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Trail's End - by Lee Hames - Part 10 - 'Zumwalt and Trail's End'

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Trail’s End

Hames spent a portion of his book detailing the life and times of Oral Zumwalt’s horse, Trail’s End, the famous bucking bronc that was born in the Bitterroot. Trail’s End became world famous after being selected as RCA Bucking Horse of the year in 1959. He is one of only 10 bucking horses ever inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. He went to the National Finals Rodeo 11 times from 1959 to 1971 and was rated the best saddle bronc of the year for the NFR rodeo in Dallas in 1960 and 1961.

One can find numerous articles written about this horse, often with differing opinions about his origins. Though none of these articles expresses doubt that he was born in the Bitterroot, some do disagree on where he went shortly after his birth.

A nice article about him appeared in Life Magazine on Aug. 10th, 1962 titled, “Docile Fellow Cowboys Can’t Ride,” by Marshall Smith.

Smith’s article first addresses Trail’s End by his earlier, birth name, “Dexter.” This name apparently came about in connection with the famous Dexter pack saddle that had its origins in Idaho during the mining boom era. This saddle was later standardized and used by USFS packers at the famed Nine Mile Remount Station west of Missoula.

Smith said, “The rodeos now depend on spectacular strays of doubtful origins, like Dexter. His past is obscured by the half-truths and exaggerations of his former owners. The only reliable facts about his early years are that he was born in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and made his rodeo debut in Missoula a few miles away. The rest is Bunyanesque hearsay.”

Smith then cited some of this hearsay.

Comparing him with the famous bronc Midnight, who, it was said, could occasionally be ridden by children, Dexter “had his 5-year-old rider – an Indian boy who lived on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The boy used Dexter to help bring up milk cows from the pasture in the evening and of course Dexter was even more gentle than the milk cows.”

Trail’s End’s gentleness is also a fascinating subject. We’ll see more on this in a minute.

Smith then tells of Trail’s End’s jumping ability.

“The legend goes on. When he was only nine weeks old Dexter jumped a seven-foot gate to get to the side of his mother. Walter Sutley, on whose ranch in the Bitterroot Valley he was born, was so impressed he began putting on Dexter’s jumping act for visitors. He confesses to winning a bet or two from incredulous guests. At the age of 2 Dexter tossed a ranch hand so high that Sutley says he got tired of waiting for him to come down and gave Dexter away.”

Next, Smith adds to the legend by mixing even more conjecture with another acknowledged fact. The second owner of Trail’s End was a 75 year old man who lived at or near Three Mile creek. Hames knew the man and states that he was Selman Eldridge, who was not a sheep herder.

Smith’s article says the second owner wisely declined to ride Dexter and “decided to send him to the Flathead Reservation to be broken Indian-style. There Dexter earned his keep as a hard-working pack-horse while being gentled. One of his jobs was to drag Christmas trees down the mountain through fallen timber.”

Here, Smith’s tale-telling even included an attractive Indian girl named Regina Pierre. Trail’s End was supposedly sexist when it came to pretty girls. Smith neglected to pinpoint his sources for this. Perhaps they included local folks at various watering holes up and down Highway 93. If he traveled the 100 miles from Corvallis to Polson – stopping at a fraction of drinking establishments, as some are prone to do in Montana, he no doubt could have unearthed hundreds of tall tales about Western horses and Montana wranglers. Still, Smith was a talented scribe and told the story well.

“The prettier they were the more unchivalrous he became. One day on the reservation he was being led home by an attractive Indian girl named Regina Pierre. She got tired of walking and decided to ride. Dexter dumped Regina right on her head. After the sheepherder reclaimed Dexter, he did the same thing to another young lady and this ended his brief career as a riding horse.

“The sheepherder offered Dexter to Oral Zumwalt, a stock contractor who furnished bucking broncos for rodeos. ‘I’ll take the horse and try him,’ Zumwalt said. ‘He’s got to show me he can buck. He’s got to get shed of a good cowboy, not some old man or some boy’. . .

“Dexter got his chance when the Montana State University [at Missoula then] rodeo team, always looking for bucking horses to practice on, visited Zumwalt’s ranch. While other members of the team were gathered around the chute intent on the workout, one student rider sat off on the top rail of the corral talking to coed admirers. Zumwalt heard him boasting about life on the ‘suicide trail’ and finally edged over to interrupt. ‘I’ve got a little pack-horse over here,’ he said, ‘that might be the end of the trail for you.’

“Winking confidently at his admirers, the tall-talking cowboy climbed down off the corral and climbed on Dexter. In the flurry that followed, the cowboy went one way and his hat another. By the time he had dug himself out of the dirt Zumwalt was writing a check to the sheepherder for $125. From that moment on Dexter’s name was Trail’s End.”

Hames had a slightly different version of this:

“In Zoomie’s search for bucking horses, he acquired a bald-faced sorrel gelding that became known as ‘Trails End.’ A cowboy from the Bitterroot Valley told Zoomie that an old sheep man from the Three Mile area of the Bitterroot had a gelding that was bucking off all the local cowboys and he wanted to sell him. Zoomie was going to furnish the stock for a college rodeo in Missoula so he was allowing the college cowboys to come to the K. O. Ranch arena on weekends to practice on his stock. Zoomie asked the Bitterroot cowboy to find out how much the sheep man wanted for the horse and to bring the horse to the K. O. arena the following Sunday.

“The cowboy arrived with a bald-faced, chunkily built, sorrel gelding that weighed approximately 1,300 pounds. The sheep man was asking $200 for the horse. The horse was gentle to handle and was easily led into the bucking chute. A rather fat University boy wanted to try him bareback and as he was getting down on the horse, Zoomie told him, ‘If the horse bucks half as hard as they say he does, this may be the end of the trail for you.’ The horse quickly deposited the college cowboy on the arena floor and Zoomie said to Mae, ‘Send that old sheepherder his $200 and we will call this horse ‘Trails End.’

“The cowboys who told Zoomie about Trails End had referred to Selman Eldridge, his owner at the time, as a sheep herder but he was not. Selman was an old cowboy and dry land grain farmer. He may have done some packing for a sheep outfit at some time, as many cowboys did, but he was not a herder. The reference to Selman started several stories about Trails having been in a sheep camp at one time, but they were all untrue. Prior to joining the rodeo circuit, he had spent his entire life within 20 miles of where he was born.”

Hames’s version also delves into the history of Trail’s End’s breeding and ancestry. If there were other horses roaming in the same area were they not likely to display some of the same characteristics that were so evident in Trail’s End. They soon found the answer when they visited Walter Suttley (Hames’s spelling).

“Zoomie found out the sorrel gelding had been raised by a rancher named Walter Suttley in the Eight Mile area east of Florence. Zoomie asked me if I knew Suttley and when I said I did, he suggested we go see him. Whenever you find a really good bucking horse, there is always the possibility the man who raised him might have some more like him.

“Zoomie and I called on Suttley who told us he had some more geldings he would sell. We arranged to return in a few days allowing him time to round up his horses. When we returned, Zoomie bought 11 geldings that were half-brothers to Trails End. Several of these geldings turned out to be outstanding bucking horses. Evidently, the desire and ability to buck is a trait that can be inherited.”

Hames, in fact, was aware that these horses could trace their origins back to a less dramatic, but equally talented stallion called Freddie Brown. His lineage came out of Washington where he was owned by a man named Freddie Brown who had sold the Morgan horse to the U. S. Forest Service. In the 1930’s the U. S. Forest Service had a large CCC camp at Nine Mile west of Missoula and they were interested in breeding horses for packing.

Hames had a long acquaintance with Nine Mile when he wrote about this:

“During the 1930’s, the U.S. Forest Service maintained a large Remount and Winter Range west of Missoula. They developed their own breeding program for both horses and mules of the type they thought would be the most useful for firefighting purposes. Among the stallions used in their program was a Morgan purchased in Washington from a man named Freddie Brown. The stallion was always called Freddie Brown. He was a good-looking horse and they raised quite a few colts from him. Freddie Brown would buck and so would most of his colts so they stopped producing colts from him. Several two-year-old stallion colts sired by Freddie Brown were sold at a U.S.F.S. sale in 1947. Louis Undem from Florence purchased one of these colts, a good-looking bald-faced sorrel.

“In the Eight Mile area, across the river from Florence, in the lower Bitterroot Valley there were three ranches that had small herds of range mares. These mares were owned by Walt Suttley, Bullwhip Slocum and Louis Undem. These mares were more or less just running wild in the hills. Undem turned the Freddie Brown colt he bought at the sale with these mares. . .”

“In 1950 Walt Suttley sold some range horses to Bill Wilson and Lee Arndt from Hamilton, Montana. These horses were rounded up and driven to the Florence stockyards where they were loaded on the railroad for shipment to the cannery. All of the yearlings and two-year old colts in the round up were cut back as being too young or too small. If Trails End had been a year older and larger, this story would never have been written as he was in the bunch of colts that were cut back. . .”

“If Zumwalt had just known a few years earlier about these Suttley horses and the bucking strain that was in them, there might have been more world champions from the Suttley ranch. All of the horses that were sent to the cannery were sired by the same stallion and came from closely related mares. When you think that five head of the colts that escaped the cannery went to the first National Finals, you have to wonder how many great bucking horses may have gone to slaughter. . .”

Like all great athletes, Trail’s End inspired his admirers to furnish lengthy accounts of his exceptional abilities. Smith, who was in attendance at a rodeo in Deer Lodge, extolled him in almost mythical terms:

“The main event, most explosive of man vs. beast competitions, was about to go on – and already in stall No. 2 the star of the show was dozing off. . .

“When it came Dexter’s turn to perform, a grim bronc rider in buckskin-fringed chaps climbed cautiously to the top of the chute. He settled himself down into the saddle as gingerly as a bather lowering himself into cold water. But there wasn’t as much as a quiver from the horse. The rider nodded to the men waiting to swing open the gate, and on that cue the placid Dr. Jekyll of bucking horses became the murderous Mr. Hyde.

“The change was electrifying. This suddenly volcanic animal couldn’t possibly be the same docile Dexter – and for the record it wasn’t. Like most great bucking horses, and many movie stars, Dexter had two names: the one he was born with and the one he used while performing for the public. On the official program he was Trail’s End, a name commanding respect throughout the rodeo circuit as a four-legged catapult that specialized in putting bronc riders into orbit.”

Hames offered a less dramatic description of this horse’s technique that was the result of watching him in action over a period of several years. He had seen the best of them, including the famed Midnight at a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming when he was a youngster.

“The horse had a peculiar way of bucking that made him very difficult to ride. Most horses buck with their heads held low to the ground but this horse bucked with his head held high. He would make several hard bucks straight out of the chute, hesitate a little, duck his head and change directions. Every few jumps he made a sudden change in direction and it looked as if he was lifting the rider right out of the saddle by taking his head down so low and fast. If he faded to the right, the rider usually went off over Trails left shoulder, and landed on his back. If he faded to the left, the rider usually went off over Trails right shoulder and landed on his feet. Most of the time, the riders landed so far away there was never any danger of a cowboy getting kicked or trampled.”

Hames brought Trail’s End and several of his siblings to the First National Finals Rodeo in 1959.

“Between Christmas of 1959 and New Year’ Day of 1960, the First National Finals Rodeo was held at Texas State Park in downtown Dallas, Texas. Rodeo livestock contractors from all over the United States and Canada brought their top stock to be pitted against the top 15 cowboys in each event. All of the stock had to be approved by a committee made up of rodeo producers and RCA cowboys. The 12 head of bucking horses that I went to Dallas with were the most bucking horses selected from any one rodeo producer. Five of Zoomie’s horses (Trails End, Oh Boy, Dark Alley, Wagon Boss and Suttley Special) were half-brothers and were raised on the Walt Suttley ranch.

“Since Trails End had been declared Bucking Horse of the Year for 1959, he was presented with a Silver Halter at the last performance of the First Finals. Casey Tibbs was the World’s Champion Saddle Bronc rider for 1959 and was presented a trophy at the last performance, too. On my way back to Montana after the Finals, I left Trails End in Denver, Colorado. The National Western Livestock Show was due to begin in a few days and they were promoting an exhibition ride by the World’s Champion Saddle Bronc Rider on the Bucking Horse of the Year. Casey had some trouble getting out of the chute and Trails End bucked him off. Zoomie stayed in Denver for the exhibition and brought Trails End on to Montana in a horse trailer beside his saddle horse.”

About Trail’s End’s temperament, Hames had this to say:

“Trails had a very gentle nature, you could walk up to him in a corral and catch him, and Zoomie led him around with a halter and occasionally hauled him in a two-horse trailer alongside of Zoomie’s saddle horse. Bill Lawrence used to put his little girl on Trail’s back and take pictures of her. Trails was never known to bite or kick anyone. The only thing he really disliked was to have a man on his back.”

Below are some links to articles about Trail’s End:




Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 May 2015 17:32