Category Archives: Trail Riding

Articles, tips and hints on taking your horse on the trail.

scott and zeus

Peace in your Leadership

Your horse might sometimes be calm and relaxed with you…and at other times he seems distracted or frightened.

How about this for an example: When he’s at home in his pasture with his buddies he’s content when you’re with him. But you haul him off to a clinic and now he’s a nervous wreck.

Why is this? The answer is that your horse is sometimes finding peace in your presence but not finding peace in your leadership.

Let’s examine this in detail. Three categories of pressure can affect your horse. These are herd pressure, physical pressure and predator pressure. When he is free of those pressures he stands calm with a relaxed head and soft eyes. He might lie down in the grass and go to sleep. He might also enjoy your company. The peace your horse is experiencing might be happening when he’s with you, but not necessarily because of you. Your horse does not have to consider you a herd leader to hang out and enjoy your company.

amazing horse country goofing around

Goofing around can be great training!

Sometimes your leadership agreement with your horse can be lacking or unclear. “What? Not me!” you say. In truth, the vast majority of folks can use a little polishing of that leadership agreement. I even need to revisit that from time to time with some of my horses as they grow up or herd dynamics change. The major factor is – and let’s face it – they’re generally with a different herd (their pasture buddies) for more than 90% of their lives. So we have to ensure our leadership agreement is functioning – and strong – when we take them from their pasture herd.

An Important Thought

I need to clear up a couple of misnomers. First, making or forcing your horse to do something does NOT grant us leadership status. Second, if we punish him for being ‘bad’, a ‘behavior issue’ or ‘not obeying’, this also does nothing in his eyes to establish leadership. We are simply teaching him that we are an unpredictable predator capable of causing him distress. We don’t want that. As a leader, we desire that our followers believe we can guide and support them, particularly when they’re struggling.


What then, is the leader of the herd (aka YOU) supposed to do? Well, it’s the job of the leader in the herd to decide what is safe and what is not, when to run from and when to ignore pressure, when to eat and when to sleep. If your horse does not believe this of you, there are typically some obvious signs. He walks ahead or behind you when being led. He’s fussy. He’ll turn left when you’re thinking turn right. When riding he might ‘do his own thing’ or ‘not want to do something’. He might even take off on you – whether you’re on his back or not.  In more extreme cases a horse might bite or kick at you.

amazing horse country platform obstacle courseJust to reemphasize: if any of the things I noted above are happening – your horse does NOT have a behavior issue. Humans use a variety of terms – ‘behavior issue’ is one of them – when personifying horses. We personify horses when we don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing and need to explain it somehow. We resort to explaining their actions as if they were humans – simply because it’s something we can relate to.  Our horse’s behavior is completely correct, however. He is behaving exactly the way any horse would that is frightened, knows they are the leader of the herd or confused about/challenging leadership. If we’re not stepping into the leadership role in a very clear, understandable way for him, it’s natural for him to assume that position and take care of matters on his own. Again – he doesn’t have a behavior problem – we have a leadership issue. If you are a proven leader he will follow you and trust in your decisions of what is safe or what to be scared of.

Luckily this is an easy fix. We start each one of our clinics at Amazing Horse Country by ensuring all of our participants are the herd leader in their horse’s eyes. We do this by communicating clearly in their language – not through pain or punishment. In a few minutes, we see fear, fussy, pushy – all those unwanted things – disappear. Your horse will be super calm with a low head. He might even close his eyes and yawn. Why? Because by assuming the leadership role, you take the stresses off his plate.  It’s now your job as the herd leader to manage those stresses.

It’s a great start.  But it’s only just the beginning.  Now you have to prove you deserve the position.

Trust on the Front Line

Trust is an easy word to throw around. Sure you can trust someone. But can you trust them always? Or only when things are going good? What is it that builds a trust that goes one step beyond? The answer is:  experiences. It’s being in a sticky spot, a dangerous place, when someone who has committed to you has pulled you free of that. It’s when your relationship is put to the test and that person comes through for you over and over again.

Granted, these types of front line trust don’t happen every day. They’re special, deep and meaningful.  We remember them.  We tell stories about them.  The most fantastic part of this: in our style of horse training, we create them.

This Front Line Trust is built by repetitive successful experiences – and it’s critical. It’s why we use the obstacle course extensively at Amazing Horse Country. First, you earn the herd leader position. Now you have to prove to your horse you qualify for that position.  Through comprehensive and thorough work on the obstacles or trail course, your horse learns to trust you time and time again. This builds a deep and meaningful trust based on experience.


When your horse views you as the leader – you are now shouldered with the responsibility of deciding what is safe, when to run and when to relax. When you have shown time and again that your decisions result in his safety and success, you will earn Front Line Trust.  

Here is the big difference. Your horse will seek you for answers on potentially ‘scary’ situations. And if your answer is “we don’t have to worry about this” – then he likely won’t. We regularly see fear change to curiosity on the obstacle course when this happens.

Conversely, if the horse does not have a solid belief that you are a trustworthy leader, then there is no reason to expect he’ll believe you when you are calm but he thinks he’s going to die.  This is where your horse takes off on you or ‘refuses’ to do something. And he’s absolutely right to do that. He’s a prey animal that, unless he trusts in a higher authority, will do what he has to do to save himself.  For a horse, any unknown is potentially fatal.  It’s really common sense when we consider prey animal thinking and herd mentality.

Peace in your leadership is demonstrated when the horse learns to trust your decisions in pressure situations. Not only is this vitally important, it’s easy to train for. In our clinics the first step is establishing leadership, the second is to develop that under pressure – every obstacle on the course is a pressure of some sort for the horse, so we use these to build his confidence.  Not only confidence in himself but in you. You can take this new leadership agreement to whatever discipline you ride in or off to the mountains on a pack trip. For many folks this is a make-or-break deal for trail riding – they want a horse they can trust. When your horse truly defers to your leadership out of an established trust, what happens in a ‘scary’ situation is now your choice.

Just think about how big that is.

Scott Phillips – November 2017

Being Prepared – Survival in the Back Country

Throughout my years of working in the back country, it has always amazed me how many people go into the back country thinking, it’s only a few hours, I don’t need much. Survival in the back country depends on being prepared.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the back country over the years.  Now more than ever, there is easy road access to the outdoors for weekend warriors and top of the line equipment is easily accessible.  Manuals are written for just about everything, GPS navigation is inexpensive and the list goes on. The problem is: everything seems accessible and instant, but in the back country a very simple problem can quickly become significant. That’s when the dominoes start to fall.

Consider the following scenario:

It’s a beautiful day to head out to the mountains for some playtime. You grab your horse and tack and decide to head out for the afternoon for a quick ride to your favorite spot. You don’t see a cloud in the sky and its 28C. You grab a light windbreaker just in case, get on your horse and soon are enjoying the peaceful sights, sounds and smells of the forest.

A few hours later and a few extra trails – because you are enjoying yourself so much – you come across a mucky section of trail with lots of deadfall around you. Normally this is not a big deal, but today a moose comes out from nowhere on the trail in front of you. Your horse spins and bolts, knocks you off with the aid of a low hanging branch and gashes its front leg open while running through the deadfall.  You land on a fallen log and twisted your knee from your foot not clearing the stirrup.  To top it all off, your horse is gone.

Back Country Essential Items

Essential items to have on your person at all times.

Your horse might not have gone far. He may come back, but he knows where the trailer is and might be waiting for you at the trail head.

The problem is that you are15km from the parking lot. At a normal persons walking rate, the walk of shame back to the parking lot would take about four hours, plus you need to hike back up through the mountain pass you had previously been enjoying the view from, so add another hour (*) But you can hardly walk.  Now that the adrenaline is settling down you realize your mouth is pasted shut from thirst.

You double check your cell phone for service bars, which are not there, so you grab yourself a stick and slowly start heading back to safety.

It only takes about 1 km of walking in cowboy boots on a rocky or uneven trail for your ankles to feel like putty. Soon blisters start forming on your feet, sending shards of sharp pain with every step you take. You see some water, but it’s the local summer cattle watering hole with lots of manure visible in and around it, so you pass it up, waiting for a cleaner source of water. The sun is now baking your head, and your thirst is so bad you can hardly swallow. You have not even started up the mountain yet. As you work your way back up to the mountain pass in the heat, a massive headache kicks in, and suddenly you feel nauseous and everything starts spinning from heat exhaustion and dehydration setting in. You find a small tree with a sliver of shade and decide to take a rest. Time passes quickly in your weakened state and the hot sun drops behind the mountain. There may be hours of daylight left, but the chill quickly sets in as you sit there resting. You realize you’re not going to make it back before dark.

There are many possible outcomes to this scenario: your horse comes back and you manage to limp your way out, another rider/hiker/mountain biker finds you or you stumble upon a crystal clear mountain creek. Then again it could get worse: rain or snow may set in. Snow and freezing temperatures can occur in the mountains any time of year, even the middle of July.

While you don’t have to pack tons of gear with you, you do need to consider the what if possibilities that this example poses.  With some basic survival items most of the life draining scenarios can be avoided.

horn bag contents

Important survival items don’t take up much space.

You need to have a minimum of a knife or multi-tool and a lighter or waterproof matches on your person in case you get separated from your horse. In the summer, consider using a hydration camel water pack and water purification tablets. At a minimum with these items you can build a fire, make a shelter if needed, collect and purify water for hydration.

Your gear doesn’t have to take up a lot of space. Consider this for your saddle horn bags:

On one side: a small equine first aid kit with containing vet wrap(2), cotton padded wrap, a hoof pick, and duct tape (which triples as a temporary boot or an aid to help keep your shelter together).

On the other side: a survival kit containing survival blanket wraps(2), fire starter kit, H2O water purification tablets, toilet paper, triangular bandage, high absorbency trauma dressing and a small human first aid kit. In one of the outside pockets with easy access I carry a pen flare kit with bear bangers and multi colored flares.

camel water pack

A great way to carry water.

I personally never leave home without my trusty Gore-tex jacket, a toque and some gloves – even when it’s hot. It doesn’t take long for the weather to turn nasty in our beloved Rocky Mountains. That said, take extra precautions to keep your gear dry as most saddle bags are water resistant at best. Heavy duty zip lock bags work great, and for those really important items (like toilet paper or your fire starter kit) – double bag it. Trust me on this one: there is no worse feeling when you desperately need an item and it’s soaked!

If your packing won’t pass while standing in the shower, then it won’t pass Mother Nature’s worst weather nor submersion in the water. Also keep your tack in good repair and constantly check important leather straps for cracking or wear.

Your survival in the back country is possible in this scenario, but only if you have properly prepared yourself and your equipment. Always tell someone where you are going and your expected return time. If you are going for longer than a day also leave a brief itinerary on the dashboard of your truck, visible through the windshield. Riding with others provides safety in numbers, however that is not always possible with our busy schedules these days.

Most rides will go off without a hitch, but what about the one that doesn’t go so well? As a professional guide I would always say, It’s not a question of if, but when !

(* Nay Smiths rule of travel for the human is 4km per hour, adding 1 hour for every 1000ft elevation gain).

Semi-Urban Trail Development on Vancouver Island

The Semi-Urban Trail

Or is it semi-rural? Whatever you call it, the Otter Point district near Sooke on Vancouver Island is one of the many areas in British Columbia where any notion of backcountry, is fast being swallowed up by development.

riding in william simmons park

William Simmons Memorial Community Park offers an easy 20 minute ride through forest to a meadow that offers grazing for horses and a picnic bench for riders. Be bear aware in all seasons.

For decades, locals have maintained trails through and around private acreages, crown land, forestry lands, and beaches. Increasingly, access to these informal trails is being cut off by residential subdivisions.

In the face of this challenge, equestrians in the area have realized that their best option is to join forces with hikers and cyclists to support the development of multi-use linear parks throughout the region. This is painstaking work that requires both a grand plan for the future and the patience to be satisfied with small gains as they come along. Sometimes it’s worth fighting for a piece as small as 1.4 hectares.

The Secret Park

Local riders all knew that you used to be able to follow a trail at the end of Eaglecrest Drive up to the forestry lands beyond. But blow-downs and washouts had over time made access impossible. Besides, the entrance was crazy-steep.

Half-hearted attempts to get the trail cleared again suddenly became quite focused in 2010 when the land behind it was slated for development. What would happen to the trail? A little research showed that in fact the 1.4 hectare area had been designated as park in an earlier subdivision. Ahah! A toehold to maintain public access. But how to go about it?

Fortunately, help was at hand in the Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society. Since 2005, this group of hikers, cyclists, and riders had been working with local government to identify and document historical trails and public rights-of-way in the region. The Trails Society readily jumped in with advice and contacts, and, as things progressed, manpower and tools.

Friends of Eaglecrest Park Society

Parks and trails in Otter Point come under the governance of the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area Parks and Recreation Commission of the Capital Regional District (JdF Parks). In 2010, JdF Parks was just starting up a stewardship program that would allow residents to participate in the development and maintenance of the community parks that are scattered throughout the area.

Riders and non-riders living near Eaglecrest Drive had previously formed the Friends of Eaglecrest Park Society (FEPS). This society was re-energized and applied to become park stewards. Because local residents showed an interest, Eaglecrest Park was allotted some funding.

Development and Maintenance

Our goal was to create an all-season trail through otherwise undeveloped forest a Natural Area Recreation Park. This JdF Parks designation is important because it means the park won’t ever be cleared for another use, such as a baseball diamond.

riding in eaglecrest

The Eaglecrest trail is a short, steep climb through coastal rainforest with a rest area at the top. There is a little side loop for variation. It???s especially popular with local riders as a leg-stretch after arena work. Be bear aware, even in winter.

Because we became park stewards, FEPS was fully involved when the trail was first cleared by JdF Parks in the summer of 2010. For example, our feedback resulted in the switch-back near the entrance being re-done to make it safer for horses. Since then, we have been responsible for maintenance. We have regular work parties to inspect the condition of the trail and do any tasks required, such as improving drainage or clipping back salal. We provide JdF Parks with quarterly reports that detail the condition of the trail and describe our work. We also comment on trail use, including photos, so that they know that the trail is being used by horses as well as walkers. JdF Parks is very supportive, and provides extra help and materials when required.

Rosemary Jorna and Howard Taylor

Rosemary Jorna from the JdF Community Trails Society and Howard Taylor from FEPS, clearing a drainage ditch on the Eaglecrest trail, December 2014. The two groups often work together on projects.

It’s only 1.4 hectares. What’s the point?

The point is that the Juan de Fuca Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission has, with community input, developed a vision for the area that involves linking together whatever land they can get to create a network of multi-use trails. Each time we secure a couple of hectares of land for equestrian use, it is another link in the network.

Becoming involved with this project also means we are consulted when new developments come along. For example, FEPS was invited to meet with the developers of the 220 hectares beyond the park to discuss the trail they were offering as an amenity. Now the developers know that a horse-friendly trail would be well-received in any proposal they make.

One Thing Leads to Another

As a direct result of the success of the Eaglecrest project, JdF Parks contacted the Sooke Saddle Club about the possibility of including horse facilities at a new park they were developing in Otter Point, William Simmons Memorial Community Park. The Community Parks program doesn’t have a large budget, and was there any way to get funding? And if so, what facilities would be desired?

william simmons park

The park has shared trails, but some picnic areas are off-limits to horses. This kind of planning keeps everybody happy.

With the help of BC Horse Council funding (Recreation and Industry Grant), the Saddle Club ensured that William Simmons Park in Otter Point has trailer parking, a horse and rider rest area, hitch rail, and manure bin. These are convenient for riders, but are also permanent structures that state clearly horses belong here.  Road crossings are a major concern for semi-urban trails. So, the Saddle Club ensured that there is a Horse Crossing sign on the road that connects the park to trails through a nearby subdivision. The subdivision trails are also horse friendly, thanks to club input and monitoring.

The Saddle Club regularly inspects and reports on the condition of the trail and facilities. Recently, William Simmons Park was expanded, and the club was contacted again for input on the expansion.

Building the Network

rest area on equine trail

The hitch rail and other amenities in the rest area were built to rugged park standards.

William Simmons, like Eaglecrest, is a small park, only 6.6 hectares, but it is has been identified by the Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society and JdF Parks as the hub of a trail network for the region. The next piece is close to being in place. JdF Parks has a permit from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to develop a 1.6 km trail along an unused right of way that leads from William Simmons to another area with park potential. We can’t wait to see hoof prints on that trail!

Tips for Semi-Urban Trail Development

  • Get there first. Park development is often done on a first-come, first-served basis. If trails are being actively used by horses, then horse facilities are more likely to be provided.
  • Make maps. Work with local riders to identify current or historical informal trails on public or private land that have the potential for development. Also consider roads–which ones could easily incorporate riding paths?
  • Understand the politics. Find out how, when, and where trail-development decisions are made in your area. Find policies you can support, and work from there.
  • Create a voice for yourselves. Form a legal society so that you have an official place at the table, when development is being discussed.
  • Think multi-use. Hikers, riders, and cyclists have some different needs, but many more common interests. Cooperate and educate so that horses are welcome on your trails.
  • Find money. Look for grants and other sources of funding that will help make your projects possible and desirable.
  • Geocache. You want your trails to be used. Geocaching is a great incentive to use the trail, and provides evidence of use.

destroyed geocache

There are three Amazing Backcountry caches in the area: William Simmons, Butler Trail ??and Eaglecrest.

Riding in Costa Rica – By the Light of Fireflies

The late Costa Rican afternoon had cooled down enough for a trail ride – about 25 degrees Celsius. We finished up a full, yet relaxing, first day of reflection at the Horse-Empowered Retreat at Painted Pony Guest Ranch. Now we were excited to go for our first ride of the retreat, the first of a few planned for the coming week.

Criollo mares at the retreat

A special group of Criollo mares were our guides at the Horse-Empowered Retreat.

We were a small group of women from Canada and the U.S. with varying levels of horse experience – from beginner to expert – and all with a passion for horses and warm countries. We were all of a “certain age,” and ready to learn more about ourselves through immersion in a retreat setting on a working ranch.

I had been to this guest ranch before in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica and fell in love with the place. I had returned to facilitate my first Horse-Empowered Retreat here, a retreat combining equine-assisted learning, natural horsemanship, yoga and cultural activities.

It was not my first time riding in Costa Rica, but it was the first time anywhere that I had such a special night ride. It was special for it combined the cultural aspects of Costa Rica, the unique landscape and a unexpected treat at the end.

Sky and Esteban of Painted Pony Guest Ranch

Skye and Esteban of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch give me a natural horsemanship lesson.

We got ready to ride out on gorgeous Criollos -matched to our abilities. My mount was Skye, a mare I have ridden in the past.  She is smart and spunky, and the dominant mare in her field who has helped me in my journey to develop my leadership skills.

Our tack was comfortable and western that afternoon, though English saddles were available. The saddles were synthetic, a sensible choice for a country with an annual rainy season and the mold problems that entails. The horses know both neck and direct reining, and they are highly sensitive to leg and seat.

The Criollo breed are sensitive and sensible horses with stamina. They also have a special gait, which makes them a very smooth ride especially at the trot. It feels more like a glide than a trot. The gait is Paso Trotto – trotting on the front end, walking on the hind. They naturally go into this gait and I found it easy to keep them there.  As this was our first ride as a group, we took it at a walk.

After a final spray of bug repellent for horse and human, we headed out on our trusty steeds for supper in a small village. It was great fun to ride through pastures and trees, up and down some gentle slopes, across a creek then through the village itself. The fields were high with grass after the rainy season and some of the pathways were overhung with huge trees, their trunks and lower branches encased by giant philodendron vines. The creek was low-banked with a trickle of water and a bit of mud. It had nearly dried up after two months into the dry season.

On the trail

One of our guides, Esteban describes another trail for another day.

Our guides were the owners of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch and Casagua Horses Tours, Kay and Esteban Peraza. They pointed out novel things along the way, such as cashews growing on bushes, sloths resting high in Guanacaste trees – the national tree of Costa Rica – and howler monkeys leaping from branch to branch over our heads. A flock of bright parakeets streaked overhead like little green rockets.

Horseback riding in Costa Rica is common because of its ranching and cowboy culture, and i have seen people riding mules as well.  Riders are welcome everywhere so we received friendly waves and smiling faces as we rode through the village.

Pre-sunset in Costa Rica is a time for visiting and relaxing before the evening meal.  Adults and teens were gathering on porches or chatting in clusters on the roadside.  Children were riding bikes or playing soccer on the dirt roads.   Dogs sprawled in the dust on and by the roads or, feeling protective, dodged out of their yards to bark at us as we rode by.   A few small and acrid fires smouldered by the side of the roads as residents burned their trash for the day.

The horses were relaxed about monkeys moving suddenly in the trees, laundry on lines, pinwheels whirling in gardens, dogs of any size, chickens on the road, motor bikes and bicycles. They have done this ride before and their training prepares them mentally for all sorts of events.

Sunset arrives about 6 PM in Costa Rica and we arrived at the cantina as the light was fading. We tied our horses to the fence or the trees then strolled in to supper.

Breaking the pinata

Watch out, it’s pinata time!

The house special was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, delicious with a cold beer. There was a child’s birthday party there that evening, and we were included in the celebration. Dessert was birthday cake and watching the fun as the kids swung at the pinata, often to the peril of the adults. There was a lot of laughter, the universal language.

Time to mount up and go home.  There was no moon this night. There was nervousness about our return ride, but we were reassured that all would be well. “Trust your horse, ride with a loose rein and stay balanced.” Off we went with light horses staggered in between dark horses.

As we left the dim lights of the village and headed into the black, the warm night became magical with sound, instead of sight. The rustling of the warm breeze in the trees, the soft thuds of hooves, the relaxed blowing of horses and the sighs of riders.

It was spectacular crossing the last pasture before home because it seemed there were stars everywhere.The sky was filled and the air around us and the ground…Fireflies!  We were surrounded by thousands of pinpoints of flashing lights.

After our exclamations of wonder, we rode the rest of the way home in silence. We trusted our horses too, as that is the best way to ride by the light of fireflies.

The next morning over a typical country breakfast on the porch of the main ranch house, we talked about our special ride and what it meant to us.  It taught us that our horses will take care of us when we can’t see where we are going – figuratively and literally.   It opened our hearts to the rewards of embracing new experiences.

We were going to have a great week together.

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.


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.

Sharing Trails – Give a little, Get a lot!

It was a beautiful July afternoon at Hilltop Ranch near Priddis, Ab., and I was about to meet Amazing Backcountry’s Scott Phillips for the first time. My wife Laurie and I had joined Amazing Backcountry a couple of months earlier at Scott’s request.  That’s a story for a future edition.

Everyone reading this will know that one of the expectations of ABC membership is that we share information with other members. Even information as close to our collective hearts as our “Top secret” or “Have to kill you if I tell you” favourite riding trails.

Boy did I have questions for Mr. Phillips.  My inside voice had spent hours rehearsing my opening and closing remarks to the western web-savvy upstart! When I was done with him, he was gonna ride back to the ABC mothership with his cursor between his legs and shutdown the trails section of his fancy website.

Now, the last thing I wanted to do was frighten Scott away, after all he had joined us sight-unseen in Priddis to show us some Amazing Back Country.  So I had to be nice, at least for a little while.  After a very enjoyable 15 kilometre ride (on a secret trail….LOL!) and a couple of cold beers, I found us sitting under a porch to escape a rain storm and it was then I decided to pounce like an injured cougar.

“Scott, why would any trail rider worth their salt want to divulge the location of their most favourite staging area and trails?’  I continued with my well-thought out rationale.  “Then on that beautiful weekend when all the stars are aligned for a perfect trail ride, I’ll arrive at my favourite, once-secret staging area to see a dozen rigs from the Taber riding club clogging up the parking lot and the trails. Yippeekiyay !”

No offense to any and all Taberites!

Scott suggested that my secret riding area is probably not so secret. For those wondering when I’ll stop beating around the bush, the Blackfoot Lake Recreation area is located just east of Ardrossan and south of Highway 16.  There, I said it now get on your horses and go ride those darn trails!

Scott continued to point out the obvious by adding that without sufficient equestrian use, that land could be reallocated to the hoards of mountain bikers, quadders, U-ters, snowmobilers and 4X4 enthusiasts (my characterizations, not Scott’s) that are waiting in the wings. Points taken!

If you are wondering what in the blazes I’m talking about, the next time you and your horse are enjoying a ride through a provincial recreation area look for a camouflaged game camera, like the one pictured here.  Ride up to it and look for a metal tag identifying it as provincial property. If it doesn’t have a tag, maybe it belongs to some weird voyeur and you should contact the local authorities…hah hah!  [Like roads and highways, trail usage may be monitored, and that that data can be used to dictate future trail designation or funding for maintenance and upgrade programs. – ed]

Scott convinced me to think “big picture” when it comes to sharing trail locations. If we all just take a moment and loosen a button or two on our leather vests, we can’t help but agree that to share is better.

So, to steal a phrase from the business world, lets “open our komonos”, figuratively speaking of course, and tell the world where they can find the best equestrian trails Alberta has to offer!

Happy Trails!

Kelly Gordon

Editors Note: Most trails and staging areas are already cataloged and mapped – they have been for years and they’re by no means ‘secret’. Having a map and some trail information is great, but what is lacking is current information: when was that map published?  When was the trail last used or maintained?  Is the staging area even there anymore? On our initial cache-hiding venture years ago, I drove to a ‘published’ and mapped staging area only to find it barricaded and the trail overgrown from years of non-use.

The tools we’ve given you allow you to share updated information on trails and staging areas that you use.  Not only does this provide a means to research trails that you might be considering riding, but there are many spillover benefits.  For example, as Kelly states, trail usage is monitored.  New riders on trails isn’t a bad thing; let’s face it – there’s no chance that a trail is going to be overwhelmed by riders if it’s published; the price of gas these days, and simply time and logistics, is most likely going to prevent everyone from Taber from making weekly trips up to the Blackfoot.  Additionally, using trail systems – anywhere in the world – is the only way to guarantee that they will continue to exist. As proof of that, read the recent Trail Rangers article by Dale at Alberta Carriage Supply.

We feel that by sharing trail and staging information, and promoting the equine use of these resources, we preserve and protect them, not only for our own use, but for future generations.  The use of our backcountry and enthusiasm to get out on horseback and explore is what will keep our precious trail system alive – and designated for equine use.  Who knows?  I wouldn’t be surprised that in the not-so-distant future, Amazing Backcountry will be a source for trail usage information. It’s a heck of a lot easier on our tax dollars than putting up trail cameras.?

Feel free to add your trails, staging areas – and share your Adventures!  – Scott Phillips



Deb and her horse Sassy at Mesa Butte

Deb and her horse Sassy at Mesa Butte

I’m pretty sure that each of us taking part in the Amazing Backcountry Race for STARS has either taken a ride in the STARS helicopter or know someone who has. We all feel the ripple effects when someone is transported via the Air Rescue System, whether through being directly involved in the accident or seeing the red helicopter fly through the sky.

One of our riders, Deb Dombowsky, experienced the ride first-hand last summer when riding in the mountains west of Calgary.  She shares her story…

“It was a beautiful morning in the mountains in my favourite camping spot, Little Elbow Equestrian campsite. The sun was just breaking over the mountains with the promise of a warm day. I saddled up my young horse, Secret, for what I thought was going to be a quiet, short ride down to the river.

We set out just behind the campsite and I was pondering where I would take my brother when he got up there later in the morning. It was maybe a half hour into the ride when we came around a bend in the trail and were met with a black bear.

ABC Race for STARS

ABC Race for STARS

My horse stopped hard and the bear took off into the bush with my dog in pursuit. It happened so fast, when my horse jammed on the brakes I clinched my legs and unfortunately stuck her pretty hard with my spurs.  And then we were off to the races so to speak!

Next thing I know I’m out of the saddle, onto her neck, and then sailing through the air and right into a tree. I lay there on the side of the trail trying to breathe.  When I hit the tree I collapsed my lung and broke 10 ribs (5-11 were flail), broke my collar bone, and fractured my scapula in three places.

At some point I knew I needed to get out to the road if I was to get any help, so off I crawled.  I was very lucky to have a young man come along and he went to the camp attendants to get help.  Jim and his wife were with me right up until I was transported by STARS.  They kept my dog and horse safe until they could be brought back home. I am forever grateful for their help.

I heard the helicopter landing right there on the road and I thought, ‘how many times have I heard and seen STARS in the sky and never dreamed I would be in it one day.’ The crew was so fast and efficient, I truly believed them when they said, ‘you are going to be okay.’  As we made our way to Foothills hospital the voice that came through my headset kept reassuring me and walked me through all they were doing for me.

As I write this I need to include that it was barely a year ago that I watched STARS take my grandson, Tyson Hirbnak. We were camping in the backcountry in Dutch Creek and had a propane explosion which badly injured my grandson and my husband.  You can read about Ty’s story in the January 2014 STARS calendar. You can watch a STARS video featuring Ty here:

STARS has made a huge imprint in the lives of our family. Now when I hear and see STARS in the sky I have a flood of emotions, but mostly a deep gratitude in my heart for them and all they do.

Thank you STARS.

Deb resides in Calgary Alberta.


Horsemanship for your English Trail Horse

Is your horse only ridden in the arena?  Too valuable to be ridden outside? Only a show horse ? Too spooky to ride outside?

While it is crucial to have your horse gymnastically trained over jumps or dressage, your horse also benefits greatly from real world riding as I like to call it. This may entail working with cows, trails or just riding out on the ‘Back 40’. Great horsemanship entails all of the horse in all environments.

If you answered affirmatively to any of the questions above, you’re not alone. There is a general perception that English riders only ride in the arena. I think we can change this. Buy why ? Lets look at some advantages to training and riding outside the arena – an English trail horse.



While I believe all horses are personally valuable to their owner or rider, there is a monetary value on the highly bred types. But your horse does not know how much he is worth in human dollars.

If you have spent a sizeable amount of money on your horse you, may be afraid to take him outside as you think he may hurt himself. If your horse is confident and happy in his work, there is a much lower risk of injury. A tight horse, no matter what his dollar value will be much more prone to injury.

Arena training can transfer to the real world. Is your horse tense in the arena? A focus on training the mind to be relaxed and still, is transferable to all breeds. While a hotter horse may perform with more extravagant movement the relaxed horse will have beautiful flow and self carriage in theirs.

A horse that has a foundation of stretch, rhythm and looseness will outlast and perform his counterparts. This looseness and rhythm is the tell of a still mind.

Your Show Horse

Your horse will encounter countless situations at these shows that are potential spooks. There are tables with cloths, potentially hiding monsters under them, children – very unpredictable at times, dogs, flower pots, people with papers in hand and who knows what else. Your horsemanship skills are put to the test at these show venues.

So your horse may deal with these mini crises but is he dealing with them positively?

Horsemanship in training may entail bringing in the potential spooky situations into the arena. Use things you already have for your training. Got a tarp, sheets or flags? Use your imagination. Put these in the arena and see how your horse reacts. Let him investigate. Be cool. Have positive calming thoughts and breathe. Taking on a worried mindset will not be beneficial for your horse. He needs you to be an energetic positive horse-person.

‘Outside of the Box’ Training

You may have had some positive experiences with spooky things in arena. Now take it outside. Start by hand walking him and stay in the comfort zone. If you sense him near the edge of his comfort zone, stay calm and breathe. Your emotional strength is what your horse draws from. Walk at the edge of this zone until your horse is more relaxed, then return to his comfort zone.

Then repeat. It is crucial you build on the positive mindset. Try not to overwhelm yourselves as this will be detrimental to success. You can recover an overwhelming moment by returning to the edge of the comfort zone and re-establish the calm mind set.

Your horsemanship skills are what the horse is counting on. Listen to what he is telling you with his expressions and posture. If he is tight with big eyes then he needs your help to be calm.

English Trail Horse

Hitting the trail with your English tack and English horse is a ton of fun. When you go out take a friend with you who has an experienced and calm horse. This will help you both be successful. Keep it short and positive the first time out. Horsemanship skills are crucial to observing when your horse is in a still state of mind and returning to the comfort zone in this state of mind.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are very good horsemanship trainers out there who can help you and your horse. Work with one who has experience in helping people and horses. We all need professional support and it is well worth the reward of riding out on the trail.

Your arena horse can benefit tremendously by riding outside of the box. The trail is mentally stimulating and can be physically demanding. Your horse will strengthen his muscles and the variety of terrain will help him become more confident and surefooted. Cross-training is essential for all athletes no matter what level.

Now go out there, feel the wind in your hair and enjoy your horse – he will enjoy the change too.

Linda Fitzpatrick
March 25, 2014

Riding with Mountain Lions

After I had  guided ten of our guests for a day down the trail back to the staging area, I rested and watered my horse and turned back, wanting to make camp before nightfall.

I was riding my mare, Belle. She is a 16hh dark bay appendix.  Regal in appearance and attitude, she does however have a soft side. More than one person has referred to her as my soul mate. I can’t argue with that.  I don’t have to think about riding with her; the right things just happen. We are greater together than individually, and I really feel that when I’m on her.

So it goes without saying that we trust each other about as much as two living beings can.

We have learned many things from each other and about each other.

So when Belle has something to say, I listen.

Like I mentioned, it’s a long trek back to camp. After the first couple of miles, it’s rare to meet another rider. On that afternoon we walked, trotted and loped where we could.  At a walk, it’s a five hour ride; I was aiming for two. As we entered the last few miles of our journey the sun was setting.

The ride was uneventful; we have done it many times. Belle kept her pace up and we were enjoying the ride. We reached a fork in the trail, where we could choose our path. One direction took us to a shallow crossing of the river, the other led us into a pool of water where we would jump in and swim across.  I had seen Belle jump into that spot on her own before, so I thought we would opt for the more challenging route.  We only made it twenty feet down that trail.

Then Belle stopped. Her head was up; she was fixated on something ahead of us.  I followed the direction of her eyes and ears into the forest but could see nothing but darkness in the dense brush, with the sun dipping below the horizon. What my senses could pick up though, was her heart pounding, her body tensing, and every hair on my back standing up.

Belle doesn’t  spook at just anything.  I have  tried everything I can possibly think of to bother her, scare her, and annoy her, and I can tell shes just thinking, Stupid humans. So this was something different.  I had never seen her do this before, and so unsure, I gave her a little encouragement.

She didn’t budge but kept her focus on whatever was scaring her.

I trust this horse.  And so I listened.  We turned around.  I repetitively glanced behind me, and a shiver went down my back. I saw nothing, but through her I could feel something.  The word creepy is appropriate. We backtracked the short distance and took the other fork in the trail.  As we crossed the river, Belle relaxed somewhat, but her pace was still hurried and tense.

Crossing the shallower part of the river we came to what is known as The Rails.  It’s basically a few rails serving as a makeshift gate.  It’s kept more than one horse from heading home.  There were some folks camped out at The Rails.  I had had coffee and breakfast with these guys a few times, so I stopped to chat.

As I recounted Belles strange behaviour I was interrupted by one of the guys as he pointed to where we had just crossed, We just saw a cat over there!  And he didn’t mean a house cat.

We are talking mountain lion.

So I will  sum this up.  Scott and Belle go down the path.

Scott wants to go right.

Belle: Holy s&*t, there is a mountain lion right THERE!

Scott: Huh?

Belle: Seriously RIGHT THERE! Don’t you see it!?

Scott: I’m not sure what you are saying girl, but I trust you, and we will  go the way you think is best.

Belle:  Thanks, buddy, but let’s keep the pace up!

Who knows what might have happened had I forced her down that route?   Maybe nothing. Maybe we both would have beern cat food. What I do know is that I listened to my horse when she told me there was something life-threatening, and we are both healthy and happy today.

An event to ponder, for sure.

[singlepic id=20 w=300 h=225 float=right]Several days ago my mountain riding excursions took Belle and I out west again, but with a fellow rider.  I could feel the winter season getting closer with every ride, and didn’t want to pass up on an opportunity to hit the trails.  We enjoyed a short but quick paced ride in the area.  We cantered and trotted much of the trail, enjoying a speed and freedom that one can only experience on the back of a horse.

We took a loop trail which took us east of the nearby campground, alongside a river. And it happened again, for the second time in the years Belle and I have been together. She planted her feet.  Her heart raced. Her head was up and she was scared.  But she didn’t run; she looked to me for direction.  I turned to my friend and said, The last time this happened, there was a cat in front of us.  As she turned her horse around, she replied, I trust ya!  We backtracked a short distance, and then rode through the bush to find a trail that paralleled the one we were on previously.

But this time was different. Although we were further from the point she became so alert, Belle did not relax. Her attention was planted on the spot where she had scented or seen what scared her.  She stared into the dense trees as we rode on.  If I would have asked, I’m certain she would have happily gone into her thoroughbred gear and galloped home.  But I didn’t want to add to her anxiety.  So we walked.  And she was tense the entire time. After we had passed the spot she sensed something, her attention was beside us.  As we turned north and headed back to the truck, her attention was behind us.  I could pinpoint the center of her attention like watching the needle on a compass.

It was eerie.

We crossed a road and took the trail back to the trailer. As we neared the truck I fished out my keys and unlocked the doors with the remote just in case.  I hopped off and tied her to the ring on my trailer. Belle was literally on her tip toes. Her head was as high as she could raise it and her tail was up. Her eyes and ears were glued to the direction we had come from.

A shiver went down my back.

My friend saw this and said, let’s get out of here. We didn’t waste any time loading up.  Once the horses were in the trailer and those truck doors were closed we relaxed.  Driving down the road as the sun set, we glanced into the darkening bush.

And saw nothing.  But what was there?

Neither one of us saw a thing. But Belle saw, or sensed something that had her more on edge than I have ever seen.  I trust this horse and her instincts.  She had her attention focused to one spot the whole way back. If the simplest explanation is usually the right one, then I am led to only one conclusion:

Whatever it was, it followed us a few miles back to the truck.

On Belle, I have encountered bears, deer and elk. We have come across dead animals. She is fine with all of those. She is even chased moose out of the pasture. We’ve ridden with dogs, hikers and bikers.  We’ve worked cattle and buffalo, and ridden by sheep and llamas.

She doesn’t care.

Neither time did I see a cat, but I can put two and two together.  In the first instance the facts are: she told me something bad was up ahead, and the folks across the river saw a mountain lion in that exact spot. In the second instance although again I saw nothing, I recently spoke with some friends that were hunting just south of that area and caught cats on their trail cam during the day.

That’s enough for me.

Thanks Belle, I trust you.

(originally published Nov 6, 2011)