Horses are everywhere in Banff.
Amid the the roaring buses and steady stream of cars, motorcycles and trucks on the town’s shop-filled main strip, a horse-drawn carriage gently clip-clops its way along the pavement.
Along the banks of the scenic rushing waters of the blue-green Bow River, a guide in an oilskin slicker and cowboy hat leads a string of tourists on a leisurely trail ride.
Farther still into the back country, covered wagons and strings of pack mules accompany the more adventurous riders on overnight mountain equestrian tours lasting up to six days in the wilderness of Banff National Park.
Virtually all of them belong to Cochrane-based Warner Guiding and Outfitting, which has some 270 horses and 90 mules in its operation, according to Troy Locke, who works as the barn boss at Warner Stables, located just up the road from downtown Banff.
There are two keys to running a successful equine tourism operation, said Locke, who has worked for owner Ron Warner for four years.
The first is to use only calm, relaxed animals that are perfectly trained.
A quick look around at the dozens of horses in the sprawling corrals and outdoor stalls shows them all standing quietly, heads down, dozing in a Zen-like state of utter tranquillity.
NO FOUR-LEGGED FEMALES ALLOWED
Look closer, and you’ll see that every single horse is a gelding.
“We don’t own even one mare,” said Locke. “We’ve got some molly mules, but they never come around or cause any trouble. It’s just way better without them.”
With no girls around, there’s no reason for the geldings to get snippy or proud, and they generally mind their own business on the trails. That’s important with inexperienced riders, who might never have seen a horse up close before, much less ridden one.
The second secret to success is having a bulletproof legal waiver to protect the operation from litigation-happy lawyers, and lots of insurance.
Nobody is allowed onto the carriages or onto a horse’s back – or even on a pony lead – without first signing a liability waiver.
“Our waiver is a good one. It cost a lot of money for lawyers to get it written up. I always tell the Americans that the waiver is just for them,” he said, with a laugh.
The extended backcountry tours are organized on various themes, from the Mules &Mountains expedition featuring mule clinician Brad Cameron, to an interpretive tour of grizzly bear country.
Led by former Parks Canada warden Mike Gibeau with 30 years of experience with grizzlies, the tour works because for whatever reason, the giant bears seem to get along better with humans on horseback.
Mules do the heavy lifting on the pack trips into the mountains, carrying guest gear and supplies on overnight holidays on horseback.
Prior to joining the Warner Ranch, Locke didn’t have much experience with mules, he said. But working with “old long-ears” has made him a believer.
Mules can be bought for as little as $300 per head, and contrary to popular belief, they aren’t any more stubborn than a horse.
“I’d rather ride a mule than a horse now. They’re smoother. They learn quick. They’re fast. Better than a horse,” said Locke.
“We’ll take a mule that’s
never been packed and put a pack on them and they’ll just go to work. Put some shoes on them and they’re gone to work the next day.”
Apart from wagon rides in the mountains, the draft horses are used to pull the operation’s four carriages for rides downtown and for weddings and special events.
The horses, which work up to six hours a day, are supplemented with lentil-based protein pellets and up to one square bale of timothy hay per day. Regular work and careful feeding keeps the horses trim and fit, said Locke.
Even then, some will get thin. In such cases, they are given a few weeks’ rest.
All the horses get winters off, and are pastured at the ranch in Cochrane. The combination of honest work and rest helps the horses live longer, he said. Some of their stock is pushing 30 and still useful.
They break all their drafts to drive the old-fashioned way. After getting them familiar with the harness, new animals are hitched up to a steel-framed hayrack with the Colonel, a 2,000-pound, 14-year-old Belgian whose favourite word is “whoa.”
Once they graduate initial training, the expert drivers hitch them up single to the hayrack and take them for long drives downtown to get them familiar with traffic. The transit buses, with their loud, hissing doors and brakes, seem to aggravate the horses the most, he said.
“We just drive them around, introduce them to the traffic. That’s all we can do,” said Locke. “Some of them make it, some of them don’t. You’ve got to have a fairly relaxed horse to start with, personality-wise.”
Kayla Bishop, 20, has been ferrying tourists around the sights of Banff as a summer job for two years now as she works on her environmental management/ agriculture degree.
Each horse works about six hours per day, doing about 10 to 15 rides per day at a cost of $16 per person for a 15-minute ride. A half-hour tour costs $30 per person, and a deluxe, one-hour tour for one to four people costs $150. They also do pickups, drop-offs and weddings.
“At home I ride horses, but I never drove a horse until I came out here,” said Bishop, who grew up on an Ontario farm. In 2007, after applying to a job ad in theWestern Producer,she got hired on as a trail guide on a Kananaskis dude ranch. The next year, she went to work with Warner in Banff and learned how to drive.
“It’s been a great experience. I love driving now,” said Bishop. She gets paid $9 an hour for driving the carriage, but the tips are hers.
“Banff is expensive, so you live off your tips. If you work hard, talk to your customers and entertain them, it pays. Banff is so nice, you can talk about it for hours.” [email protected]
“We don’t own even one mare.”
– TROY LOCKE