Exploring the Rockies on horseback is an adventure of a lifetime, a chance to commune with nature as you follow routes travelled by Indigenous peoples and early explorers. Here in Southern Alberta, there is a wide range of outfitters that you can saddle-up with, whether you’re looking for a fun activity for a summer afternoon, a luxurious lodge getaway or an off-the-grid escape into the rugged backcountry.
Banff Trail Riders
Based in Banff National Park, this longstanding outfitter offers a variety of trail rides and tours around the town of Banff, as well as two- to six-day lodge trips into the backcountry of the Park. “We go to some very remote, special places,” says operating partner and self-described cowgirl Julie Canning. One of the best things about riding a horse in Banff National Park’s backcountry is that there are no motorized vehicles allowed, Canning says. “When you come with us, it’s an opportunity to unplug.” With comfortably appointed lodges stationed with cooks, the Banff Trail Riders experience is one in which clients can feel safe, secure and relaxed. Canning describes this mix of rustic and luxury as the “fine balance of riding with Banff Trail Riders — the authenticity of being in the backcountry, while still being able to have a great dinner with a glass of wine.”
“People are looking for authentic, meaningful experiences that will allow them to experience our country and our national park, and they want to do it in a respectful way. That’s what Banff Trail Riders does — we take people to those places that will change you.”
Horseback riders have been travelling through Waterton Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for generations. Wardens patrolled on horseback from the park’s early days, and well before that, Indigenous peoples — including the Blackfoot, well known for their horse skills — rode the area. “A lot of trade routes came through Waterton,” says Jenika Watson, whose family has run Alpine Stables in the national park for more than 50 years. “It’s neat to be a part of that legacy.” As the only outfitter licensed to operate inside the park, Alpine Stables offers a wide variety of trail rides from May through September. Rides go from one hour up to a full day. For a backcountry experience, sister company Blue Ridge Outfitters runs overnight trips throughout the month of July in Castle Wildland Provincial Park, just north of Waterton.
Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies
This not-for-profit club has been guiding riders in the mountains for nearly 100 years. This summer, the club is offering a variety of ride experiences, including overnight lodge rides with Banff Trail Riders and trips with Boundary Ranch in the Little Elbow Recreation Area in Kananaskis Country. The Boundary Ranch trips are for experienced riders or beginners who have what Trail Riders president Gary Sandbeck describes as a “really good sense of adventure.” “The rides will characteristically run for six to seven hours a day,” says Sandbeck. “We ride into the high alpine and across some of highest accessible mountain passes. It is intense.”
Trail Riders are also heading out this summer with Anchor D Guiding & Outfitting, an operation based in the Turner Valley area, on a seven-day moving trip across the Continental Divide between Alberta and B.C. This trip is for intermediate-to-experienced riders only. “That feeling of getting up high [in the alpine] with the horse is really, really special,” Sandbeck says. “You put your trust in your horse. On horseback, you can get further into the backcountry to places and sites that would be very difficult to access by hiking. What horses can do amazes me, every time I ride.”
Cowley’s Rafter Six Ranch
This ranch outfitter in Bow Valley Provincial Park offers customizable rides from May through the end of October for all levels, ranging from pony rides for children, to one- and two-hour, and half- and full-day rides for advanced-level adults. The family-owned ranch has been doing trail rides in Kananaskis Country since 1976. “We are really proud to have a Canadian heritage herd,” says Rafter Six’s Kateri Cowley. “Our horses are so kind and really friendly. They love people, and they love their job.”
Rafter Six rides proceed along the Kananaskis River toward Barrier Lake. “It’s some of the best riding in Canada,” Cowley says. “There are easy trails, and there are really challenging trails, and the viewpoints are incredible.” The Ranch also hosts rustic off-grid camping. “We welcome visitors with authentic western hospitality,” Cowley says.
Located in Mountain View County, in the foothills northwest of Calgary, Painted Warriors offers horseback riding, training, lessons and experiences presented from an Indigenous perspective. “You’re learning all aspects of how horses fit into our culture,” explains Painted Warriors co-owner and lead instructor, Tracey Klettl, who shares knowledge from her Cree and Mohawk heritage. (Her partner Tim is Ojibway.) “The spiritual part is that connection and respect,” Klettl says. “It’s understanding how to work with that horse and respecting and understanding where that horse is coming from — looking at things from the horse’s point of view.”
Among the experiences offered by Painted Warriors is an overnight stay that starts with lunch and riding skills instruction — including how to communicate with the horses. Guests then spend the night in comfortable Métis trapper’s tents and set out on a trail ride the next day.
There is also a four-day horseback riding boot camp, and a 10-day adventure that introduces guests to a variety of riding and backcountry skills. “Instead of sitting back and being waited on, they’re right in there with us,” Klettl says. “It’s so much more than a horse experience, because we incorporate as much as we can, including traditional foods and knowledge about, for example, how we would use plant medicines in the case of injury in the backcountry.”
If you’ve always wanted to try riding without a saddle, Eagle Feather Riding, a half-hour drive west of Calgary, offers bareback riding lessons for all ages from September through June. Students ride the same horse throughout the year, guided by a “co-pilot” — an experienced rider who walks alongside. This style of riding appeals to “highly sensitive, gentle people who want to connect with a living being,” says Eagle Feather Riding owner Vickie Tait. “It’s a deep connection.”
Avenue’s writers and editors are occasionally invited to experience dining or adventure activities as a guest, including some of the experiences in this story. Neither complimentary experiences nor advertising are required for coverage in Avenue. Neither companies that advertise nor those that provide other incentives are promised editorial coverage, nor do they have the opportunity to review or approve stories before publication.