Many people struggle with their purpose, why God put them on this Earth and what are they meant to do with their life. But not Bill Oliver. He has always known he was meant to ride horses.
Born in Eureka, California Bill spent most of his youth riding, packing, and hunting in the rugged Cascade Mountains, not far from Red Bluff and Redding, California. He’ll tell you he was blessed to be exposed to so many good cowboys, ranchers, and true horse hands. However, he will also tell you two of the most important people in his youth were his parents, Ron and Lace Oliver.
In 1982, shortly after graduating High School, he moved to Powell, Wyoming to work for Wilderness Outfitters and Hall of Fame outfitter, Jake Clark. When he wasn’t working for Jake, he was learning how to be a carpenter and riding his newly acquired horse, Roadmap. Roadmap was a bay gelding and a “bad to buck outlaw with 7 brands that nobody wanted.” Today, Bill will tell you that Roadmap was a result of people problems, not horse problems. This is one horse he wished he could have a do-over with.
Bill spent the rest of the 1980s working with the Clarks, Cabin Creek Outfitters, and a Civil Engineering Firm. Determined to buy his first home, he slept in his truck working double shifts on the Buffalo Bill Dust Abatement Dikes project. And alas, at 23 years old, he bought his first home up the South Fork just outside of Cody, Wyoming.
Voted as Guide of the Year by Cody Country Outfitters and Guides Association, Bill was quickly becoming what he had always wanted to be, an expert in the mountains and with horses.
The passion that began in his youth was fostered by the hard-core old-time Outfitters and Guides he found himself surrounded by. Bill says he owes a lot of credit to them for their mentorship and what they taught him about the mountains, livestock, and life. They had a “no B.S., get on, stay on and get the work done” approach. They had true grit, and no excuses were ever allowed. Time and again he would hear things like “A real hand with any heart and try will figure it out and get the job done or die trying.”Or even after a long hard day of shoeing ten horses, packing four sets of panniers, loading the whole camp, and getting ready to leave the next morning, expectations were still to complete the normal days’ work. If you did not also get the two colts you were supposed to ride, you would hear “listen kid, if you can’t put forth any better effort than that we may not be able to keep you around…”.
Bill’s choice during this time was to become a good hand, or die trying. Riding the horses and mules in these conditions meant “on the job” training. No round pens in the mountains, and no excuses. Tactics like blindfolds, foot ropes, heavy loads, lots of miles, and wet saddle blankets were used to train colts, older horses, and mules. Bill recalls seeing famed outfitter Jake Clark time and again buy horses and mules that were headed for the “killer” pens in Billings, MT. Jake and his crew gave these animals a “job” and over time, with lots of work and miles many turned out to be reliable trail/dude horses and pack mules. As a “trainer” you became well versed at reading and handling green, scared, rough, and sometimes spoiled livestock.
By the 1990s, Bill had worked his way up to full-time survey crew party chief from rodman at the Civil Engineering Firm. He found himself no longer able to take leaves of absence to ride horses and guide hunters. The mountains called, and he decided it was time for him to do something different.
In 1991, he was hired as the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region 2, Specialty Pack String Lead Packer. He found himself once again in the mountains horseback, but this time for different reasons. He rode horses and packed mules across five states, won the USDA Forest Service 100-year packing competition and the all-around saddle. This was also the first time he was exposed to Natural Horsemanship by Outfitter Duane Hagan. Bill was 27 years old and could ride and pack just about anything, but started to realize there was so much he didn’t know about horses. The Ray Hunt and Pat Parelli style Duane Hagan taught him was humbling, so he started an extensive self-study of great trainers such Monte Roberts, the Dorrance brothers, and the Jeffery’s method from Australia.
For Bill, this era also brought a new group of older mentors into his life. He deems himself lucky to have known the last of the true hard-core Smoke Jumpers and Real Rangers in the United States Forest Service before they were all gone.
He was humbled time and again by seasoned Rangers such as Monte Barker who could scream at you like a drill sergeant. Bill recalls questions such as “Oliver can you sharpen your crosscut to cut as fast as a chainsaw? Any idiot can pack an elk or duffel bags! Can you tandem pack 30’ bridge beams and lumber? Can you lay out a trail on grade by eye? The elk will show you where the trail should be! Can you fall a big tree and hit a coffee can out there at 200 feet? Can you find the poachers and renegades? If you can’t what good are you for anyway? Bill smiles when he thinks of some of the more colorful questions he would be asked by the older rangers and smoke jumpers… “Oliver can you figure out what to do when the fire is about to overrun you and you not sh*t your pants, panic and kill everyone? When loggers, outfitters, or ranchers want to kick your a**, can you hold the line on your decision because it’s the right thing for the resource and the greater good? This was the kind of mentor that believed Bill wasn’t a real ranger unless he could do all of these things, and take 15 head of pack mules over Deer Creek Pass in the middle of a blizzard, in the dark, by himself, roll a smoke, and never miss a beat. These seasoned Rangers would also add that he “better be mounted on a good horse, and I don’t mean one of those little footed, mutton withered, fine boned, hot blooded, son of a b*tches!”
Bill could write a book telling all about these old Smoke Jumpers and Real Rangers, their livestock, the mountains, wildlife, wildfires, and resources they managed and what they taught him. They made a deep impression on him, and he will tell you he also owes them a lot of credit for helping him become a better horseman, ranger, and man.
Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Bill continued working for the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region 2 and building on his horsemanship skills with exposure to Will Howe and Pat Parelli. However, it was Howe who showed Bill what a real bridle horse could be, and he began to really focus on figuring out the different use of bits. His son, Zack, was born in 1993 and he was reassigned to the Shoshone National Forest, Wapiti Ranger District, Cody, Wyoming. As his career continues with the USDA, the Forest Service adds the Clarks Fork RD Wilderness, firefighting and law enforcement duties, Greybull RD Wilderness/trails/livestock, Livestock Manager duties for Lander-Dubious areas, Wilderness Resource Advisor, Contract Officer Representative, and eventually Outfitting and Guiding Permit Administrator. By 2004, Bill managed several hundred thousand dollars in budgets, several crews, and livestock animals.
His memory is marked by some of the great horses he has ridden and great horsemen he has mentored with. It was Blue Duck, a snorty Hancock blue roan, that made him consider studying Natural Horsemanship, and it was Mr. Morris Mossman that helped Bill do just that. Mossman showed Bill how to understand his feet, coming and yielding to pressure, and so much more. He witnessed Mossman riding bridle less, and working his feet and spurs on horses like he had never seen before. It was with this experience that he decided he better reevaluate his whole approach and method of horse training.
Famed Rodeo legend, Carl Jones, also had some great influence on Bill and his family. It was Jones that opened Bill up to better handling of a rope, rope horses, and sons.
By 2002, Bill had the privilege of knowing and learning from some of the best hands known, and unknown, to the horse world. Things started to come together for Bill, by this time in his life, he became more than just an operator on a horse, and he began to really connect with them. He finally understands true natural horsemanship and refined his method combining all of his experience from the mountains and the arena mentors to create a method of his own. Twenty years from when he arrived in Wyoming to work at becoming a real horseman, he felt like he had finally done it.
Not only did his horsemanship start to come together, he met the love of his life, Jody, and married her in 2005.
The years of packing and riding horses had taken a toll on him, and he had major back surgery in 2008 and decided it was time for him to slow down. A shoulder surgery a year later confirmed that it was time.
In 2010, Bill retired from the USDA Forest Service. This time was difficult for him, he had always been a Ranger, and he felt a little lost. He turned to cattle ranching, property management, and guiding hunters again. The mountains and horses were still a huge part of him, but he wasn’t sure where it all fit just yet.
He began training horses with a different motive… to consign to the Top-Notch Horse Sale. The famous horse sale held in front of the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody, and put on by his longtime friend and mentor, Jake Clark. It was this adventure that opened Bill’s eyes to the idea he might be able to share his unique approach to horses. Quickly becoming a popular consignor and trainer, he and Jody sold several solid and high dollar horses at the Cody horse sale. Finding his way again, Bill made horses a priority and decided to supplement his income by also becoming a licensed realtor for Berkshire Hathaway in Cody. His knowledge of land use and ranching set him apart from his peers at the real estate firm.
As time goes on and he continues to ride, train and sell horses, fans and friends suggest maybe he could put on a clinic or two to teach what he knows to others… and he does it!
In 2019, Bill and Jody launched “Oliver Horses” and hosted four horsemanship and colt starting clinics that helped dozens of people become better with their horses, and horses become better for their riders.
It was a busy year, but it set Bill back on his path that started in the Mountains of California so many years ago. It has been a wild and woolly adventure to get to here, and although he’s a little battered and bruised he’ll tell you it was worth the ride.
His original mentors, Ron and Lace Oliver, live across the valley from his Cody home. He is surrounded by horses, mountains, and a couple granddaughters. If you have a hankering for learning more about horses and horsemanship we invite you to Cody, share a cup of coffee, and maybe leave just a little bit better than you came.