Painted Warriors - Horse Programs from an Indigenous Perspective
By Jacqueline Louie
When Tracey Klettl is on the back of a horse on a beautiful woodland trail, her mind is always clearer and she feels so much more at peace.
“I always hope that people feel that same peace that I do,” says Klettl, co-owner of Painted Warriors Ranch, located in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies about an hour-and-a-half northwest of Calgary, Alberta. Painted Warriors creates authentic outdoor experiences from an Indigenous perspective, based on Klettl’s Cree and Mohawk heritage and on the Ojibway heritage of Klettl’s partner and business co-owner Tim Mearns. Guests learn a variety of skills, from riding to natural navigation, medicinal plant identification, and backcountry basics.
“It’s about building a connection with your horse,” explains Klettl, a nationally certified English riding instructor and an instructor for the Outdoor Council of Canada. “You’re catching your horse, leading it, brushing it, and tacking it up. We feel it’s really important that people take the time to learn what I call, ‘speaking horse.’ We try to get people to understand the way that horses interact with each other and the way they communicate with each other, watching the subtle language horses have when they’re talking to each other.”
“As a Métis woman who grew up without very much connection to my culture, it’s been very healing to learn about horses from a traditional perspective, and with traditional teaching and learning methods in place,” says Brigid Elliott, lead instructor at Painted Warriors. Enjoying lunch on the trail are (L-R) Brigid Elliott, Mandy Schanzleh, Tracey Klettl, and Kara Stelfox. Photo: Jacqueline Louie
She explains that when the rider recognizes they’re not just being packed around on a horse - that they can understand their horse and their horse understands what they’re asking - it’s not only a safer experience, but a more enjoyable one for horse and the rider.
Klettl also wants her guests to sense what it’s like to travel by horseback or to live in a horse culture, like in many Indigenous societies. “Because it’s not just the skill of being able to ride. You also have to be able to understand how to light a fire, and how to set up a camp,” she explains. “It involves a lot of outdoors skills. At Painted Warriors, the guest is part of that — they’re learning how to do it. When we are on horseback in the mountains, we’re showing people what it would have looked like when our ancestors travelled by horseback. My grandmother always said that horses are our connection to the land. This experience gets us back onto the land.”
At a Level 2 Backcountry Boot Camp this past autumn, a small group of students learned about building a relationship with our horses, backcountry skills like fire starting, cooking over a campfire, and setting up a highline.
“I felt (Tracey) did a great job of giving us really practical skills and strategies,” says Calgarian Kara Stelfox, who took the Boot Camp this past fall. “It’s great for people who want to deepen their understanding of how to interact with the wilderness, and also their relationship with their horse. It’s about connecting with your horse, the land, and the people around you, from a different perspective.
Tim Mearns, co-owner of Painted Warriors (above, front) and tending a campfire. Photos: Roam Creative
“I loved the fact it was an Indigenous-based learning experience, and that I could hear first-hand what the teachings are, and how that is informed by [Indigenous Peoples’] relationship with horses and their world view,” says Stelfox, who has participated in several riding disciplines over the years since she first started riding at age nine. “The principles Tracey talked about really resonated with me. It’s all about relationships and listening to the body language of the horse, and letting them listen to you. You’re going to build a relationship. You don’t get on that horse’s back until they’re with you.”
Mandy Schanzleh took her Level One Trail Guide Certification and completed her final internship with Painted Warriors as part of obtaining an International Guide and Outdoor Instructor diploma at Voshaar Outdoor and Education in Holland.
Related: Ojibwe Spirit Horses
Tracy Klettl demonstrates how to pack Vinyl, the demo horse. Photo: Roam Creative
“The best part of everything is how much they [Painted Warriors] are connected with nature and with animals, and how much respect there is given for the animals,” says Schanzleh, who took English riding lessons in Europe when she was growing up, and found a new perspective on horses at Painted Warriors. “That’s the whole key — not just jumping on a horse and going for a ride, but also getting to know the horse and making a connection,” she says. “I think the way that Tracey is teaching people to ride is really special. It’s really fun, and the hospitality and kindness here are incredible.”
Klettl’s goal is for people to leave with a new perspective of horses.
“They see them through our eyes, with an understanding of the intricate relationships that horses have with each other, and how we can be a part of that. And they have a more enjoyable experience with the horse because of that,” she explains.
“There is no more beautiful way to experience the outdoors — especially a mountain trail ride — than on the back of a horse. It’s following in the hooves of history.”
Tracey Klettl with Chase (left) and Ringo (right). Photo: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada
Painted Warriors Horse Programs
Almost all of Painted Warriors’ horse programs (for ages 12 and up) run year-round (with the exception of the Canadian Horseback Adventure). Programs include:
- Horse Tails and Trails — A four-hour experience that includes building a connection with a horse, a trail ride, and a cooking session around a campfire.
- Warriors Path — Storytelling and lessons while exploring the land in a two-day program.
- Horseback Riding Backcountry Bootcamp (Levels 1 and 2) — A four-day bootcamp prepares guests for backcountry riding.
- 10-day Canadian Horseback Adventure — Guests spend five days at Painted Warriors Ranch gaining backcountry and riding skills, and five days riding in the Rockies.
For more information visit the Painted Warriors website.
Related: Traditions in Horsemanship
Main Photo: Tracey Klettl, co-owner of Painted Warriors, leading a pack horse. Photo: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada