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Riding Easy at a Canadian Ranch

I figured that we must be nearing our destination, the Homeplace Ranch in Alberta, because suddenly four horses—large ones—appeared on the road in front. “Should I honk?” I asked my two young teens. For a few seconds, we stared until one of them broke rank and ambled slowly up to the window to say hello. This was a good sign. If all the horses at Mac Makenny’s place were this tame, perhaps we could indeed survive our first family ranch vacation.

I eased the car up to the red ranch-style bungalow bordered by log cabin out-buildings sprouting elk horns, split rail fences and pick-up trucks. “Is this it?” I asked my kids, eyeing the sea of mud between car and front door. “Mum, it’s a ranch,” said 14-year-old Dustin, brightening at the sight of it. As for 12-year-old Natalie, who rode horses from time to time in Toronto, one look at the lay of the land and she was ecstatic. “These are the kind of hills you can gallop across,” she informed me. I, who had not ridden a horse in 25 years? Perish the thought. My goal for the next few days was to stay upright in the saddle. And to get my kids home in one piece.

We had chosen the Homeplace because owners Mac and Jayne Makenny regularly popped kids as young as seven onto a horse and let them take ownership for a week. Their own daughter Jessie, at 10 years old, was already training her own horse. Here, horseaholics could immerse themselves in all things equine, grooming and combing fetlocks and manes to their heart’s delight. And more than 50 horses offered a range of possibilities. As for greenhorns like myself? The Homeplace readily welcomed beginners and eased them into cowboy life. Which meant the inevitable—setting out into “them there hills” on a horse.

“Don’t worry, we’ll fix you up O.K.” reassured Mac, as he sat us down to lasagna, salad and strawberry shortcake, served family-style with six other guests. Then he outlined our schedule: breakfast at eight, out on the trail by nine, a picnic lunch along the way and home by four. What? No practise session in the corral first? This didn’t seem to faze the kids who were busy helping themselves to milk and cookies before bed. But as we retired to our two-bedroom family suite—saloon-style doors, an Indian Chief lamp, a silver coyote hide tacked above the bed—I dipped into the Treasury of Western Folklore on the night table to try not to think about runaway horses or one of my teens dangling from a tree.

After waking to the clanging of the breakfast bell, we filled up on sausages and flapjacks, packed picnic lunches and gathered by Woody, the practice horse in the yard. “I’ve seen more accidents getting on and off a horse,” explained Mac, as he showed us how to grip the reins and mane and swing a leg over in one smooth motion. One young business exec mounted backwards. Everyone chuckled until my turn. I couldn’t even swing my leg up over Woody’s back. That was hilarious, especially for my kids.

No surprise then that I was given Easy, a beautiful brown gelding that Mac pronounced “one hundred percent predictable.” Natalie was boosted up onto Cat and Dustin mounted Showboat, the curly-coated piebald elder of the ranch. As we started up the forest path, I concentrated on steering Easy through the trees. Because of a recent shower, the path was slippery. Easy stumbled on a rock and I pitched forward. “Lean back,” shouted Mac. “Keep your hands down. He’ll do it for you.”

It was true. Easy and his cohorts were so well trained that our movements were instructions. When I raised my reins, Easy stopped; If I touched his mane with the left rein, he turned right. If I hugged with my knees, Easy broke into a trot. He seemed to like trotting a lot, especially up hills. By noon, my legs were weak and I was more than ready for sandwich sustenance and a cup of “cowboy cappuccino” brewed over an open flame. “Wasn’t that fun?” Dustin asked as he jumped off Showboat. Natalie gave me a thumbs up as she tied Cat to a tree.

After lunch, we headed up onto the ridges. One false move here and a horse could tumble down. I was glad when we arrived at open fields where cattle grazed languidly in the meadow. The scenery was beautiful but by the time we got home, my backside felt as if it had been rubbed raw. My shoulder ached from clutching the saddle horn. I could barely dismount. Thank goodness for muscle relaxers. The horses were happy though. We brushed them and rubbed them and let them loose to graze or run into the pasture. As for the riders—a glass of wine, a turkey dinner and sleep. It was only 8:45 p.m.

The next day Mac showed us how bits and reins worked and I concentrated on keeping my hands still and my knees loose. Easy was easier as we both relaxed. As for the kids, no worries there. Dustin looked like a real cowboy trotting along with one hand raised in the air. Natalie was begging to canter through golden brush and around a turqoise lake where a teepee was set up for overnights. Mac stopped to point out an owl’s nest in a tree and three coyotes running in the distance. “Can we chase them?” asked one of the kids. “No,” said Mac. He was not about to risk a twisted ankle—for one of his horses. Instead, we turned back toward the ranch where we could unbridle our mounts, say goodbye and soak our tired muscles in warm water. As for the horses, they trotted off, ready to welcome the next carload of guests who happened upon the Homeplace.

The Homeplace Guest Ranch is a working ranch located about 50 km (31 mi.) southwest of Calgary in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Amenities include home-cooked meals, outdoor jacuzzi and private rooms with private bath. Also possible are holidays at the Homeplace South ranch, a rustic former forest ranger station; cabins with built-in bunks and stoves provide accommodation. Teepee overnights also available. Packages start at $310 for an April or May weekend to $1040 for a seven day/six night summer stay or $1086 for a Spruce Meadows or Calgary Stampede package; all meals, activities and video review included. Discounts for kids 12 and under. Riding not permitted for guests over 220 lbs—too hard on a horse’s back. Phone or fax 403-931-3245, or visit www.homeplaceranch.com
Address: R.R.1, Priddis, Alberta TOL 1WO.





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