Li’l Star is a Missouri Fox Trotter mare. She is 20 years old, which makes her either 18 years younger than I am, or – if you accept the maxim that a year in a horse’s life is the equivalent of three person–years – old enough to be my mother. This will be one of the many contradictions in our relationship over the next few days at Moose Mountain Ranch, a family–run horseback–riding outfit about an hour’s drive west of Calgary. Officially, I am in charge. But Kananaskis Country is her country, and in these foothills, Li’l Star knows every waterfall, muskeg meadow and jagged wave of forest by heart.
Standing in a hoof–churned paddock behind the ranch house, I stretch out my hand and rest it gingerly on Li’l Star’s immense cheek, under the fringed saucer of her enormous brown eye. She is the biggest animal I have ever touched. Her sensitive mouth wrinkles as if she is about to cry. Neil MacLaine tells me, “It’s like a first date: You want to come bearing red roses, not a basket of dirty laundry.” A dozen other horses mill around us – the MacLaine family keeps about 40, in all shades of white, black, brown and gold, ready for week–long pack trips for seasoned riders as well as day trips for newbies like me.
MacLaine, who has thick white hair under his ten–gallon hat, is a former Canadian army officer; he completed tours in Cyprus and the High Arctic, learning from the rangers there to prepare for a possible Soviet invasion in the 1980s. He started out in Kananaskis Country some 30 years ago with four horses and a herd of cattle, but ranching didn’t suit him; it was the pack trips he loved. “We call it a hobby that spun out of control,” he says. Now MacLaine – who runs the place with his wife, Undine – is on a cowboy philosopher’s lifelong quest for the perfect equine metaphor. “A new rider is like a substitute teacher,” he’ll say. Or: “Some horses are Porsches and some are tractors, and you don’t teach your kid to drive on a Porsche.”