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.
I lucked out finding CFB Calgary as a boarding stable.
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.
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.
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.
When I saw Koko, my jaw dropped.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.