Lake County man honored after spending life in the saddle

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Walter J. Vermedahl on horseback. (Courtesy of Mary Vermedahl)

Walter J. “Walt” Vermedahl is at home on horseback.

The 80-year-old cowboy from Lake County spent most of his life breaking, training and riding horses throughout Northwest Montana. His career in the saddle includes six summers at Glacier Park Horse Concessions, part ownership in Pablo’s Pony Palace training and event center, and many more years independently training and trading horses.

Vermedahl will join a shortlist of esteemed Western riders as a 2019 inductee in the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame. The Montana Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center announces a new class of honorees each year, each chosen from 12 districts throughout the state. Inductees are selected for their contributions to cowboy history and culture in Montana. Vermedahl and the other inductees will be honored during the annual Circle the Wagons gathering Feb. 7-8, 2020, in Great Falls.

Vermedahl was born in Radio and spent much of his youth in Irvine Flats, 16 miles west of Polson. At just 14 years of age, he learned how to train colts and shoe horses from his neighbor. From there, his love of all things equine blossomed. Vermedahl had an illustrious high school rodeo career, and took first in the state in bareback and third at nationals in saddle bronc.

He also served for seven years in the National Guard and it was a friend from his military days that recommended Vermedahl for a position with Glacier Park Horse Concessions. He delighted guests with rope tricks such as the Wedding Ring and Texas Skip, and went on to become a part owner in the business for his last two summers. His renowned horse training skills paid off one afternoon when he went to check on 30 head of horses that were turned out to pasture. A beaver pond prevented the men from crossing to retrieve the horses so instead, Vermedahl let out a whistle and his beloved steed Bingo led the others safely back to the corrals on his command.

In the coming years, he continued to train horses professionally and even participated in the historic Montana Centennial Train Ride. The train stopped in 16 major cities from Billings to New York City en route to the World’s Fair, hosting an array of Western shows and parades.

After returning, Vermedahl got married and began training horses at the Polson fairgrounds. Not long after, he became an influential figure in the construction of the Pony Palace in Pablo, a boarding facility and competition venue. In 1973, Vermedahl returned to the Irvine Flats area and purchased the Picket Ranch, just a short jaunt from his parents’ place, and continued training horses along with raising several hundred head of cattle. On average, 10 outside horses would be saddled for a day’s work on the ranch.

Vermedahl’s love for horses also extended into the rodeo discipline of team-roping, where two mounted riders rope a steer by catching its head and hind legs in a quick, coordinated effort. He was awarded Pick up Man of the Year in 1989 and ’90, and began hosting team-roping practice at his indoor arena on Wednesday evenings, rain or shine, followed by ice cream.

That same year, Skid Frost, a horse that Vermedahl had part ownership in, sired a horse dubbed Precious Speck. He didn’t know it then, but Speck was destined for rodeo fame. However, the horse incurred an injury after jumping a fence, driving a steel post into his right flank. Vermedahl kept Speck on the ranch and even competed with him once he healed. Vermedahl eventually sold Speck to professional team roper Travis Tryan in 2000. Tryan renamed the horse Walt and went on to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for nine years. Walt took home the title of American Quarter Horse Association/Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Head Horse of the Year fours times and in 2015 became the first roping horse to be inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Today, Vermedahl continues to compete and mentor other riders at his home in Cave Creek, Arizona, alongside his wife, Mary. He is still very much a cowboy riding onward with his faith, a good horse and a rope in his hand.

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