A Man and His HorseIt is easy to see the intelligence and power of horses when standing close during a chuck-wagon race or a bucking competition, but there’s only one way to truly experience the magic of these creatures: Saddle up.
After watching others take dramatic falls from broncos and speed around a track pulled by thoroughbreds, my wife, Kim, and I decided we had to try horseback riding for ourselves, and we were told that the best place to do it was the Homeplace Ranch, a 100-year-old dude ranch in Priddis, about 45 minutes from Calgary in the foothills of the Rockies.
Having never ridden a horse before, I was a bit nervous, but when I told strangers where we were headed, they all said the same thing: Mac Makenny (at right with wife Susan), the owner of the ranch, is the best at picking horses. In the dude-ranch world, I learned that is the highest compliment.
As we drove down the long dirt road to the ranch, the first thing I noticed was that there were no stalls. The horses roamed wild, rolling in the grass and napping in the sun.
The staff invited us to drop our bags, snack on fresh chocolate chip cookies and meet some of the 35 horses, who happened to be hanging out a few feet from our room. We approached with trepidation but immediately noticed that these horses lacked the neuroses I’ve seen in so many stabled horses. They came up to us seeking affection, and we eagerly indulged.
After an amazing home-cooked meal served family style with the other guests, Kim and I returned to play with the horses, but they had disappeared into the dense forest to bed down for the night. We decided to follow their example.
We were asleep long before sunset — and up just in time to walk the trails with the ranchers as they rounded up the horses for their morning feeding and grooming. Makenny chatted with all the riders briefly and then instinctually paired each of us with a horse to match our personalities. I spent the day on Rolling Thunder, who happened to have carried the Olympic Torch (with Makenny astride) during the Vancouver Olympics. The horse seemed to anticipate my every move, putting me at ease and gently guiding me through ghostly aspen forests, flower-filled meadows and ridges with sweeping views of the mountains. Makenny’s wife, Susan Lea-Makenny, led our group of four, pointing out species of flowers and gesturing to moose hiding in the woods and to cattle on neighboring land.
After a full day of riding, my legs had had enough, and as they do every Saturday night, the staff had a fire waiting for us upon our return. For dinner we were offered fresh Alberta beef, potatoes and beans, all cooked on the open flame, followed by ice cream and cake.
Sitting at the fire pit, we were surrounded by the ranch’s original buildings, constructed by homesteaders in 1912. Makenny, who bought the ranch from the daughter of the original owners more than 30 years ago, likes to tell the story of the time the daughter visited a couple of years back. By then, she was well into her 80s, and when Makenny asked her what had changed on the ranch since she was a child, she responded, “Well, Mr. Makenny, the trees have gotten bigger, haven’t they?”