Trail Tips: The Joy of Trail Riding
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
The hidden trail began in scattered pine meadow midway between two small subalpine lakes. We would have seen puffball clouds float through an electric blue sky, but horse and human eyes were focused on the trail as the horses dug in and scaled the dark side of the mountain. Up and up the spiral trail wound, until we conquered a few false summits and leveled off on a barren alpine ridge. We rode along the ridge, still upward, to an adjoining ridge, and then we were on top of the world.
We dismounted, hitched horses to some hard edged boulders, and stood speechless in our surroundings: the countless and endless peaks, some rugged and busted, some rounded, and the colourful grassy meadows cradled high and hidden from common view yet revealed to us. Ice, snow, black, brown, green, yellow, red, purple, muted, and mottled forms faded into the distance.
We were overwhelmed and our breath was taken. We drifted… Jerry, Rick, and Kathy over to a grassy knoll to face the endless west, and me to the adjoining ridge to see what the valley hid. After studying the valley, I returned to sit alone with a boulder for a back rest.
My clients were in plain sight. For some reason they were animated; some discussion of great importance was taking place. Rather than studying the breathtaking view, heads were bowed. Kathy appeared distressed and Rick was comforting her. I was worried. Maybe some family matter had surfaced at this emotional moment, maybe an illness. Rick and Kathy were recently engaged and she had never been to the mountains. I waited and when they finally wandered back to the horses I edged over to Jerry, Rick’s brother and a friend, who was on his second Blue Creek adventure in the Alberta Rockies.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “It looked like Kathy was crying.”
“Why? Is everything okay?”
Jerry gave me an odd look, a reflection of the odd look on my own face.
“It’s this,” Jerry said. I looked around to see if I had missed something. I could not see anything out of place.
“This — everything; she’s never been in any place like this before.”
Then I realized she was overcome with the beauty and glory of the mountains, the power of it all. It had made an impact, as if she had walked into heaven. And maybe she had.
Over the years I have come to know the joy of trail riding, as many others have, and its imprint has been stamped deeply upon my soul. It is truly inspirational how the memories of past trail moments stay with us: a particular vista, a stream, a meadow, a campsite, a patch of flowers, the glimpse of a grizzly, a face, or the smile of a trail companion. I even remember rocks and trees and how the tent looked 20 years back, yet important family moments and other events — traumatic, happy, and otherwise — are shrouded, vague, lost in the mists of time.
Finding your own piece of trail heaven can be a powerful and spiritual experience. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Every year I receive phone calls and emails from past guests and friends recalling the moments of their trail rides. Like a record, the memories of joyful times play back again and again, buoying them through difficult and less memorable times, or reminding them that dreams are sometimes real.
For the past 26 years I have been telling a story about Christof and Sondra, a young Swiss couple whom I discovered peeking through old wooden fence rails as I trained a horse in Jasper, Alberta. After some animated hand speech, they joined me on a two hour trail ride and the rest was history. They cancelled most of their Canadian vacation plans and travelled the wilderness from mid-July until mid-September.
I remember one cold morning with the skies threatening, when the intrepid couple’s first high pass was in sight. We had a hearty breakfast of Red River porridge, bacon, eggs, and toast. I dug in, Sondra helped herself, but Christof, a painfully thin young man with thick, black, curly hair blended into a black, curly beard and a librarian’s round spectacles, only nibbled on a piece of dry toast. I explained the horrors of weather over a five mile snowy pass and that he must eat well. I pleaded with Sondra, who was better at English, and she pleaded with Christof, to the point of anger. Finally Christof smiled at me and said apologetically, “Me no eat morning. Affect my sensibilities.”
We headed over the pass through hours of cold and snow, and I will never forget Christof riding along with a grin as broad as the windblown pass, while being pelted by white flakes, with exposed hands and wrists, and me bundled like an Inuit and still cold. There was never a word of complaint.
Now 26 years later, Christof has emailed me. He wants to experience the Rockies again. With his memories as a bedtime story, the joy of the trails tucked him in for all those years. He asked me if I remembered him. Little does he know that he is as important to me as I am to him.
Trail riding is cleansing, both spiritually and physically. Society and civilization, with their many demands, rules, and stresses, place so many chains and layers of bondage upon us that it takes a dramatic change of environment and pace to break free; trail riding offers that change. It is truly amazing how even a two hour ride can change the face of the day. What we thought was so important becomes small change.
Clinical studies have shown that being in the vicinity of a horse changes brain wave patterns. There is a proven calming effect that helps us stop fixating on the past or the negative. If you are a trail rider, you know it’s good for the soul.
There are many programs worldwide that bring people and horses together for emotional and physical growth. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Worldwide, there are hundreds of organizations whose goal it is to bring people and horses together for physical and mental benefit. Equine assisted therapy, equine facilitated learning, and therapeutic riding for the disabled are now commonplace and involved fields of study. Interaction with horses has been proven to help people with a variety of disorders including eating disorders, attention deficit disorder, bipolar syndrome, Autism spectrum disorder, aggressive social interaction, communication difficulties, and withdrawn behaviour. Confidence, belief in one’s self, and joy are understandable outcomes when we are accepted by a beast big, bold, proud, and beautiful. When the power is beneath us and our simple commands of stop, go, and turn are obeyed, there is a bond and a purpose never before known.
Personally, I do not believe we were ever intended to search for some obscure truth, secret, or key to the purpose of life. I believe that just living should be enough. I believe that every native of every nation born true to the earth beneath and the skies above understands that all one can hope for is contentment and some degree of harmony between oneself and one’s surroundings. Trail riding and a life in the wilderness have kept me at odds with a goal-driven society and to me, many of the dreams we are told to follow inevitably serve questionable ends. The joy of trail riding is deeper than all of that. Hitting the trail is like being born again, every time. A baby needs touch, warmth, love, food, and a healthy environment — all of the things we can experience on the trail. Do not underestimate the power of touch. Every human raised without it becomes deprived and depraved. There is nothing wrong with walking into a horse’s space and providing all of the loving touch you want. It is good for both of you (provided the horse is a willing partner). I give rubs and pats and scratches out in the open, but reserve hugs for when no one is looking and only for horses I truly like and respect.
The joys we experience from trail riding go beyond what we enjoy from the country and the horse. Often, trail riders are special people. Maybe it’s because when we are on the trail, our character really shows. I believe in character. When the chains of civilization slide off as we wind down the trail, so do inhibitions. We relax in the great outdoors and enjoy the campfire and company in ways we never could in towns and cities. After knowing me for a few days, people have told me things that even their favourite sister would not be privy too. Being considerate is still alive and well on the trail, but being politically correct is not. I like it that way. I cherish my time with people who, in their new reality, peel off their layers and reveal their true character, for better or worse — but usually better.
The joy of trail riding does not need many words to describe it. Trail riding is one of those “if it feels good – do it” things and doesn’t cause a guilty conscience afterward. If your life with horses is dominated by concerns of needing to look right or having the perfect horse that moves the perfect way, maybe joy and contentment are not your ultimate goals. But they are goals worth pursuing – a direction, a belief in horses and life, that is rewarding, positive, healthy, and undeniably good to the last breath.
Main article photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr. - Simply being with horses changes the way we think. We dwell less on the past and less on negative events, helping us feel alive and positive about life in general.