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.”