Category Archives: Monika

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.


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 Great K-Country Race: Horse vs Bicycle

Riding along the Elbow Falls Trail on horseback in Kananaskis Country, affectionately known as K-Country, offers sweeping vistas, boulder strewn creek crossings, aspen groves and a floral bounty through the warm seasons. An immersion into this sublime landscape after a weeks worth of urban living and stress, makes K-Country a blessing.

But, and there is always a but, especially on weekends, the trails are well occupied: from a family outing with strollers and picnic baskets attended with all the yelling and screaming and barking dogs to birders clad in dozens of zippered pockets, Tiley hats and binoculars drooping from the neck to the fitness crowd all spandexed up in neon athletic wear and bulging with muscles and water bottles.

The trails are multi-user and there was a time when I did training rides for endurance riding, attempting to ride without a lot of people on the trail–impossible if you’re working of course, weekends are usually the only time to do this. Parking the trailer at Station Flats, I’d tack up my mare, Sheba, to follow the Elbow Falls trail to the Powderface trail, linking to Prairie Creek and then return along Elbow Falls Trail.  As an endurance rider, I pride myself in preparedness for human and horse.  I rattled along with enough stuff to ensure a comfy night out in an epic snowstorm.  This included a stethoscope, sponge, water treatment equipment, matches, flare, TP, lunch, horse cookies, electrolytes, plastic bag, jacket, halter and shank, hoof pick and Lordy knows what else I stuffed into my saddle bags.  My little 13 3HH mare Sheba, an Arabian/Anglo-Arab never got the height or the nervy spooky attitude from that cross. A sweet, dainty and handy little lady got me from A to B without any fuss, although there seemed to be at time when spooking at white things on the trail, like a rock.  Really?  Or plastic bags hanging and/or flapping from barb wire fences along roadsides seemed to program 180s or 360s into her behavior.

Imagine a gorgeous summer day in K-Country: a cloudless heavens with those hard blue skies; a faint breeze shimmying the aspens, patches of summer flowers brightening the rich green meadows. And, it smells good.  A perfect day to boot and scoot over 30 or so kilometers of well designed trails.

The Challenge

Riding from Station Flats to Powderface, I didn’t encounter another soul on the trail; walkers tend to do the short loops and cyclists have a few choices for longer distances. It’s a hilly, roller coastering stretch that goes in and out of a couple of coulees until the final meters drift along the paved road to the Powderface parking lot. It’s always full; people must arrive at dawn to secure any spot.  This particular day, there were small groupings of people wandering on the trail. A bit past the trail head, on relatively flat ground and still a distance from the mountain, a cyclist was just starting to go through one of the cattle gates. This was serious cyclist, if the mountain bike, clothing, helmet and muscular body meant anything. He kindly held the gate open for me, which I then closed with his help.  One of those gates in which closing a gate and holding a horse can cause exquisite moments of indecision. Trail courtesy means that you train your horse at home to lift the gate, pull it along and refasten it from horse back. It looks very cool and skillful. Unless the gate is six feet tall, weighs what it looks like and a struggle to drag the darn thing aside even on foot because it is not a real gate!  Just barb wire strung between 8 foot poles and held up by tension.  Help is good. He was shocked that I just didn’t ride off. But no: if someone opens a gate for you, you close it. Trail courtesy 101.  One final look at me and a pleasant “see you”, and off he rode. Hard.  What, I thought….see you???? No, no, no, no NO! Not only can I keep up, I can beat you with your fancy-schmancy bike. All in a mental dialogue, of course.

horse vs bicycle

Monika and her Arab-Saddlebred cross mare, Koko

Ok, Sheba, horse vs bicycle – the glove is dropped!?? I know this trail. I know where we can go fast and give me a break, I’m on a horse: the horse conquered the world for mankind, not the bicycle. And, thinking about local terrain, I can beat a cyclist on horseback, going up Powederface.  How many times have I jogged past cyclists pushing their bikes up the mountain, looking enviously at my very cool mare and I?

Climbing aboard, I trotted and cantered after the disappearing wheel of the cyclist or for the Western crowd, jogged and loped off, planning my strategy to–well not flip a bird, but to also say, “see ya” as I gracefully lope past, giving a queenly wave from my Ay-rab horse.

Round One

While the rules of the race hadn’t been discussed with Sheba, first across any finish line wins, right?  And, if it’s really just wanting to get in front, well, there are ways and means that a horse really does have the upper hoof.

This was MY territory and I knew these trails.

Needless to say, the cyclist peddled hard.  I stayed a good 20 meters behind at an easy pace until we hit the open meadow just before the serious elevation starts. The first hill, he did good.  But, I now had my furry four by four engaged and kept the same pace as on the flats. I very quickly trotted by.  Since this was pretty much at the beginning of my event, a “see ya” was inappropriate and I needed to look intent but conservatively eager. Helmet on lockdown, slight lean forward, heels down.

That was easy!

Feeling pretty cocky on my amazing mare and making mental raspberries to all those who don’t appreciate the physicality of a horse as I powered up the trail, climbing higher and higher up the mountain to the amazing vista that Powderface offers and seeing a blaze of mountain forgetmenots rivaling the blue of the sky. At the top, I always give my horse a breather, get off and check that the pulse is going down, let her have a chew and nibble on the grasses and take a short break. Naturally, the trail is relentless down on the other side of the mountain and the geology has springs, washouts and other interesting features that are not found on the “going up” side. Mounted again, I carefully trotted down, zigging and zagging with the trail to a point where I knew it would be boggy and then simply cut across the meadow a hundred meters or so to the Powderface road and about couple hundred meters to where the trail links up to the road. This was a day to enjoy and take my time walking along the road until the turn off to the Prairie Creek link.

powderface kananaskis

View from Powderface

Is it a bird, a plane?

Glancing back at Powderface, I saw a flash of colour between the trees, descending the trail. Descending?  it was the express elevator down the CN tower!  What the?…..And almost in front of our collective noses, THAT cyclist burst out of the trees seemingly teleporting from top to bottom in a matter of seconds. Then riding off in a dust cloud on the road in the same direction the Sheebs and I were going.  Had I been on Secretariat, at a flat out gallop, I would not have caught him.

I was shocked and awed. Regrouping, mentally and physically.

Ok, there is NO WAY that he could continue at that speed on Prairie Creek. I know that trail; I know that there are lots of different ground conditions and elevation changes that my Sheba can handle well at a decent clip.

Round Two

Allowed the Sheebs a quick slurp at Prairie Creek turnoff and thinking, thinking….And off we went !  A bit of speed on this section, so good ground for shod feet, no tricky turns, no sudden elevation changes.

Right on !

Success, because a few minutes later, there he was, off his bike, having a break. Sitting to the side of the trail and eating a sandwich. I blew by. This time he looked at me.  I am hardly invisible on a horse and make a bit of noise.  But, there seemed to be a wakeup call his eyes. Maybe the unspoken challenge was making itself heard. Or maybe I was reading too much into a quick glance.

That said, Prairie Creek became a leapfrog of team Monika and Sheba verses the unknown cyclist, passing each other where the passing was good for the horse or the cyclist. Needless to say, this is a technical trail.  It follows a mountain stream that flows between rocky faces with good clambers up and down. This area also concentrates hikers on the narrow trails, so people, dogs, kids and other cyclists have to be thought about, in front and in the rear view mirror and on the sides.

There is a spot towards the end of the Prairie Creek where the occasional cyclist just seems to give up and abandons their bike on the trail and lies down in exhaustion.

That this is also a very scenic spot doubles the desire to stop here.  That this beautiful spot is also the size of an extra large beach blanket means that space is at a premium. One hiker and cyclist with the bike tucked in is fine to ride around.  Two hikers, a dog and cyclist and there can be carnage on the trail. With a few people, it does look like a seal pack eyeing a great white when a horse comes over and around the bend. Seriously, I am not going to ride over a bike, but I am also not going to dismount and drag the bike off somewhere. Fortunately, these unmounted humans tend to quickly recall that they have abandoned their stuff on the trail, and quickly tuck the bits and pieces into the shrubbery and pop back to their piece of prime real estate to relax and watch the parade go by.

Where did he go?

With all the wiggling and jiggling of attachments to my person and saddle, I had an equipment malfunction…..a water bottle fell off, requiring me to dismount and hunt for it. That took a few minutes backtracking.  It seems that the order of go on this trail was Powderface to Prairie Creek, not PC to PF.  And on a narrow trail, having a wall people coming at you, well, finding that water bottle had to be really important.

Yes, it was.

Final lap

Remounting and going with the flow was now a very steady, very slow walk. I totally lost sight of the cyclist and realized that I lost the race. It wasn’t a formal loss, no crossing a finish line, no ribbons or speeches by the winner.  No thanking the organizer (ok, thank you God, for this magnificent land) or sponsors (thanks Monika!).  And it certainly pointed out a few truths about strengths and weaknesses: up hills, rocking it; hills down, not so much unless I ask for speed, or get off and run down. Flats a coin toss. Ok, let’s do it over 160 km and see weighed down horse competing against pedal power.

Fortunately, the point of the training ride was just that. Training–my Sheebs did what I asked of her and she definitely passed my horse health check with a fit to continue.

The final kilometer or so of the trail notches up the technical aspects of the trail, ending in a downward approach to the creek.

There he was, derailer deep in the creek, cleaning up man and bike.  I rode in and parallel parked my horse, knee deep, and let the creek wash off a bit of the mud on her legs and cool her off. Horse vs bicycle – to finish is to win; yea!

Then he looked at us, followed by:

I didn’t realize a horse could go that fast !?

To which I replied, I didn’t think a human could !

I am sure the cyclist went the 50 meters to the parking lot at Powderface and loaded up his car, where on the other hand, would need to go another 10 or so kilometers back to my trailer at Station Flats, and with a lot of horse left over.

See ya!