Quite a ride: Bill and Carole Smith focus on the best, from broncs to ranch horses
The first time Bill Smith was part of a pack string headed into the Beartooth Mountains, he was four years old and perched on top of a pack. He’s taken a string of horses into the mountains every summer since, for more than 70 years.
“I was horse crazy since I was born,” Bill said. As a kid, that meant there wasn’t a horse he was afraid of, not one he wouldn’t ride. His dad, who worked part-time as a coal miner near Red Lodge, Montana, and was a jack-of-all-trades, as long as it pertained to a horse, gave him plenty of opportunities to hone his bronc-busting skills.
“I was raised on horses nobody else wanted. We always rode different horses. We’d get a horse, get attached to it, then he’d sell it or trade for something else,” Bill says. “I remember most of the horses from my childhood. I had favorite horses all the time, but all it took to be a favorite was to be horse. I always liked horses, no matter what kind they were. Still do.”
For a kid who loved horses and the mountains, school was like jail, and he lived for summers in the mountains, helping his dad pack dudes in to fishing camps, or hunting camps in the fall.
“All I wanted to do all my life was ride bucking horses. Ranchers would just turn their horses loose up around Bear Creek, Montana. There weren’t many fences. Me and Chuck Swanson, the neighbor I was raised with, would pen some of them horses up and ride them and turn them loose. We didn’t care if they bucked or not. We’d rather they did. That was our life. Horses were the number one thing in our life, always. Still are, I guess.”
For nearly 20 years, the harder they bucked, the better. After 13 trips to the National Finals Rodeo, and three world champion saddle bronc titles, Bill still remembers the good ones. A big palomino named Descent–6-time bucking horse of the year–was the best bucking horse Bill ever saw, even through today. Bill got on him for the first time in 1963. “He could really buck. He throwed off all the good cowboys there were. He got rode once in a while. I loved the chance to get on him. I didn’t always ride him, but I loved the chance.”
Bill’s wife, Carole Smith, points out that out of nine outs, Bill rode him five times. “He probably didn’t have his best day when he got rode,” Bill says. But one day in Nampa, Idaho in 1971, both Bill and Descent must have had a good day. In an era when a score of 65 would win big rodeos, the pair scored an 86. “That was awful high for them days,” Bill says. “Back then, the good ones weren’t as plentiful. When I first started there were quite a few, but they began to die out. Then they started raising them, but none are as good as him. But that’s an old guy, dreaming. Every generation has their own. He was mine.”
One year, Bill earned $26,000 riding saddle broncs, which would be equal to about $167,000 today–about half what the world champion saddle bronc rider earned in 2019. “Back when I rodeoed you had to want to do it. You didn’t do it for the money. I didn’t, anyway.”
Bill knew every horse in every rodeo, watched every ride, knew which direction every horse would jump out of the chute, knew every trick, long before every ride was on video and cowboys could watch them as they went down the road. “I studied it all the time. I had a really good memory. I knew every horse and what they did, even the ones I hadn’t been on, I knew. I ate, slept and drank horses at that time. It’s all that was on my mind. The only way I had a chance to be as good as I was, was I gave everything I had to it. I’d get in the pens with them and watch them. I watched every one everywhere we went. It was my life.”
It was a life that made it possible for him to live the life he has for the last 40 years. “I owe everything I’ve done to rodeo. Everything that’s worked for me, everything we’ve done since then, we owe to rodeo,” Bill says.
That includes his 41-year marriage to Carole. The two grew up less than two hours apart, Carole on a dairy farm near Livingston, Montana, but it was at the rodeo in Burwell, Nebraska in 1973 where Carole’s long legs caught Bill’s attention.
Carole was running barrels professionally, but that day she was riding one of the stock contractor’s palomino horses to carry the flag in the grand entry. As the reigning world champion, Bill was supposed to take an introduction lap during the grand entry. “He just said, ‘I’ll borrow this girl’s horse because she has long legs and I won’t have to change the stirrups,” Carole said.
Six years later, when Carole was back to teaching school full-time in Cody, Wyoming, and after Bill had wrapped up his bronc riding career, the two got married.
“We’re still hanging out together,” Bill said. “She takes good care of me.”
“Likewise, Bill,” Carole said quietly.
Carole’s rodeo career started when she was in sixth grade. Her dad was a carpenter and dairy farmer, but made it a priority for Carole to have a horse. “He always made time for me, no matter what his schedule was, or how much money he had, he always encouraged me and took me to rodeos.”
For a lot of her career she leased horses, barrel racing and breakaway roping through high school. She earned a small rodeo scholarship to Montana State University in Bozeman, where she studied to be an elementary teacher and was on the rodeo team. She tied goats and ran barrels, making it to nationals three out of the four years she rodeoed. “A lot of times we had to tie small calves, or goats with a piggin’ string,” she said. “It’s changed a whole lot.”
Carole leased her barrel horse in college, a buckskin mare called Buck, out of a Quarter Horse racehorse named Tomichi and a homely old Thoroughbred mare. She had a good Thoroughbred mare named Doubt Me that she’d been running, but was out of commission thanks to azoturia, so she leased this buckskin mare to finish her college career. “I always said they’d laugh at me when I went in the arena, but not when I came out. I goat tied and barrel raced on her. She wasn’t even registered.”
In 1966, Carole was named the National Intercollegiate All Around Cowgirl.
After she got out of college and started teaching school, Carole bred Doubt Me, her big Thoroughbred mare, to Printers Devil, a racing Quarter Horse that finished in the top three in 13 of 15 starts, and won nearly $7,000 in the early 1960s.
The big bay colt she ended up with was named Devil Me, but Carole called him Printer. When he was 2, Carole was teaching school in Prescott, Arizona, so she sent Printer to Danny Frasier in northern Montana, to break. He said, “This horse takes two strides between telephone poles.”
When Carole moved back to teach school in Billings, she took over Printer’s training. “I set the barrels up in an open lot in western Billings. That’s where I trained him. The first barrel race I took him to in Missoula, I won third. When Bill saw him he said his mouth watered, he wanted to get on him so bad. But then he said he figured out he wasn’t even broke.”
Carole says she would have done things a lot differently now, done more teaching and less training, but then all she knew was to train him to do what she wanted him to do, which was to run barrels. He learned to do it well.
It was Printer that carried her to the National Finals Rodeo in 1973. Shortly after that, he got navicular, and since veterinary medicine didn’t have all the tools available that they do now, Printer’s–and Carole’s–barrel racing career was over. The school teacher didn’t have the money to buy another one like Printer, so she went back to teaching school, which she did until she retired in 1995.
After Bill and Carole got married, they shifted their focus, from riding the rank ones, or the fast ones, to making the good ones.
They trained horses for a few years and marketed them through other sales, but in 1981 they moved to Thermopolis, Wyoming, where they built the ranch they have now. Bill’s family decided they could make more money having a sale on their own, rather than marketing through someone else’s, so in 1983 they started the WYO Quarter Horse Sale.
“We didn’t have any idea what was going on,” Bill said. “We just did it. We learned as we went. We’re still learning. We didn’t have any instruction. Everyone told us that bronc riders couldn’t sell horses. Nobody would buy a horse from a bronc rider.
“The main thing we had going for us was Carole. She made it go. Without her, we wouldn’t have had any of it. None of it would have worked. She did all the work, kept the thing running.”
Carole says, “You have to have a product. That’s what Bill’s good at it. He knew what a horse was going to be able to do.”
The Smith family recognized early that there was a market for good, reliable ranch horses, and that hasn’t changed.
Bill and Carole’s approach to horses has changed over the years, largely due to clinician Ray Hunt, Bill said. “When I got done riding broncs I didn’t want to abandon the horses. I wanted to find someone who knew more than me. It didn’t make me like the horses more or less, but it made me understand them and how to get along with them. When I was young it didn’t matter what they did. They could run or buck. When I got older I had to change that idea. Everything I do now, Ray Hunt probably had some influence in it. It’s really just understanding the horse’s side of things. You’ll never know everything about them. You can learn every day of your life. Every one is different.”
Bill started putting on horsemanship clinics, and their horse sale expanded to twice a year. Carole got interested in working cow horse, which was a good fit for the horses they were producing for their sales.
The focus of the WYO Quarter Horse Sale has always been on ranch-quality geldings, but they also market some weanlings, yearlings and 2-year-olds from the breeding program they run in partnership with Woody Bartlett, of the Flying B Ranch near Chugwater, Wyoming.
The Smiths, and Carole’s nephew, Reid, personally trained most of the horses that went through their sale ring. Every horse had been ridden in and out of the arena, had roped steers, packed into the mountains and knew that a horse’s job is whatever its rider asks it to do.
Everyone who rides the horses that go through the WYO Quarter Horse Sale subscribes to the same system of horsemanship–that it’s more about teaching than training. That you can accomplish a lot more by understanding a horse than by muscling him–especially if you’re a girl–Carole says.
“I’ve always respected horses,” Bill says. “I’ve learned a lot about them, but nothing has changed my perception. I’ve learned how to be around them, to understand their habits and what they do and why they do it.”
There has been talk of Bill and Carole stepping down, leaving the future of WYO Quarter Horse Sale a little uncertain. But their sale bill says to mark your calendar for May 15 and Sept. 18, 2021 for their annual sales. They are still teaching horses to be good horses, and their broodmares are still carrying the genetics they’ve worked toward for 40 years.
“The future will take care of itself,” Bill says. “We do the best we can, and deal with it when it comes.”
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