“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” ~ Winston Churchill
Horses: a strong, beautiful beast of an animal to most, an intimidating, confusing creature to me.
We all have our fears (though some refuse to admit it), and while they often involve heights, deep water, poisonous/deadly animals, or the dark, mine involves the beloved horse. I am not afraid to jump out of a plane, or rope a boa constrictor around my body, but I do feel threatened by that skittish, four-legged animal that bears 1400 lb. of pure muscle. Why? Because they could crush me in a second and I don’t understand them.
So what does one do when they want to shake a fear? Confront it.
Instead of going for an easy, one hour horseback ride, I decided to jump with two feet in and book a three-day, two night excursion with Holiday On Horseback – a reputable company in Banff that happened to be offering a Travelzoo deal. For $500 per person – regularly $827/$936 – five friends and I booked a trip for the end of June, on the cusp of their shoulder and peak season.
A Thursday departure meant us leaving Vancouver on Wednesday morning and spending the night before the ride in Banff at a friend’s house. Having never ridden a horse in my life, I had no idea what to pack and was basing my attire and accessories on the list that was provided on their website, plus my camera, of course.
After a scenic drive through the Rockies and some pit stops at the “Last Spike”, DeMille’s Farm Market, and Lake Louise, we arrived in good time to the Uptown District in Banff. An early night readied us for an early start, and our cowboy hats and oil slicks made us look the part.
After being assigned our horses and loading our saddlebags, we headed out for our three-day journey.
My horse, Rimby, (I called him Weathered, Wobbly Wimby) was seemingly docile at first, but his personality shone in the afternoon when he turned sprightly and yearned to run – evident by his head butting of horses “slowing him down” and his antsy nature. I was feeling apprehensive at first, but I gained confidence controlling the reins as the day progressed. A common sentiment was how well-behaved the horses were, and having very little basis to go on, I couldn’t disagree.
After a couple of hours of riding, we stopped riverside for lunch prepared by our three guides: Emma, Lizzie and Meaghan. Our picnic proved to be a good spread with pasta salad, hamburgers, veggie burgers, all the dressings, iced tea, coffee and decadent cupcakes. Since there were seventeen riders on this particular trip (I felt it too large) this stop was primarily to eat, but also an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other. I felt very fortunate to have the group that I did, as everyone in it was friendly, approachable and interesting. We were also a fairly diverse group with guests from Ontario, various parts of British Columbia, Quebec, England, and Scotland.
Once full of fuel for the afternoon, we hopped back onto our horses and continued along the trail.
We pushed on through wild terrain: crossing rushing rivers, climbing rocky inclines, descending down steep slopes, and navigating through winding, grassy trails (a horse’s donut shop) amidst aromatic pine trees. It was not a route for the faint of heart, but it was manageable for beginners and experienced riders alike – of which our group mostly fell into the latter category.
After a couple of exciting hours, we arrived at Sundance Lodge, our home for the next two nights. Not sure what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by the immaculate nature of the lounge and the rooms. All of the rooms included a bunk bed and a single bed, but our room also had a shared balcony. Since the lounge was lit naturally and by the fire and candles, it was dark, but cozy and welcoming.
We later discovered that the furniture, though smelling brand new, was actually built by Dennis Morin in the early ‘90s when the lodge was erected. Dennis has been working for Holiday on Horseback for 44 years as a maintenance worker, as well as assuming the role of designated campfire song leader.
As 6:00PM rolled around, the clanging of a triangle indicated that it was time for dinner. Our group piled into the kitchen, taking in the smell of melted cheese and garlic as we were presented with both vegetarian and meat-lover options: lasagna, pasta bake, garlic bread and Caesar salad. Full to the brim, we were then offered dessert, which consisted of cheesecake and berry crumble.
Our cooks, Aimee and Linda, were beyond accommodating to dietary restrictions and were wizards in the kitchen with warm personalities. I had the pleasure of “geeking out” over food science with Aimee, discovering her wealth of knowledge and varied experience. My expectations for food during the trip were far surpassed, and I know I’m not the only one who felt this way.
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Our evening activities consisted of cards, games, and soaking in the surrounding scenery, with most guests “hitting the hay” early due to exhaustion from the day’s adventure.
Sleeping through the 8AM triangle clanging, we were woken by a knock on the door informing us that breakfast was ready. As we drowsily, but excitedly, made our way to the kitchen, we were surprised with oatmeal, a bacon and egg hash, homemade muffins and coffee/tea. With full bellies we made our way to the stable to hop on our already tacked, saddled and groomed horses and begin day two of riding.
Other than a few river crossings, trail riding was through calmer terrain but offered some breathtaking views.
While stopping for a bathroom break midway to our lunch destination, I accidentally spooked a horse and was kicked to the side of my shin. Fortunately, I was able to walk and went to the glacier fed river to numb and soothe the injury before taking some anti-inflammatory to curb the swelling. Obviously this didn’t help with my apprehension around the powerful creatures, but it was a rude awakening to the importance of voicing one’s presence around horses and acknowledging just how strong and skittish they are. And it solidifies the importance of having guests to sign their lives away on waivers beforehand!
My injury was painful to ride with but I have a high pain threshold so it was generally tolerable and was mostly a constant, annoying throb. Back at the lodge, the guides and guests both showed concern, offering pain killers, ice packs, alcohol and tiger balm to soothe the pain, while constantly asking how I was doing. Naturally, I accepted it all.
With time to kill before dinner, we sat outside doing crosswords while the aroma from the kitchen toyed with our appetite. The sweet smell of maple transitioned to the scent of toasty cedar; maple glazed cedar planked salmon was on the menu for tonight, served with salad and wild rice. Dessert followed shortly after and consisted of a maple, banana pudding (catered to my egg allergic friend), alongside a delicious pecan pie. I felt like I was at a restaurant!
Breakfast the next morning was just as tasty: egg, bacon, and cheese English muffin, sandwiches, cinnamon-apricot muffins, cinnamon rolls, and oatmeal. We gobbled up our grub and packed our bags, before saying a bittersweet goodbye to Aimee, Linda and Sundance Lodge. To show my appreciation for their hospitality, I wrote a note in their guest book, before coming across a guest book from when they first opened.
Our holiday on horseback was a full sensory experience, from the delicious meals and the myriad of aromas, to the feel of the horse beneath us, the sound of nature enveloping us, and the spectacular sights that unfolded in front of us, minute after minute.
- Bring insect repellant
- Bring alcohol (if you wish to consume it)
- Bring a flash light or head lamp]
- Invest in a proper hat – you’ll feel like a cowboy, and it will protect you from the sun
- Games and cards are available in the lodge
- Lean back when going downhill, lean forward when going uphill – keep body at 90 degree angle
- Be prepared for a bit of buttocks and/or back pain (ladies: bikini briefs will prevent any chafing)
- Get to know your fellow riders – everyone has an interesting story to tell
- Remember to tip your guides and cooks
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