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Lifelong cowboy still in the saddle

Cowboy profile: Bill Wilm went to work on a ranch at the age of 15 to pursue his passion and hasn't looked back

From his earliest childhood, Bill Wilm had a yearning to become a cowboy. He didn’t buy into his mother’s counsel — “Cowboys are a thing of the past. They’re just in the movies now.”

Wilm was determined to pursue his goal, and at age 15 left the family farm near Birch Hills, Saskatchewan and found work on a ranch. It was the beginning of a life-long career that he has never regretted. “It’s been a way of life — it was never a job,” he says of his 45 years in the saddle.

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After working as a ranch hand for a time, Wilm was hired by the Alberta government to work on a 55,000-acre community pasture (also known as a grazing lease), near Buffalo, north of Medicine Hat, Alta. The following year he was transferred to a pasture near Oyen, Alta. where he, along with the manager, were responsible for the care and safety of about 2,500 head of cattle.

“We fixed fences, treated cows for any illnesses, made sure they had salt, and moved them to another field when the grass ran out,” says Wilm. “In the fall we rounded them up again, sorted, and sent them home for the winter.”

In 1969 Wilm was hired by the Saskatchewan government to manage the 14,000-acre Calder Community Pasture, east of Yorkton, along the Manitoba border. Here he had the opportunity to pursue one of his passions in life. He enrolled in flying lessons and purchased a Super Cub airplane, which was ideal for short takeoffs and landing in rough fields. “I flew that plane for many years, mostly working at the pasture but I also used it to go fishing in the winter,” he says.

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Settled at St. Brieux

In 1981 Wilm met Rhonda, a young lady from Manitoba, who shared his love of horses and flying. The couple moved to the St. Brieux area where Bill managed the Pathlow Community Pasture.

It was a busy time for the Wilms. Besides raising three children and managing the community pasture, they also raised show horses as a business venture.

“When we bought our first Paint stallion in 1988 there was a strong demand for good young breeding stock,” says Wilm. “We used horses for our job on the ranch but always raised a horse that not only had a good mind and was willing to do a day’s work on the ranch, but we also promoted our breeding stock at horse shows.”

The young stock was shown in conformation classes and some were shown under saddle. Success in the show ring, combined with a quality horse, gave the Wilms the profile to sell our horses to distant markets, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, plus overseas to Wales and France.

Some of their proudest achievements as breeders have been to see the new horse owners — most recently in today’s specialized industry — earning multiple APHA (American Paint Horse Association) and PtHA (Pinto Horse Association) World Championships.

“Today the horse industry on the whole has taken a different avenue,” says Wilm. “It’s rebounding now with the emphasis on a well-trained riding horse. “

“We wound our breeding program down about five years ago,” says Rhonda. “Our last offspring was sold to Texas in the fall of 2012, with the intention to be shown and stand at stud. It is a nice compliment to have our efforts as a breeder to be carried on by someone else. Still, it was a sad day to see the last colt drive out of the yard.”

Whole new career

handmade horse saddle

An example of one of Bill Wilm’s hand-tooled saddles with silver accents.
photo: Edna Manning

After retiring from the breeding business, Wilm’s cowboy lifestyle took on a new dimension when he taught himself to design and build saddles, spurs, bits and bridles. Over the years he had, of necessity, fixed his own tack, including saddles. So, when in the early 1980s he ordered a saddle that he didn’t receive, he decided to build one himself. Word soon spread in the community and orders started to come in, including some that wanted silver accessories. Not well pleased with the silver products he ordered, Wilm talked with a silversmith friend, hoping to learn the skill.

“I spent three days with this man,” he says. “He showed me the tools I’d need to get started, the basics of engraving and told me to go home and practice. I think I am still practising. Rhonda does a lot of the designing — she’s got a very good eye for it.”

Once Wilm was comfortable working with silver, he started adding finely handcrafted silver designs to his custom-made saddles, spurs and belt buckles.

The need for a comfortable bit for one of his own horses prompted him to again start building his own. He’s meticulous about making the welds neat and a creating a smooth, balanced mouthpiece. “I use only true sweet iron — horses know the difference and prefer the taste,” says Wilm. “The horse is our best advertiser. Because of their response to the bits, word has spread from client to client.” The handmade bits have become the largest part of the business.

Wilm’s beautiful handcrafted saddles, buckles and bits sell by word of mouth to clients across Canada. A selection of his ornately carved silver spurs and bits were displayed as part of art exhibit at the Harbourfront Gallery in Toronto, Ontario in 2010. His buckles and spurs have also been used as awards at the Saskatchewan Equine Expo in Saskatoon and many Saskatchewan reining horse futurities.

Wilm thrives on the challenge and the creativity involved in the process, whether it’s carving intricate designs in silver or stamping a detailed pattern into leather. A perfectionist by nature, he is often critical of his own work. “I look at everything I make and pick holes in it,” he says. But demand for and comments from his clients speak for themselves. His highly skilled handcrafted work involves a steady hand, attention to detail and plenty of patience, all characteristics he learned riding the range.

It’s Wilm’s intimate connection to his horse companions, combined with an entrepreneurial spirit and a love for an independent lifestyle that has contributed to his long, successful career.

Rhonda’s support and assistance is invaluable, too, Wilm says. “We do everything together.”

For more information, visit the Wilm’s Saddlery website or call 306-275-4702.

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