Patricia Elaine Nelson

A lifelong horse lover, she spent her life painting, raising and training horses

Patricia Elaine Nelson

Illustration By Julia Minamata

Patricia Elaine Nelson was born July 11, 1955, in High River, Alta., to Lloyd Nelson and his wife, Mildred. Patty was their fifth child. Although Lloyd and Mildred made their living farming and raising cattle, Lloyd’s passion was chuckwagon racing. The family travelled to races throughout southern Alberta, including the Calgary Stampede, which Lloyd won in 1949, and again in 1956.

With six mouths to feed, Lloyd and Mildred expected their kids to help out. Patty started riding horses soon after she could walk and was training them by age 10; one of her chores was exercising her father’s high-spirited racehorses. While riding one horse, she would lead another on a rope behind her, racing around a makeshift half-mile track west of the farmhouse—tough work. One morning, Patty’s older brother, Doug, was mucking out stalls, shovelling manure and old hay, when a horse waltzed into the barn without its rider. Terrified his little sister might be injured, Doug hopped on the horse and rode to the track where Patty had been exercising the horses. “She wasn’t limping like a little, timid waif,” says Doug. “She was stomping back to the barn with her arms pumping, mad as heck.”

When Patty wasn’t riding horses, she was drawing them, and one of her colt sketches appeared in Western Horseman when she was nine. Instead of taking notes, Patty often filled her school notebooks with drawings of horses. But she was a good student and, after graduating from High River High School, the local school, she was accepted at Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to study art. She quit after only a year, and headed home; the teachers wanted her to draw something other than horses.

In her early 20s, Patty met Ben Graves, a Montanan working as a foreman at the Round T, the ranch across the river from the Nelson farm. Ben first spotted the blue-eyed farm girl with long blond hair from a distance. Patty was sitting atop a horse and Ben was mighty impressed by the pretty farm girl. The two were soon a pair, and married in 1977.

After the wedding, Patty and Ben moved to the rural community of Musselshell, Mont., where Ben worked as a farmhand and they had three boys, Matthew, Sam and Warren. The family moved frequently—from Montana to Wyoming to Kansas and back to Montana—as Ben did his best to support the family, working as an electrician, then as a banker. Wherever they lived, Patty always had horses, sometimes as many as a few dozen.

Patty never had a nine-to-five job, but was always busy with her kids and animals. She bred horses and border collies and raised sheep and chickens. When the kids were little, she took a job caring for 3,000 pregnant ewes, delivering lambs overnight. She had a deft hand with foals, too. When a mare was due, she would taste its milk to check its progress. When the milk got sweet, it was a sign of colostrum; Patty knew a foal would be born within the hour.

Days of Our Lives was one of Patty’s indulgences. Even as she watched TV, she would set up her easel to paint horses—preferably by a north-facing window where the light was right. Patty sometimes painted or drew on commission and she also used art to barter, often in lieu of the stud fee to breed a mare. She would also trade the horses she bred, rather than selling them for cash. “It seemed like she was always able to make something work for both parties, and sometimes it was three or four parties involved,” says Warren.

In 2010, Ben and Patty were living on a farm near Ronan, Mont., when they bought the Circle County Market, a grocery store and community hall in Circle, a town of about 700 in Montana’s northeast. Patty continued bartering, trading a border collie pup for hay to get her horses through this winter. Late on the evening of Jan. 7, Patty got a call from someone in Butte, Mont., who wanted one of her horses. The next morning, she and Ben hitched the trailer to their pickup truck, loaded the horse, named Honey, and started the three-hour drive.

Shortly before noon, a SUV came barrelling down Interstate 90 at 150 km/h on the wrong side of the road. Cars ahead of the Graves were able to veer off to safety but they couldn’t, because they had Honey in the trailer. The vehicle drove head-on into their truck, killing Patty. Ben and Honey survived. Patty was 57.

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