Monthly Archives: December 2014

Christmas – 2014

Seasons Greetings from Amazing Backcountry !

No doubt everyone is familiar with being busy this time of year.  I recently spoke to someone who dreads this time of year because it becomes hectic; malls are crowded and people are, for lack of a better word, intense.

But stress isn’t what the season is about. The season is traditionally about celebrating the birth of Jesus, and in that we celebrate family, friends and togetherness. In my sometimes naive way of thinking, Christmas is like Thanksgiving. In the eight hours I put on the highway the other day hauling horses in two different trailers–both of which were loaned to me, I had plenty of time to contemplate what I was going to sit down and write this morning. Invariably my thoughts kept drifting to the people that have helped me out this year.

I was in fact, almost six hours late on my drive home. Given the events that delayed my departure: truck troubles, trailer troubles and an impromptu three hour horse training session, I was prepared for another disaster or delay on the way home. Bring it on, I thought.  But I had a smile on my face; I was heading home. My drive was uneventful, save for a highway closure (police all over) and some patches of dense fog. Thinking of hungry horses and a dog in the house whose bladder was probably aching, I called a friend of mine who lives nearby. He didn’t hesitate to drive all the way over to my place and take care of things.

horsemanship obstacles bridge

Groundwork with Spud on the new bridge.

This past year has been busy but exciting.  Amazing Backcountry has big plans to restructure in 2015 to offer some great new services to members, including 2-day horsemanship / obstacle course clinics in the summer…but more on that later. The home ranch is coming along with new fences and paddocks, landscaping, a new roof on the barn, a new horse obstacle course, an arena, new flooring in the house and of course…more horses! Given the age of the property, renovations take much longer; starting one project inevitably means the start of many other projects which must be completed before the project of your original intent can even begin.

If you’ve renovated an old place, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

vintage barn

Vintage barn with a new roof.

The construction zone, which basically covers the entire property, is also my home and home to all my horses, boarded horses and horses in for training.  It takes a bit of coordination to keep all things flowing smoothly.

More than that, it takes help. There is no way I could have accomplished the things I did this year by myself. I would still by hanging fence rails, pulling old barbed wire out of the bush and pounding fence posts if it wasn’t for the support I received.  I’d be using my cell phone as an internet modem if I wasn’t able to borrow a bucket truck to mount the dish on the barn.  My sheds would still be leaking if I didn’t have help re-roofing them.

But it doesn’t stop there.If you read my last article, Bonds with Horses, you’re familiar with how poor Ty has struggled this year. Honestly, I don’t think he would be around if it wasn’t for the folks that supported me in his recovery: rushing over to provide emergency therapy, offering guidance and supplement suggestions.  Not to mention the folks and the vet that attended him when he was discovered on the ground. Nor the long list of veterinarians, nutritionists and therapists that have supported us over the years.

horse playing with hat

Chip is ‘re-purposing’ my toque.

And as I mentioned above: trailers.  My trailer has decided it doesn’t like me any more. Now that I think about it, I believe it made that decision 10 years ago when it rolled out of the factory. Twice stranded in Athabasca, I’m only home with the horses I was hauling because of some great people that were willing to lend me their trailers to get home.

And I think that is a key word: home.

I was smiling during the long drive because I knew what awaited me: a dog jumping around with joy at my return, sharing space with relaxing horses that simply ooze peace and contentment  save for Chip, who, when I’ve been gone for a while wants nothing more than to play with me.  But that just makes me laugh; he’s a character, and quite possibly an equine mirror of me. Those animals make our home a warm, comfortable place.

kananaskis powderface horse

The year also welcomed some great new friends, and great mountain riding.

I’ve been on the new property now for a year and a half. I’ll probably be the new guy on the block for the next 30 years, but when I went into the local hardware the other day I realized that the staff and I know each other on a first name basis.

I never leave that establishment without sharing a coffee and a joke or a laugh.  It is comfortable, and little things like that makes home, well–home.

In the end, it comes down to horses.  Ty, Belle, Spud, Chip, Ponkey and Bailey provide the framework that I exist in. If it wasn’t for those horses, I’m really not sure where, or what, home would be. Of course the new property and all the construction is part of a business plan, but it also provides a needed home for those horses. Their safety, comfort and well being are, and will always be, at the top of my priority list. That work pays off because on a daily basis those horses provide hope, understanding, fun, play and laughter, trust, faith, joy and peace.

And that’s a fairly accurate description of Christmas too, isn’t it?

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas,

Scott Phillips

December 2014

New Equestrian Campground

Mackenzie County in the north Peace Country will soon have a new equestrian campground. Construction began in November, 2014, with the selective clearing of trees to establish a loop road for the site. The campground will facilitate access to excellent trails in a unique area of sandhills. This is a true community project: a demonstration of what can be accomplished by a handful of people with a shared interest and some frontier spirit!

The Project
The project itself is a joint effort of Mackenzie County and the Hungry Bend Sandhills Wilderness Society (HBSWS). The County sought to partner with a local community group to increase recreational opportunities in this remote rural area. The HBSWS is a registered society made up of several local people dedicated to preserving the natural landscape of the sandhills. The hills are recognized not only as a prized recreational area but also valued historically and geologically. For more information about the region, visit the Fort Vermillion website.

Machesis Lake Horse CampThe new campground will be located within the boundary of Machesis Lake Recreational Area, which is administered by the County. The existing infrastructure (gravel road, signage, and camp attendant yard site) lends itself well to construction of the horse camp road and parking sites, as well as to future maintenance of the outhouses, corrals, etc. Machesis (Mah-chee-sis) Lake can be found at SE34 107-16-5.

For about 25 years, trail riders, ATV enthusiasts, and hunters used a random camping area outside of the park boundary, but due to deadfall and erosion of the track into the parking area, access to horse trailers became increasingly difficult. Caretaking was limited and irresponsible use was increasing. All parties involved in planning the new campground agreed that locating the site within the park allows for better management and environmental protection.

 

Machesis Lake Horse Camp

The entrance to the camp loop road after the trees were selectively logged, leaving as many as possible. The author stands in the foreground.

The Process
The behind-the-scenes work on this project began in 2012 with numerous emails and phone calls between County staff and Hungry Bend Sandhills Wilderness Society members to discuss potential sites and requirements for equestrian campgrounds. HBSWS members researched sites in the Willmore Wilderness Area, and talked with the Alberta Trail Riding Association, Alberta Equestrian Federation, and outfitters and friends who use various staging areas in southern Alberta and the USA. Environmental scans on foot and on horseback in the spring and fall determined that the area was not home to any rare species and that drainage would be appropriate. Flagging of the proposed site and existing connector trails were completed by volunteers in the summer. County staff joined the effort to inspect the site on foot, and provided accurate maps and aerial photographs.

The site was chosen based on several factors:
Proximity to an old ski trail which allows easy access to other trails and avoids the main road, providing greater safety
A sand ridge to the north makes a barrier to the road

Southern exposure encourages spring snow melt and earlier access by vehicles

Trees are mostly deciduous which potentially will regenerate more easily; vegetation is a good mix of ages which contributes to sustainability of the environment

Flat ground for parking RV’s and limiting erosion

Good drainage

No evidence of sensitive species of plants or animals

Traffic must pass the caretakers yard for greater security

Natural breaks in the trees enable less invasive road construction

There is room for expansion if warranted in the future

Machesis Lake Horse CampThe Proposal
From the research done a formal written proposal was developed and presented by the HBSWS to the Countys Community Services Meeting, followed by less formal in-person discussions with County staff as needed. The proposal included letters of support from the Rocky Lane Pony Club branch and the Rocky Lane Agricultural Society as representatives of the equine industry in the region. Maps and photos showed the existing trails and the potential for tourism, recreation, and education. Balancing the increased use of the area with environmental protection was key for the HBSWS members. Effective management strategies for manure collection, traffic safety, and wildlife were outlined.

The Partnership
Mackenzie County approved the proposal, and allocated $25,000 in their 2014 budget for the project. This funding matched community donations of lumber for picnic tables and metal pipe for hitching rails and corrals, as well as heavy equipment and labour which was sourced by the HBSWS. The County was responsible for communicating with Alberta Tourism, Parks, and Recreation to receive a Historical Resources Impact Statement. Detailed plans and maps of the site were required and produced by the County. Parks staff also visited the proposed area in person.

Machesis Lake Horse CampThe Potential
This new campground, the first of its kind in northern Alberta, will be the staging area for access to miles of cut-lines and old wagon trails that wind through the sandhills in poplar, jackpine, and spruce forests. There are several small lakes, views of the Peace River, and wildlife to be seen. (The blueberry and hazelnut patches are top secret, however!) The footing is excellent from spring to early winter, and due to the sand, shoeing horses is generally not necessary. Once completed, the camp will have approximately 8 camping spots, an outhouse, pens, hitching rails, fire wood bin, manure bin, fire pits, and picnic tables. A holding tank for water may be provided during summer. The County will manage fee collection and up-keep. The Machesis Lake Horse Camp promises to be a popular asset to the equestrian community in the north.
Gale Dodd Hayday

One Amazing Place to Ride

I have had a few secret riding places. For me, it meant a gorgeous vista, lush landscape, wind in the pines, the sound of water over gravel, the graceful wave of grasses on a hill, looking like a thick glossy hide without being jostled aside by riders, hikers or cyclists as they go on their merry way. Hours of riding under Albertas spectacular summer skies. The thousands of kilometres of trails throughout the province up high or across the prairie. And the special place: paradise, Shangri-La, Narnia, Middle Earth, Jackson Valley.

And, that special moment when time falls away.

Like that beautiful montage in the movie The Black Stallion (1979) when Alec Ramsey, a young boy, finally rides The Black on a deserted island beach, arms spread out, head thrown back in the sun, as that magnificent horse streaks across the sand, throwing up huge sprays of water.

Finding paradise

I lucked out finding CFB Calgary as a boarding stable.

Weaselhead Flats

North side of the Elbow River was god’s country for trail riding

Behind the metal fencing along Glenmore and Hwy 8 was the working base that hid the riding stable. The Glenmore Dam was south of this and quite well developed as a park. The hint that there were horses could be found with hoof prints if not riders in the Weaselhead Flats: a bit of lowland as you crossed the Elbow River to access the south side of the dam.

These were the 11,800 acres that had been leased from the TsuTina First Nation and would eventually return to them. Nowadays the popular Grey Eagle Resort and Casino glitters forth and a major expressway and road building has been approved.

Lakeview Drive towards Glenmore Park revealed the typical army entrance to the west. As you drove into the base, with a gate and security, the horse boarding was tucked away in the back and left of the Lord Strathconas Horse (which had nice stalls and an outdoor arena). What wasn’t obvious, was the access to trails, including the one fording the Elbow River to the Weaselhead. At the time, the unrestricted and horse-friendly trails were par for course, little did I know just how big a deal this was and how soon it would end.

Finding Koko

And, I found Koko here. My beautiful 15.1 HH mare, an Arab-saddlebred cross with her long back, swan neck and dapped coat was elegant and big moving.

I had been at CFB for a short while and had been pondering getting another horse, one bigger than Sheebs (13.3 HH) and perhaps a bit more competitive for long distance riding. I had already been enjoying the riding and as they say in real estate, it was all about location, location, location.

The Mismatch

I was given a lead to a gal who was having a very unfortunate relationship with a lively and bouncing three year old. Koko was her dream horse that was quickly becoming a nightmare. While she had done a lot of right things, she underestimated a few.  She knew that this green-broke horse wasn’t ready for riding, so sent her, with recommendation from the breeder, for three months of training.  Instead of getting back a docile, moseying kind of horse, she got a ready-for-business, quick, smart and sensitive horse that actually loved to learn, if you taught her right. Under the hands of an accomplished rider, Koko got it very quickly, but needed consistent handling. Turned over to a recreational rider who wanted a Porsche body with a Volkswagen engine, there was no meeting of minds. Teena would inadvertently keep hitting the accelerator in the wrong gear while fumbling for the brakes. She got turfed a few times because Koko moved that much faster than she could react.

However, my friend did not have an angel on her shoulder when she came off. First time, she broke her wrist; next, got a concussion. She didn’t want a third time. Teena became spooked and not a little afraid. She knew that she had too much horse for what she really could handle.  So, with huge regrets, she was selling her dream.

My Wings

When I saw Koko, my jaw dropped.

She danced.

That high stepping, head up, tail flying dappled grey was astonishing. Oh, I wanted her.

What this horse needed was consistency, respecting space around a human and learning no?That standing still meant four feet planted. That going forward wasn’t a bolt out of a starting gate and that going around in a circle at a walk wasn’t squaring a star. But get her attention and that big dark eye looked and saw you. I knew that this horses raw physicality and athleticism was more than I could deal with too. But, like Alec found out with The Black, aka Satan, when you give your heart to a suspicious and cautious horse, you really have to figure out how to be together.  He found it with play.  He wanted to ride and The Black wanted to run like the wind.

And they did.

With both Arab and saddlebred in Koko and both bred to be ultimate people horses but from two different cultural backgrounds.

I wanted to ride with the sun on my face, at a good clip and have fun.

A simple horse health check showed a huge the capacity for distance riding and what Arab or saddlebred doesn’tt have distance in them ? That Koko could not canter was not a problem as she could trot, with a capital T ! I had seen other horses canter then gallop to keep up with her at an easy trotting cruising speed.

The big question was how to work with her without breaking her mind.?  Koko was mighty confused about what was right or not acceptable. I wanted a trail horse and didn’t want to fuss as I rubber necked. I wanted a horses natural try and interest to follow a path, go at a speed suited for the terrain and allow me to ask her to do some things without an argument.  A horse knows where to put its feet on a trail, be balanced and move efficiently; they have done that for millions of years. The problem is usually on the human side. To get Koko to work with me meant that I needed to improve my balance and let go of my fears. A horse that turfs a rider a couple of times is a daunting thought.

The Education of Koko

So, with some thought, I sent her to my ranching friends, the Wyatts, who had well bred, well behaved Appies that worked cattle, quietly and efficiently.  As a city slicker, I had a few more wants on that list, but I knew that Koko would get the consistency needed to learn to be confident around cattle and ultimately, other ungulates and things that could pop out of the shrubbery.

trail riding

Cooling off at the Elbow River after a trail ride

After three months, she came back to me as a solid citizen, although I had some interesting comments such as, I don’t like her.  I had to put horseshoes in my pockets to slow her down.  The first time she saw a deer, she came unglued.

What did I get?  A big stepping horse that could now move at cow time, not bunchy and pussy footed mincing forward, but just walking s-l-o-w-l-y, head down and moving easy behind or among heifers and calves. Joy!    No fussing with reins, just drop and go forward. Pick up for direction, sit back for a slow down and stop. Bigger joy. Her trust had come back and the impatience and wanting to take control toned down to a very low hummm.  I now had a Porsche that was primed for rally time!

She went from Kokonuts, to The Colonel and was simply, now, my wings.

Riding in paradise

In the meantime, riding The Sheba, I had discovered the wonderful secret of CFB: the other riding trails.

Arabian

Monika’s pint sized mare, Sheba

The one thing about a military base is that they train with guns and live ammo. That’s why people rode into the Weaselhead. We had permission to ride that a way when the soldiers weren’t on maneuvers. The majority of the boarders stayed close by. But I saw a lot of empty road that was too tempting to let alone. I went to explore with my horse.

Dare I say that this was magnificent riding ? Oh, yes.

This access to the Elbow River valley in urban Calgary was like being in another world and just five minutes from my very urban house.

Jackson Valley

With no access except through the base and the TsuTina nation on the south side of the Elbow, there simply weren’t a lot of people around.  At that time, there were ranches.  But, no hunting, no accessible trails, roads minimal and primitive, no signs.

My explorer helmet on lock, I went discovering. Cruising underneath the big hydro towers along the Glenmore Trail side, there was a good, hard dirt track and going at endurance riding training speeds 10 to 15 mph, with a fit, happy horse that loved to move out at a big honking trot was a joy. If you have never sat a horse that could yard out those legs like a saddlebred, you have missed something. Comfy, solid, flat moving. I discovered that she had a few built-in gaits that were well above my pay grade.

And that’s a whole other story.

The road then turned into the trees and down we trotted into Jackson Valley.

When there was innocence

This was my secret.  My Eden, my desert island with The Black.  Every horse epic that had a brilliant horse and courageous rider came true those couple of years I rode through there. That previous generation of Huck Finns and Tom Sawyers who had called Jackson Valley theirs had grown up and moved away and left me with a with a blank slate to write my own story.

Elbow River

The Elbow as seen from Weaselhead Flats trail

I saw the valley spring, summer, winter and spring, a little piece of the mountains smuggled into Calgary. The Elbow much more peaceable here, fordable in many places, with great overhangs of spruces, grasses and aspens hugging a shoreline that spring floods would alter again and again.

I was Alec with The Black on that desert island.

The outright freedom of the child on a beautiful horse, riding bareback grabbing a hank of mane for balance is astonishing to think about today. He fell off a couple of times until finding the rhythm to stay upright and with the horse. In the movie, there is a profound innocence of Alec and The Black figuring it out and having fun.

That is irrevocably interrupted and ended with Alec and The Black being rescued. There is a moment, when Alec is being dragged away by foreign-speaking adults, put in a rowboat, yelling for his friend.  The Black, puzzled, angry and determined, charges forward and swims after Alec.

The transition from a horse that really wasn’t tamed by any definition into a racehorse is now painful to watch. Fitting badly into an urban setting, a tiny niche is found for him as a racehorse, bridled, saddled, trained to run not for joy and freedom in the sun, but for Alec and a young lad to belief that this is ok.

It’s that desert island scene that I cherish, that moment of innocence and fun and riding in the sun with no expectations, no sense of goals or processes or economics. Riding with passion and heart.

There was always a moment coming back to the stable when the mental transition of just riding for pleasure with a keen partner would end.  When the world would interfere, with peoples voices, with concerns of the day and all that noise that civilization must be processed.  When I collected my horse with the reins and stepped smartly into the human world.

Alec and The Black showed me some magic, which I would again and again look for and find with my enchanted horses giving me an extraordinary access and an unabiding love for our wilderness.

I had found my paradise and my wings, my Shangri-La, my Narnia, Middle Earth in Jackson Valley.

The Birds and Bees and Bread?

Interactions with children and animals are entertaining and always educational. Although the education the animal is giving isn’t always what a parent wants to field.

Springtime always leads to inevitable “birds and bees’ questions. These questions are generally coupled with long in-depth debates about who’s right or wrong about how the babies come to be, it makes for interesting discussion.

My other half has three children, ages 3, 5, and 6. Cattle have been a part of their lives, and they have experienced bringing in and turning out the bull many times; they have yet to put two and two together’ on the subject. “The cows eat lots and lots and by the time it gets warmer the babies fall out,” according to the 5 year old this last spring.

horse bred

A horse getting bred.

Pretty simple? Easy to field that that statement, right? Maybe, but now lets introduce horses into the equation.  Because we don’t own a stud we have to transport the brood mares to their perspective mate. Over months of planning, phone calls with frequent references to horses being bred, hauling horses around the countryside to get bred, the question finally came up.

“Dad, what kind of bread do the horses like and why does it take them so long to eat it? And why do we have to take them somewhere else ? We can get it in the kitchen and take it out to them.”

Being that this is a very important question to the 6 year old, one must be reminded that you may not laugh until said toddler is not within earshot. This endeavour becomes very difficult when you’re in a truck, still two hours from home.

So with the straightest face you can manage, “Well that’s a very good question. You’ll understand when your older.” Although this typically sends the children into a riot.  They trip over their words explaining how they’re old enough already, that they are smart and understand lots of things. After a moment of silence, “Dad, why don’t we have to take the cows to get bread?” and the whole new ballpark has begun.

So thank you, horses, for the wonderful wobbly legged babies you give us that bring joy and wonder to our kids. But I don’t thank you for the complications that you bring to the birds and the bees.

“Mom, when you eat bread why don’t babies fall out of you?”

 

Bringing Home a Feral Horse

Natures role in shaping the horse has long been a loved topic of reflection of mine. Recently, I’ve become even more fascinated because I’ve had the privilege of working with a feral horse. I say privilege because this mare has caused me to re-examine what I’ve learned from working with free ranging domesticated herds in ways I could have never imagined. She’s become the horse I’m most grateful to have met.

When I first saw Sera (as I’ve come to call her after the song,(Que Sera, Sera by Doris Day), she was wearing a rope halter with the lead rope dragging behind her on the ground of her paddock. There must be quite a story behind how she came to wear that halter because Sera is untouchable, equally afraid of adults and children alike. By the time I came to know her, she had learned to nimbly navigate the impediment the lead rope created for her. I was impressed by how easy it was for her to work around that rope at any pace.

In fact, it was her careful sense of her body that led me to take a chance on her (that, and her willingness to take dewormer down with her feed!). My concern in bringing a horse like her home largely centered on what I would do if she became injured. After watching her for several days, I discovered that I believed in her ability to take care of herself. While afraid of people, she was sensible and didn’t have a mean bone in her body. I was also struck by her willingness to investigate new objects, suggesting that she’s naturally curious. My belief is that this quality will enable her fear of people to wane over time. My job is to pave the way.

After we got her home, the first thing that struck me was how quickly she could coordinate her limbs across new terrain. As soon as she had a bigger space to work with, she exploded into a gallop and tore around the perimeter to establish her new boundaries. I’ve turned countless horses into this same small pasture, and they always run about in the open center, taking the path of least resistance. Sera’s route led her straight through a crop of trees along the fence line that she handled like a gymnast. I can’t stress enough how uniquely she can move at break-neck speed over and around trees.

If you’re envisioning this scene akin to anytime you’ve seen a horse in flight mode running haphazardly, with what appears to be little regard for their well-being, I wouldn’t blame you. This, however, is not how Sera moves. She currently runs with our herd on the quarter and sometimes cuts through the trees,  leaving the other horses in her dust. In over six months, she’s never had so much as a scratch or caused a single twig to snap or crack. She’s a picture of quiet moving, self-aware agility.

Sera is also the only horse to have successfully ambushed our lead gelding. When Sera first met Skyler, she spotted a moment when he wasn’t paying attention and lunged at him intensely, nipping at his neck. She took no hair but made her point memorable. He was quite shook-up but hasn’t been caught unaware since. This story may give you the impression Sera is something of a dominant personality, but she’s actually far from it. She’s a mid-ranking horse that stays out of the way of the dominant temperaments and exhibits the subtlest social cues in the herd. Even before she joined the herd at large, Sera was equally cooperative with a horse named Roamy in the small pasture. I’ve nicknamed her the diplomat as a result.

So why challenge the lead?  Sera has become so wild, I believe nature has had the opportunity to condition her to pay attention to the things that matter to her survival. One of those key behaviors is to maintain eye contact with herd mates while simultaneously keying into the surrounding environment. Even when engrossed in grazing, a horse has to be able to join the school of fish movements herds follow at the drop of a hat. Sera’s challenge to Skyler was to improve his focus, a social skill that ultimately shapes the group to be able to flow in concert. It’s likely her upbringing produced a sharper focus than Skyler’s domestic home created for him. Fortunately for Skyler, he’s a quick study.

feral horse

Sera

As I mentioned, Sera is much less demonstrative with the other horses. Perhaps she didn’t grow up jockeying for a place at the water trough or securing a flake of hay? I suspect that the pecking order we are so accustomed to in domestic horses is largely invisible within wild bands. The contrast between Sera and my domestic horses highlight how housing and feeding practices can unintentionally strengthen the fight/flight response, even so far as to disconnect it from it’s counter-weight in nature: the need to conserve energy. I believe that the more we design environments for horses around the needs of people, the greater the likelihood this effect will be magnified in our domesticated horses.

You’re probably wondering how Sera’s battles with that lead rope ended. All on her own, under the cover of night, she slipped out of the halter. We found it on the ground of her paddock, knots intact, the following morning.