Easy Tails at a Canadian Ranch
By Kate Pocock
Photos by Gerald Vander Pyl
Dustin and Natalie at
the Home Place Ranch in Alberta
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 the horses 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
a cluster of 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 practice 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, Indian Chief lamp and silver coyote hide tacked above the bed
- I dipped into The Treasury of Western Folklore on the night table
and tried 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.
the saddle ready
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 turquoise
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.
Dustin on the trial
The Homeplace Guest Ranch is a working ranch located about 50 km
(31 miles) 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 where cabins
with built-in bunks and stoves provide accommodation. Teepee overnights
also available. Packages (priced in Canadian dollars) start at $310
for April or May weekends 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
Address: R.R.1, Priddis, Alberta TOL 1WO.
Kate Pocock's Family Fare column appears in the Toronto
Sun newspaper. She is also senior editor of Travel & More, magazine
for the Air Miles program in Canada, and recently contributed to
National Geographic's first family travel book, Great Family