Spend some quiet time on an authentic dude ranch for a true western experience
By Andrew Mah
The air is crisp and exceedingly clear. My new friend Rosa Caliente stalks along the crest of a hill, her flanks heaving a little as her hooves take ginger steps through a late spring snowfall. In the distance, spread panoramically like some cinematographer’s Oscar dream scene, are the majestic eastern flanks of the Rockies, rising up from prettily rumpled foothills.
I’m out for a horseback ride and weekend stay here at Homeplace Ranch. It’s a little resort about 30 minutes southwest of Calgary—a rustic B&B and dude ranch. It bills itself as the “Last Best West”—an authentic ranch-living experience.
It’s the kind of thing many travellers quest after—a retreat into nature, a stepping back to a simpler way of life.
I live in Calgary, where on a clear day you can see the Rockies along the western horizon with clarity. Still, I’m impressed by the view, the sense of peace and quietude. My co-riders, Martina and Eva, two ladies who have come all the way from Germany, are gazing out with wide-eyed reverence. Martina mutters something in German that sounds like, “My God, that’s beautiful.” We all exchange silly grins before turning to follow our guide Duncan back down the hill.
The owner of Homeplace, Mac MaKenny, plays the part, with a Stetson hat, a cowboy shirt with blue kerchief, and a sun-wrinkled face that has met its share of sunrises and sunsets. Now in his seventies, Mac’s demeanour is country Zen; he gives the impression that he’d react to a loud noise or commotion with a curiously raised eyebrow.
“It’s a great business,” says Mac. “People want to relax, they want to feel a horse—they want to share their tales of horses. It makes life very, very nice.”
Back at the ranch, we’re welcomed to the smell of bread fresh from the oven. I’m looking forward to lunch—yesterday, we were spoiled by a savoury chili, and some decadent cinnamon buns. It’s all part of the experience.
“[Mac] wanted to create a place that was welcoming—that was like going to Grandmother’s,” says cook and Homeplace hostess Karen Slusar. Karen is an eloquent manifestation of ranch hospitality, a 30-year kitchen veteran with the kind of earthy solidity you might expect of a food-loving grandma. Greying temples, a hearty smile and stocky build, she has strong, ruddy arms that have lifted their share of pot roasts and cookie trays out of hot ovens. For Karen, who also runs a catering business, a summer working at Homeplace Ranch is almost as rewarding as it is for us visitors. “This is my vacation,” she says with a grin.
The ranch is complete with a long dinner table designed for large gatherings and a sunny living area with couches and a potbelly stove. Equine-themed paintings and photographs line the wood-planked walls. The rooms are tidy and bright.
I wonder if this is really what it was like back in the 1800s, during the era of homesteads and the open range. There are no TVs here, no casinos around the block or nightly theatre shows. This is a vacation for the rustically inclined, or for those exhausted by urban sights and sounds. Spend some time here and you’ll either get really bored, or you’ll discover what I found walking the fields and riding through the hills and valleys. There exists a meditative quality to the experience, a letting go brought on by solitude and solace.
Still, Mac is a modern man: I spy him wearing a pair of neon coloured sport sandals. Mac himself is not a lifelong rancher (my first guess); rather, he’s worked in sales for sporting goods firms in the U.S. and Canada. The ranch was his getaway plan.
But before I can reach the conclusion that this is a well-wrought facade of manufactured hominess, Mac begins telling stories. He reminisces about how he first acquired the ranch, finding the abandoned homestead by following a herd of cows while out on a horseback ride. He points to a sepia picture of his parents, proud Westerners looking resplendent in formal cowboy wear. Their wedding photo includes their horses as if best man and maid of honour. He then shows me his parents leather riding chaps and gloves, lovingly preserved. Mac’s reverence for western heritage is clearly authentic and in his blood.
The ranch itself is genuine, first homesteaded back in 1912. But it saw most of its expansion in the 1970s when Mac took it over; the bedrooms and common spaces have all been added on since then. Up to 21 guests can stay at either of the ranch’s two lodges, and (including Crown lands), there are over 7,000 acres available for horseback riding.
And for all the passage of time, the mountains are the same, as are the horses. They are what really draw people here—even the staff. There’s Rob, a polite young man from England who was drawn here by the bucolic life of the wrangler. Sam, from Ontario, is a rosy-cheeked teenage girl here to help with kitchen duties and housekeeping. She’s only just arrived yet already knows the names of every horse roaming the ranch.
Mac himself has ridden horses all his life and now with the ranch, he tries to ride three to four hours a day. “The horses are what keep me in the business,” he says. “When I’m on a horse, that’s all I think about. My mind goes soft and gentle.”
On the first morning before I am to ride, I remind Mac that I’ve only been on a horse once before. I’m slightly tentative—I adore horses, their big liquid eyes and warm muzzles. But when you get up close, you realize these are big beasts, a tonne of muscle, sinew and bone that could toss you aside like a rag doll—were they so inclined.
Mac is understanding and we spend some time in the corral just getting to know the horses. Mac’s a bit of a horse whisperer. He reminds me not to look directly at them, the way a predator would, but to come up along side; to speak softly and stroke them on the flanks before touching the head so as not to alarm them. It’s working—my horse-to-be, Rosa, sidles up, gives me a nuzzle. It’s a little magical.
My heart is lifted by this connection. It’s the key to Homeplace: man and nature. The simple joy of a warm-hearted experience.
At the end of my time on the ranch, I bid a nostalgic goodbye to Rosa and to Mac, Karen, and Sam and Rob. Before I go, Karen puts in my hand a cellophane-wrapped cinnamon bun—one for the road—while suggesting I stop by anytime, even if only to chat over a cup of coffee. Somehow that small act alone sums up the warm memories of my weekend away at Homeplace Ranch.
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