“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” – Ursula K. LeGuin
Approximately 119 years and 363 days before I was born, Capt. Roger Ashwell Pocock was born in Cookham, Berkshire, England, on Nov. 9, 1865. I’m sure he never imagined that 70 years after his death, a girl who shares his passions would be writing about him, let alone writing a blog on the Internet for a magazine completely dedicated to horses and sport (though the Chronicle was 4 years old in 1941 when he died).
Pocock never mastered classical dressage. He didn’t win any medals or represent any country in the Olympic Games. But in 1899 and 1900 he rode from Fort MacLeod, Alta., Canada, to Mexico City, Mexico, along the infamous Outlaw Trail. This adventurer rode 3,600 miles, and wrote about his experiences—the only recorded equestrian journey of its kind along the entire length of the Outlaw Trail, a loosely defined escape route used by various turn-of-the-century outlaws.
At 17, Pocock moved to Brookville, Ont., and enrolled at Guelph Agricultural College. However, he left school in 1883 in order to become a survey hand for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Even when he was young, he had a desire to travel and explore the unknown.
After his stint with the railroad, he joined the North West Mounted Police at Fort Osborne, Winnipeg. He fought in the North-West Rebellion (aka the Second Riel Rebellion) in 1885 and sustained such terrible frostbite on his feet that he had multiple toes amputated. This allowed him a medical discharge, and he settled in Kamloops, B.C., where he established a trading post.
But he didn’t linger long in Kamloops. He set sail aboard the Adele to the Bering Sea. In 1888, he added prospector to his résumé, as he traveled south to California and remained there until 1897, panning for gold and writing novels.
Following his California adventures, a return to Canada was in order, and in 1897 he re-joined the North West Mounted Police, riding patrol routes, range riding for cattle ranchers in Alberta, and continuing to try to strike it rich with gold in British Columbia. In 1898, he ran a train of packhorses, and Sir Arthur Curtis hired him as a guide for an expedition. However, Curtis ended up lost and eventually died, which led to rumors of Pocock’s involvement in his death.
The Incredible Journey
It was Pocock’s next journey that established him in equestrian history.
In June of 1889, Pocock saddled up and struck off from Fort McLeod in Alberta to head south to Mexico City.
His route took him through the western United States when settlements were far and few between. There were few accurate maps, so all he had to guide him was the sun and the stars as well as the trail. But he kept rigorous diaries about his adventures, which he would later incorporate into his autobiographical account Following The Frontier.
In northern Montana he encountered many wild horse herds. While he didn’t write his famous book about equine behavior, Horses, until 1923, many of his observations came from his experiences with the wild horses of the plains.
“The material used in making a horse consists of grass and water. We cannot make one because we are too ignorant. We know that for such a making wisdom is needed beyond the last conception of our hearts, knowledge far above the scope of our pretentious little sciences, power omnipotent. Such attributes of wisdom, knowledge and power are divine.
The Almighty made the horse out of grass and water. From the generating energies which we call the sun, he used certain energies dimly perceived by our science, the chemical, physical, electrical and psychical forces which evolved, moulded and coloured the mechanism of a creature strong, swift, enduring and beautiful, which is inhabited by a pure, courageous, generous spirit like that of a human child.”
- Excerpt from Horses
Next, he headed into outlaw territory in Wyoming. One of his goals for the trip was to find famous outlaw Butch Cassidy, and he did indeed encounter Cassidy and visited some of the West’s most notorious hideouts such as Robber’s Roost and Hole in the Wall.
After navigating his way through Navajo and Apache territory, he found himself lost in Canyon Dolores in Colorado. He made a deal with a Navajo chief for a guide, but then he got lost once again on the edge of a desert and nearly succumbed to the heat until one of his horses bolted, leading him to the Mormon Oasis of Tuba.
He made his way to the Colorado River and then passed through Phoenix, Ariz. He became lost again after leaving the city, but eventually found the Mexican border just as a small war began. The border was lined with troops, so he hired a guide to take him around the fighting. The man robbed him, however, and left him with only one saddle horse and packhorse. He arrived in Mexico City on January 1, 1900, approximately 200 days after he began.
Pocock wrote about his journey for a publication called Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1900. You can still read all of the clippings.
The Legion Of Frontiersman
The Boer War drew Pocock back to England, and he enlisted in the army. He attained the rank of Captain after the war ended. Pocock then decided to organize a field intelligence corps to provide information for the British military. On Boxing Day (Dec. 26) in 1904, a letter appeared in major London newspapers calling for men who had experience of work or action abroad to come together for comradeship and service to the state in times of need, and the Legion of Frontiersmen was born.
He served during World War I, and while stationed in the trenches, he wrote much of Horses. His purpose for writing the book was to preserve equine knowledge in the face of equine cruelty. More than 300,000 horses had been destroyed during the Boer War, which only made the equine population even more at risk during WWI.
“In the world where the horse lives there is one god. This god is only a human creature, soldier by trade, stockrider, groom, or drayman, but from him all things proceed. So far as the horse knows his god made the girth gall and the harness, the oats and the weather, and most certainly provides a lump of salt to lick, a canter over turf, or any other little scrap of Heaven which falls into the world. So he hates his god or loves him, fears or trusts him, trying always to believe in him, even if he has at times to kick the deity to make sure he is really divine.”
- Excerpt from Horses
Pocock’s fantastic journey ended on Nov. 12, 1941, and not one person could say that his 76 years were anything but full to the brim of adventure. He traveled the world, wrote dozens of books, rallied his peers into action and is still inspiring people like me 70 years after his death.
“I have ventured to write about horses just because I love them,” he wrote in the opening pages of his book. And while my own personal journey is moving me in a new direction, I find that I share many of the passions and much of the determination that Pocock displayed in his incredible life.
I will no longer be penning these weekly blogs, but rest assured that the journeys into the attic will continue, as I have passed on my headlamp, GPS unit and dust mask to the next fresh-faced intern ready to tackle the incredible history and stories the horse has provided us.