Summer 2020 by Cyd Hoefle Photos by Michele Pedersen & Stu Hoefle
Horseman at Heart, But His Family Holds the Biggest Part
When Duncan and Bonnie Vezain chose the location of their 40-acre ranch a decade ago, they knew it would be a work in progress. The sage-covered rolling hills, just outside Bridger, are flanked by sandstone bluffs, and a beautiful view. Though there were few stretches of level ground, the wide-open space appealed to them.
They built an indoor riding arena and equipped it with living quarters. Ground was flattened and boulders were moved and incorporated into the building of multiple steel-pole corrals. The sage- and native grass-covered terrain was fenced off and became the perfect pasture for riding and raising horses. Doing most of the work himself, Duncan painstakingly labored by hand and with a team of horses as he improved the ranch to what it is today.
Duncan has been breeding and training horses for more than 25 years. He specializes in versatility. His horses are capable of ranch work, driving, packing, pleasure-riding and competition. He also shoes horses, builds saddles and designs and sews fur coats. For the past 15 years, he and his family have spent every Labor Day weekend leading a wagon train on three-day trips across the plains of Montana. And in his spare time, he hires out his teams and stagecoaches for weddings and parades.
Bonnie is an award-winning dressage competitor and is working toward her Gran Prix level. She’s a natural in both English and western riding and adds dressage training to the versatility of their horses.
To say they have plenty of irons in the fire would be a given. Add two young daughters and Bonnie’s full-time medical career to the mix and you have a remarkably busy Montana family.
It’s the horse training that allows the family to live in their beloved location. At any given time, Duncan has 30 to 50 horses he’s working in various stages, from training his own to working on outside horses.
“I can just read a horse,” he said. “I wasn’t taught that; it just came to be.” Duncan spent his teenage years and young adulthood rodeoing in high school and college before he began chasing new dreams — from wrangling horses in Glacier National Park to rounding up wild mustangs in Nevada. He picked up his horse skills along the way and being with horses is one of his greatest pleasures.
“I don’t train like most guys do,” Duncan explained. “I’m not into that ‘rope it, flop it and get on it.’ Training horses is like learning to dance with a new partner. You wouldn’t just grab your partner and start ripping and pulling her around, would you? No, you’d take your time and figure out what she knows. You can’t overpower her. You take over gently, slowly gaining her trust and then transitioning her into following your lead. She’ll come around and before you know it, you’re the one leading, she’s the one responding.” The dancing analogy? Duncan once taught dance lessons, too … In fact, he and Bonnie were both doing side gigs as dance instructors when they met. But it was their love of horses that drew them together and led to their marriage, now in its 14th year.
Daughters, 8-year-old Olivia and 10-year-old Annamarie, have inherited the same love and horse instinct as their parents. The petite blondes are already capable ranch hands, and under the watchful eyes of their parents already know how to catch and saddle their own horses and help care for them. They spend their days with Duncan as he trains. Both ride English and western and are learning to compete. They spend hours playing with the fouls, newborn kittens, Hank, the cow dog, and galloping their horses around the property.
“Now that they’re older, they spend most of the day saddled up,” Duncan said. “I don’t trust most horses but the ones that the girls are on, well, I’d trust them with their lives.”
As if to prove the point, they both pulled up short, climbed out of their stirrups and stood on the backs of their saddles like trick riders. Wide grins covered both of their faces.
“Those two,” Duncan said, followed by a proud laugh. “I don’t know what I’d do without them or their mother. I’m sure thankful for them. Bonnie, she’s the one that takes care of all of us. I’ve never met anyone with the loyalty that she has. I couldn’t do any of this without her.”
It’s hard to believe that this father who speaks so adoringly of his wife and looks so affectionately upon his young daughters fought demons so frightening that over 20 years ago, he tried to take his own life. He has the scars to prove it.
“I was young, drunk and not thinking clearly, obviously,” he said, speaking of his gunshot wound. “It was touch and go for a while and took years of reconstructive surgery. But I learned to be OK with who I am in the healing from it. Now,I look at everyone as equals, none better than another.”
As he talks about his past, he doesn’t attempt to hide the incident. It’s obvious his daughters have heard the story many times and don’t give a second thought to the patch over his right eye or his scarred face.
A tough man with calloused hands and a gentle spirit, Duncan learned as he lived. It’s fair to say he sowed his wild oats and now takes his role as father and husband very seriously. As for his diversified skills, he learned each because of necessity and perfected them over time. Shoeing horses, which started in college, was followed by tutoring from a well-respected farrier. Driving a team was learned first from an employer and then by owning his own stagecoach business, and building saddles was perfected through trade school and experience. Sewing coats was a result of wanting a reprieve from cold winter nights driving an open stagecoach.
He generously shares his skills with others, especially when it comes to horses. He’s regularly called upon by friends to help, be it branding, helping doctor a sick cow, or fixing fence. Most times he’s able to take a horse along that needs more training. He often has people who are looking for tutoring stay at the ranch, and he hopes eventually to turn his place into a trade school.
“I want to teach others,” he said. “I spent my life learning as I went. I knew just enough about horses to keep them from killing me, and a good day was when I got home in one piece. I have a lot I can pass on to others.”
Though much time is spent training, the family still rides for pleasure, enjoying their little piece of paradise as the four of them lope across the green pasture, reconnecting after a long day.
“There’s always work to be done,” Duncan said, “but Bonnie reminds me that we have to enjoy what we have here too.”