Lifelong Scholar: Part 1

Hall of Famer Bill Collins rode the back of a horse to higher education.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

This is the first of a three-part series.

When Bill Collins passes through a crowd at a cutting, he doesn’t get to walk far before someone stops him.

“Bill, what do you think of my new horse?”

“Bill, do you like this kind of bit?”

“Bill, what do you know about this mare’s breeding?”

Bill knows the answers to all those questions and more, and he’s happy to answer them, but he’s even happier if the person who’s asking can give him a little more information then he had when they first spoke.

Bill, white-haired, unassuming, gentlemanly, soft-footed even after years in the saddle, is a scholar who has made the horse his lifelong study; and like any scholar, he can speak at length and with dissertational authority when asked. But Bill always waits to be asked.

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His modesty is just one reason he’s arguably Canada’s premier horseman and the first person from outside the United States to be inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.

Early Education

Bill’s parents settled in the cold land about 125 miles north of Calgary, where Bill’s father worked for an English rancher, in the early 1900s, eventually buying a quarter-section of his own. Young Bill helped his father, and at age 10, he got his first job horseback, gathering cattle for a neighbor.

“We started gathering at daylight in the morning, and he said, ‘We’ll be done by the time you have to get back to school.’ ” Bill said. “So we gathered these cattle and sorted off what he wanted and then we trailed them two miles north to the stockyards and weighed them, and I helped him load them up in the (railroad) car. He looked at his watch and said, ‘It’s time for you to get on the road and head back to school,’ so I went back down to the school, and that was my first session with him.”

The school was three miles away, and Bill and his brother stared a pony that they rode bareback, even while gathering cattle.

“In those days, times were tough,” Bill said. “You went with what you had. This school pony packed us to school back and forth. It was several years before I ever had a saddle.”

By the time Bill was a teenager, he was attending a boarding school seven miles away during the week and riding home on the weekends, but he was beginning to see the futility of formal education in a rough country.

“When I went down there to school, I was in Grade 10 the first year. And the next year I was in Grade 11, so I told my dad, ‘There’s nothing here for me.’ If I went on through and wanted to go to university, I would probably try to be a veterinarian, but at that time, veterinarians were starving to death in the country. Poor old guys driving around with a horse and a carriage, and mostly what they did was they floated horses’ teeth and gelded colts,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’ll go on through school to be that. You need help here at home.’ And so he was pretty easy to talk into letting me quit school. So after I finished Grade 11, I stopped, and I didn’t go to school any more. That was it.”

For Bill, the end of school was the beginning of knowledge.

Stay tuned for the next part of this series.

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