Horseback Mountain —

Learning to ride in Alberta means understanding exactly how far horses have taken us.

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.”

Apr 01, 2019
People riding horseback.
Left to right: The mane attraction at Moose Mountain Horseback Adventures; Undine MacLaine and guide Louella Wright hit the early–evening trails of Kananaskis Country.

That brisk, military flavour is partly why Moose Mountain seems like the right place to burn off the sentimental haze clinging to my horse fetish. Before I arrived at the ranch, stallions thundered through my imagination like figures from mythology; I had absorbed an idea of the horse as a sage who could lead me to a lost part of myself. I’m not the only urbanite who feels this way: Vanished from our day–to–day lives, horses have been increasingly pressed into service as vessels for city slickers’ spiritual yearnings. I’ve noticed writing workshops and summer camps where, a cynic might say, horses are advertised like psychedelic drugs – a way for people to tap into a primal version of themselves. It seems to me a horse might resent being burdened not only with the heavy cargo of my body, but the weight of my hopes for self–discovery. Moose Mountain promises to reintroduce me to the horse as a flesh–and–blood creature, one who has been an indispensable partner in shaping where and how we live.

On Li’l Star’s back for the first time, the encounter I experience isn’t with my primal self but with the landscape: Being on horseback is like the longest tracking shot in movie–camera history. I feel as if I’m in a boat, gently rocking with the current, borne along by a muscular benevolence. Ringo, MacLaine’s black border collie–spaniel mix, dashes in front of me through the tall grass, brushing aside blue harebells and rosehips to jam his head down gopher holes. As we plunge into an early–autumn forest, my vision is crowded with aspens, skinny white candles bursting into yellow. Occasionally, I lurch forward – Li’l Star has bolted for a thistle, which she folds into her tough lips before responding to my urgent tugging. Cresting a small hill, I’m aware of the irony of my elevated position. She ennobles me by suffering the illusion that I control her.

A close up of a horse's saddle.
Left to right: Neil MacLaine has a weakness for horses, history and ten–gallon hats; Moose Mountain boasts a four–legged staff nearly 40 horses strong that comes in all shades of black, brown, white and gold.

Over the next few days, I fall ecstatically and painfully in and out of rhythm with Li’l Star. I rate my experiences in degrees of Timotei. As a child, my idea of horseback riding was profoundly shaped by a series of 1980s commercials for Timotei shampoo, in which a woman in a white dress rides a white horse through a minty field. Her blond hair and the horse’s pale mane stream out behind them. Together, they are romantic and ethereal, the picture of beauty and freedom, and it turns out precious little of beginner horseback riding is like this. Crossing rivers and creeks is very Timotei: The water flashes silver over the rocks, the spray kicks up from my horse’s hooves. Going downhill, on the other hand, is not Timotei at all: I’m leaning backward to counter the strain of gravity that pulls at Li’l Star’s knees and drags the trail’s stones out from under her feet. At times, we travel in mud printed with fresh grizzly tracks, although MacLaine’s son, Robert, assures me that horses aren’t easily spooked by bears – it’s moose I should worry about. “A horse seeing a moose is like a human seeing Frankenstein,” he says.

On the third evening, over Parmesan polenta and a rich beef stew, MacLaine, who is a history buff, sketches out the equine past of the area. Although the tiny prehistoric horses that once roamed the Americas went extinct about 11,000 years ago, the modern horse travelled back with the Spanish in the 16th century and was later adopted by the Stoney Nakoda, Siksika, Blood and Ktunaxa nations in the 1700s. The horse continues to carry cultural significance for these nations: Horse ceremonies are part of the local Stoney education system. We see a few wild horses from the truck, two brown and one black, grazing placidly in a field alongside some cattle. Technically, they’re believed to be feral rather than wild, the descendants of domesticated horses; during the Depression, many farmers and ranchers simply opened their gates and let their horses go.

Two guides at a horse camp.
Left to right: Guide Louella Wright rides a ridge in the Rocky Mountains; guide Robert MacLaine helps prepare a backcountry camp for guests of Moose Mountain.

That night, when I close my eyes in one of the ranch house’s timberframe guestrooms, the phantoms of horses are with me; I still feel the jolting, swaying motion of the day’s ride. My own speech is littered with metaphors drawn from our ancestral relationship with the horse: to be saddled with a task, to bridle at a suggestion, to be champing at the bit. With such a long history together, communing with the real animal should be easy. Yet I find Li’l Star hard to read. Her feelings seem to run under the skin like electrical currents, only occasionally pulsing to the surface. She startled when a pair of sneery calves strayed onto the trail, but later, when I watched the local farrier pound iron nails into her hoof, Li’l Star didn’t flinch.

On the last morning of my stay, I watch from my window as rushing shapes of horses emerge from the mist of the pasture, jostling into clarity at the frosty paddock gates. One coughs, a startlingly human cough, like an old man’s. It’s a challenging day – we’ll be riding 25 kilometres and climbing to 2,000 metres – and after coaxing Li’l Star into a trailer along with a Percheron cross and two geldings, including MacLaine’s white steed, Ghost, we drive to the bank of the Elbow River. In the parking lot, a sign flashes “Horse Parking Only.”

Three horses crossing a river.
When crossing the Elbow River on a day trip into the Rockies, it’s best not to change horses in midstream.

The speed of our ascent is like nothing I could have imagined. We rocket through distinct alpine ecosystems: deciduous aspens, Indian paintbrush and wild strawberry; kinnikinnick and moss; lodgepole pine trailing greenish skeins of old man’s beard. Horses are finicky about where they put their feet, and sometimes, to avoid a wet patch of trail, they crash off into the brush, dragging their riders’ faces through pine branches, an experience MacLaine refers to as “bush–chewing.” I feel Li’l Star’s sweating neck; I hear her panting as she climbs. Looking down over the side of the mountain at the minuscule patch of white where we had so recently stood, I have an epiphany about the vast majority of recorded history: Horses did it. Any story of humans expanding into new territory was, in all likelihood, a story about horses bending their strength to finding a way into the landscape, with people sitting astride them, carried above the difficult terrain.

At the top, we come out of the trees into a sloping green meadow thick with scarlet fireweed; across the valley, a ring of grey mountain peaks rises out of the dark forest. “This is deep Timotei,” one of the other riders says to me. I dismount, sliding off Li’l Star like a fried egg slipping from a spoon; my feet feel as oversized and wobbly as if I’d just unlaced a pair of ice skates. Released from her bond to me, Li’l Star wanders off, an alien creature guided by her own instincts, her glossy head bent to the sweet shoots of grass.