stop and analyze it, a lot of our three-year-olds are six months younger in maturity and work than the ones in Texas that go to the NCHA Futurity in December. We have our colts born in May and June up here, sometimes July. We work in indoor buildings with these colts for six or eight months of the year when we can’t be outside, and in Texas they work 10 months of the year outside, and their colts are born in January, February and March. They already have three months over ours. Then our management start having these futurities in September and October, which is three months earlier than the big one in Fort Worth. Now we’ve got six months off them (Texas) colts. It just isn’t reasonable.”
Collins believed that one of the greatest cutting horses of his career, Peponita – two-time World Champion under Matlock Rose, would never had made it if Bill had asked the three-year-old futurity of him.
“I won the Four-Year-Old Futurity [Canada originally began with a four-year-old futurity, later evolving to the three-year-old aged event] on him [Peponita] in 1973 and went on and won the Novice and Open Championship on him in 1974. It was the first time it had ever been done by one horse. I did it again on a daughter of Peppy San that I brought along in the same way. Peponita was sold to Matlock Rose in 1977, and he won the NCHA Open World Championship, and an American Quarter Horse Association Championship in the same year. They used him for breeding in 1978, and in 1979 he came back and duplicated it again. It’s never been done before. There again, it’s those babies not being pushed and just doing with the horse what they are capable. Things come full circle, but for me this has never changed.”
If the movers and shakers in the association boardrooms had any grievances with Bill’s quiet outspokenness on the subject of the futurity, they sure didn’t show it, placing him in nearly every Hall of Fame known to the western horse world; the Canadian Cutting Horse Association (1987), Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (1994), National Cutting Horse Association (1995), and the American Quarter Horse Association (2007).
In 1997, he joined the ranks of one of his admirers, musician Ian Tyson, when he became a member of the Order of Canada, and in 2000, the Horse Industry Association of Alberta bestowed its grandest award on the man – the Distinguished Service Award. Peter Fraser, President of the HIAA, discloses, “The truth is, Bill was given so many distinguished awards and honours during his lifetime that it\’s hard to imagine he was shortchanged, unless they break tradition and finally issue Sainthood to a cowboy.”
When this magazine interviewed Bill in 1997, he let the writer know his most prized possession was not an accolade from the competitive ring, but a bronze sculpture commanding a prominent position in the Collins’ then Bearspaw home. Titled Pro Talk and created by British Columbia sculptor and cowboy, Len Monical, the bronze depicts Bill’s life in all its glory – cowboy, cutting horse trainer and stewart of the horse. It was presented to Bill in the ‘80’s during a casual steak-fry amongst friends and colleagues, who wanted to honor Bill “while he still had his boots on.”
Long after his competition and judging days were over, Bill continued to impart what affectionately became known as his “Collinisms” – valuable lessons, cherished advice, a little banter and friendly torments – always projecting in that soft-spoken demeanor, often beginning the invitation to sit down and prepare to be party to some invaluable lesson with the words, “well, folks. . .”
Trainer Brad Pedersen recognizes Bill as the ultimate gentleman, who “was never afraid to offer advice if you were struggling with training a horse. He always approached you in such a manner as to never make you feel like a fool, and he always made sure to tell you when you were doing something right too.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with Bill, for he backed up his lessons not only with the empiricism of a lifetime, but proving his training methods consistently in the arena. Trainer and founding member of the Canadian Supreme, Gary Coleman recalled in a 1997 interview, \”We all know the great things that Bill has done on some great horses, such as Peponita. But as I\’ve watched him over the years, I\’ve always marveled at what Bill did with the average horse. Bill beat a lot of us on a lot of horses that were average, and to me that\’s a great credit to his training methods.\”
Trainer Kevin Tienkamp concurs, “I always admired his ability to get a really rank horse trained. I can recall a few that he showed that nobody else wanted to be around.”
Above all the accolades and awards, the horses and strength he bestowed upon a budding horse industry, most will remember the consummate gentleman. In an industry often marked with a cliquish standoffishness, we could count on Bill to greet each of us with a smile, and as sincere a handshake as we’ll perhaps ever know. Competitor Heather Pedersen reminisces. “I personally will never forget how he always grabbed my hand with both his hands and would look directly at me. I even remember the look on his face. I would always walk away wiping tears from my eyes because he was always so nice to me.”
Bill Collins passed away on Dec. 31, 2013 at 6:00 a.m. in the morning, a timing that somehow fits the quintessential Bill; his final assignment, flawlessly taking his leave before a minute of daylight was to be wasted. He would have been 90 on March 25. He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Pearl, his children: Russell, Billie-Lynn, Philip and Gary Coleman, as well as numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
It’s said the good ones never live long enough, but a few of us in the equine world can honestly say that several generations of our families were given the opportunity to be present for the accomplishments and teaching of this great Master firsthand.
That’s a pretty good lifetime.
Excerpted from the March issue of Western Horse Review. A Celebration of Bill\’s life will be held this Friday, May 9 at 2:00 p.m. at the Palomino Room, at the Calgary Stampede grounds. Friends and admirers of Bill and his lifetime of accomplishments are welcome.