Rocking Heart Ranch – After the Fire

Steadfast resolve, and a focus on rebuilding

By Margaret Evans

Jim Garner and his wife had just 20 minutes to grab what they could and get out of the ranch that has been their home for over 30 years as a wall of fire from the massive Kenow wildfire bore down on them from Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, on Monday night, September 11, 2017. Understandably, the successful horse breeder and owner of Rocking Heart Ranch just outside the national park boundary fretted about the stallions left in the barn and some 100 horses on his property.

In just hours, the aggressive wildfire had grown by 50 percent and was 35,000 hectares in size in Alberta with a total overall size of 44,000 hectares with BC included. The fire was sparked by a lightning strike in the Flathead Valley in BC, but the critically tinder-dry grass and strong winds sent it roaring across the Alberta border into Waterton Lakes National Park where it destroyed the Visitors Centre and some outbuildings.

When Garner returned on September 13, he was faced with the rubble and smoldering embers of his house, barn, and arena, his round hay bales put up for winter were scorched, the pasture was blackened, and the fences destroyed. But the stallions had escaped and all his horses were safe.

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“We didn’t lose any horses,” says 73-year-old Garner. “The four stallions got out. All the ranch pasture burned off but the mare herd pasture didn’t burn. The saddle horses and the stallions are at my son, Marc’s, place.”

His resolve remains steadfast. He is rebuilding. And he is focused. Contractors have already visited the ranch to begin assessing the damage and start costing out a rebuild. And all kinds of offers are coming in to help with the clean-up and rebuilding, and help bring some stability to a family whose life  has been thrown into chaos.

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On Saturday September 16, less than a week after the fire, Garner’s annual Colt Starting Challenge and Sale took place at the Perlich Auction at the Midnight Stadium in Fort Macleod, Alberta. The attendance was outstanding, the support overwhelming.

“About 500 people, maybe 600, attended the Challenge,” says Melody Garner-Skiba who runs the ranch’s marketing program. “Some 23 horses including broodmares and colts sold for an average $3,400/horse. The Challenge horses went for an average of $6,475/horse and eight of them sold.”

The Colt Starting Challenge concept is unique. Ten colts are allotted to ten trainers and they are given 60 days to train the three-year-old Canadian-bred registered Quarter Horses. The trainers take the horses home and work with them. Then, after two months, they have a competition or “ride off” for prizes and the colts are sold at auction.

WildFire Destroys Alberta Horse Ranch, Colt Starting Challenge, horse farm fire, Jim Garner, 2017 Colt Starting Challenge, ranch fire,

Despite the destruction caused by the wildfire, Rocking Heart Ranch’s annual Colt Starting Challenge and Sale went ahead on September 16, 2017, at the Perlich Auction in Fort Macleod, Alberta.

In those two months, the trainers prepare these completely green horses to lope large and small circles, stop and turn to the left, right, and back up, execute lead changes, negotiate a gate, load in a trailer, and ground tie. The trainers have seven minutes to complete the routine and if there is time to spare they can perform a freestyle finale.

Youth riders are encouraged to get in on the judging act and can complete score sheets just like the real judges. Their judging forms are entered into a youth-only draw for a Rocking Heart Ranch horse and other prizes.

After the event, Rocking Heart Ranch posted these comments and results on their Facebook page:

We would like to congratulate the winners of the 2017 Rocking Heart Ranch Colt Starting Challenge and Sale:

Grand Champion – Alex Alves, Cluny, Alberta. Alex takes home an additional cheque of $1500.

Reserve Grand Champion – Kayla Zeilke, Pincher Creek, AB. Kayla takes home an additional cheque of $1000.

Runner Up – Tracy Curran, Medicine Hat, AB. Tracy takes home an additional cheque of $500.

Our family would also like to thank everyone who came out to show their support of our family during a difficult week. It was truly inspirational to see our friends, neighbors, and the agricultural community come out in such large numbers with standing room only in some cases. We would also like to thank all of those who donated hay, tack, feed, and money to the relief efforts which is being administered by North & Company in Pincher Creek. These donations will be graciously accepted and used in the coming months and during the winter.

Our Sale was also a great success. Here are some results:

High Seller, Lot 4, Little Nu Silverado: $10,500;

Average on the 8 Challenge horses: $6,475;

High Selling Broodmare, Lot 17, Sweet Blue Te: $3,500;

High Selling Two-Year-Old, Lot 11, Majors Sexy Secret: $3,700.

It is part of the Garner family spirit that, even if life throws them a curve, the vision of life goes on. “You can knock me down but I get up twice as hard,” he says. 

“This is an environmental disaster. The mountains are burned. They are black. You have to see it to believe it. What’s going to happen when it snows. We’re going to have slides. It’s a terrible mess. It’ll turn green in the spring but it will take 30 to 50 years before we get to return to where it was. Much of the wildlife ran away. But we have 1000 head of elk that winter right beside our ranch. We have to build the fencing of our feed yards ten feet high just to keep the elk out. Now, all the feed yards are burned. I have nowhere to put feed right now. I have a neighbour who’s going to let me store some at his place but I have to get some. But the first things I have to get are fuel tanks. They all blew up.”

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No doubt many questions will be raised as to how the fire was managed. Right now, Garner is approaching the federal government for assistance. Waterton Lakes National Park is federal land and the destructive fire came directly from the park onto Garner’s land with almost no warning. 

This year has been a terrible one for wildfire destruction in western Canada, with vast areas at risk because of severely dry conditions and hot temperatures. On national media, Jim Garner expressed his concern for his neighbours, their losses, other homes that were burned, and the enormous environmental damage to ranchland.

“We have been approached on starting a fundraiser for all the families who were victims of the Waterton Lakes fire,” says Garner-Skiba. “The law firm organizing it is North & Company in Pincher Creek and the contact is Pierre Comeaux.”

Garner has already secured a suite in Waterton Lakes Park to stay in so that he can be close to the ranch to care for the animals, and he is hoping to be back living on the ranch by Christmas.  

For more information visit Rocking Heart Ranch and follow the links. If you would like to help, or you are able to assist the Garners in securing hay for their horses for the winter, contact Jim through the links on the website, or email:

If you would like to know more about the fundraiser, contact Pierre Comeaux at North & Company LLP.

Our thoughts and good wishes are extended to the Garner family and all the families who have been affected by wildfires this year.

Main article image: The ranch buildings before the fire. All Photos courtesy of Rocking Heart Ranch.

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