Couple brought together by horses

On the Farm: Bob and Norma Watson have been raising cattle in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley since 1961

WOLSELEY, Sask. — At 88 and 86, respectively, Bob and Norma Watson have no intention of leaving their farm home in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley.

It says “farmer” on their tax forms, observes Norma, and what else would they do?

They established Steel Thorn Farm in 1961, four years after they married, and cattle, horses and some grain farming have been their life.

They chose the name for the miles of barbed wire fence they had to put in. At one time sheep were raised in the area but with the help of a shepherd, not fences.

About 20 years ago they moved out of the main farmhouse, one of the province’s historical stone homes, and into a mobile home on the former garden site, expecting they might not stay much longer after their youngest son, Scott, took over most of the day-to-day business of running the farm.

“We’re still here,” Bob said with a laugh.

They’re still checking, feeding and moving cattle and helping with branding, and own their own cows and horses.

Although Bob quit riding two years ago after a back operation, Norma still rides and has a strong reputation for training horses.

“I rode till Nov. 12 — the day we shipped the last calves,” she said.

“Then I pulled the shoes off him and turned him out for winter.”

Horses brought the couple together in the first place.

Bob was raised on top of the valley, north of their current home, while Norma grew up at Drinkwater, Sask., southeast of Moose Jaw.

He studied agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan; she obtained a chemistry degree at the University of British Columbia.

Both were horse crazy, she said, and she distinctly recalls them meeting in the U of S horse barn during a show.

“We both rode show horses,” Bob says modestly.

In fact, they competed at shows across the Prairies, including at the prestigious Spruce Meadows, and were well known and respected in the show jumping world.

A 1973 Brandon Sun article about the summer competition in that city that year said: “Bob Watson’s charming wife, Norma, is one of the top lady riders in Western Canada. She’s won more than her share of hunter classes throughout the West. And yesterday she chalked up another by riding her mount, Richard, to top spot in the open working hunter class.”

In addition to competing, they spent many years on horse associations, including the hunter and light horse organizations, and judging shows.

In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Bob was a jump judge on the cross-country course for the three-day eventing competition.

That was the event in which Princess Anne rode, marking the first time a member of the British royal family competed in the games.

The Watsons took colts to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto and later competed in team roping at Canadian Western Agribition.

They also exhibited commercial cattle and purebred Herefords at Agribition. For a time, Norma also owned and showed Red Angus cattle.

The couple were honoured as provincial commercial Hereford breeders of the year in 2002.

It was about that time that they decided to get out of the purebred business completely. BSE hit in 2003.

“You had to be a big purebred breeder to survive that,” said Norma.

Today, the herd is black and the family will, with their son’s cows, calve about 450 cows. They are feeding fewer calves this year because of the hay shortage from the 2018 drought.

They’ve seen it all since buying the property from the descendants of one of four North-West Mounted Police members who originally settled the valley between Katepwa Lake and Crooked Lake.

There was a significant drought in 1961 and flooding in 1962.

They’ve gone from putting up loose hay with a sweep to the large round bales of today and have watched combines grow larger with more and more technology.

The cow herd has grown from 30.

“Feeding cows is no big deal anymore,” said Bob.

“It’s not like when we used to fork loose hay or straw.”

For a time, they irrigated out of the nearby Qu’Appelle River, and they even briefly owned three bison.

“It was nice to ride through the hills and come across them,” Bob said.

The Watsons made their names in the show jumping world and in cattle while raising their daughter, Kim, and sons, Alex and Scott, and teaching them to jump, too.

Norma was on the Wolseley school board and for many years on the Wolseley Memorial Union Hospital board. Bob served on the Qu’Appelle Valley Management board and as a director with the Saskatchewan Horse Shows Association.

Now they enjoy their farm work and the fact they can stay on the farm.

“We’re just lucky to have our health and be able to stay,” said Bob.

They also have determination.

Norma observed that her father owned steers until he was 90.

She and Bob downhill skied for years; she last skied at age 80.

Both say they have no ready answer for why they haven’t retired to town and only a little advice for younger farmers.

“You better do what you like doing,” said Bob.

“Because you only get one chance,” finished Norma.

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