July 6, 2016
By Naomi Witherick
I hadn’t been on a horse in years. So when I was invited on a horseback trip with Banff Trail Riders I could see it going one of two ways. I’d either be a natural or my horse would break into an unexpected trot hurling me from the saddle into pile of mud.
Despite that possibility of the latter, I was excited. I’ve been living in Banff for the last eight months and I hoped the trip would offer sights from new perspectives. And having written about early explorers’ use of horses to navigate the mountains for Where Canadian Rockies, I wondered if the trip would conjure a sense of discovery.
I arrived at the stables on Sundance Road at 11 am with Where editor, Afton. Dozens of horses were loaded into the corral, saddled up and ready to go. We checked in with the attentive, plaid-shirt-clad staff then introduced ourselves to a few horses tied up in the yard.
Families were gathering for their tours, some for the hourly rides (Trail Riders offers two routes) and others for the three-hour Cowboy Cookout Lunch that we were signed up for (suitable for children over six-years-old, wagon option available for those aged four and up).
We were paired with our horses – I was with Quarry, Afton with Tumbleweed – and helped onto the saddle. I wasn’t nervous, but at this point I realised I knew nothing about controlling a horse. Images of being flung from the saddle while Quarry ran into the distance came to back mind.
But the guides were great. They showed us how to hold the reigns and ride ‘western style’. And the horses were so well trained they didn’t need much instruction, making the tour suitable for all experience levels.
So we set off. Following a trail running parallel to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, we headed in the direction of Sundance Canyon. Our guide April took the lead and the horses ambled in single-file behind.
Out on the muddy track I felt a beautiful exclusion from the town’s bustle. I watched squirrels dart in the surrounding trees and felt the cool whip of the early summer breeze.
As we rode, April told us more about the area. She drew our attention to the light sulphur scent from the nearby springs, the starting point of Banff’s tourism industry in 1883.
We emerged by the dazzling blue water of the Bow River, offering upstream views and a panorama of Mount Norquay and Cascade Mountain. Then we veered right 0.8 km before the canyon to a marquee set up at Three Mile Cabin for lunch.
I was excited for this. My time in Banff has been as much about eating as it has been about enjoying the mountains. And although we’d only been riding for an hour I’d worked up an appetite.
The steak was barbecued to order and the baked potato with all the trimmings was a delicious side. While we ate, Afton and I chatted with backcountry cook Marita who told us more about Trail Riders. The company owns over 300 animals including working horses, wagon horses and mules. They’re bought from auctions where they’d most likely be purchased for meat production otherwise.
Trail Riders trains them for their hourly rides and overnight lodge, tent and fishing trips (try the three-day expedition to Sundance Lodge). Then they get a seven-month rest in a ranch in northern Alberta during winter.
After lunch the guides helped us back on the horses. As they adjusted stirrups and chatted to the animals, I could see how passionate they were about being on horseback. It made the experience feel like more than just a tourist attraction, like I was sampling a genuine western lifestyle.
From the cabin we rode up the steep, rugged terrain of Windy Knoll. Quarry picked his way over rocks and tucked his heads against gusts of wind that blustered over the ridge.
I’d never been up Windy Knoll before and for a second I could imagine what it must have been like for those first explorers, seeing new sights as their horses trekked over craggy ground.
Coming down the other side we followed the Marsh Loop back to the Bow River. I’d walked this loop plenty of times, but from horseback I could see over the shrubbery to breathtaking views of Mount Rundle.
The horses snorted and flicked their tails, knowing the stables – and feeding time – were getting close. And as we sauntered along the road to the stables I was disappointed the ride was coming to an end.
I’d traversed new trails and seen Banff’s woodlands, river and mountains from beautiful new angles. I’d sampled a taste of western life (as well as some delicious steak). And – thanks to a well-trained Quarry – I did it without falling off.
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