Horseback riding is not really my thing. I’ve been petrified of horses since my horse-crazy mother put me on a pony when I was five. And it’s not for lack of trying. I have been on trail rides all over Canada – from PEI to Ontario and Alberta. I even gamely hopped on a horse in Costa Rica and splashed through rivers and held on for dear life as we climbed up and down muddy mountains for literally hours. But despite all my time on a horse, I remain unskilled and know any horse I ride smells my fear.
Fast forward to a three-day period in June 2021. I willingly signed up to go horseback riding in Banff with Banff Trail Riders. The lure – two nights at Sundance Lodge and time spent with media colleagues I hadn’t seen since COVID stopped travel. It just goes to show that under the right conditions, you’ll say yes to things you wouldn’t normally do.
The good news – I survived and finished with a smile on my face though I admit to sore knees. In fact, I would have loved to continue up to Halfway Lodge and then to Allenby Pass – but that’s a 5-day trip and will have to wait for another occasion. Described below is what my 3-day trip looked like horseback riding in Banff National Park.
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Horseback riding in Banff – day one
After meeting at 10 AM at Warner Stables on Sundance Road in Banff, we were provided with saddlebags to store any clothing, water, or camera gear we’d want to be able to access on the ride as you’re not allowed to carry a backpack. Then we marched over to the corral to meet our horse and learn the basic do’s and don’ts of horseback riding. That includes how to hold the reins – turn left, right, and most importantly – how to stop. In short order, we learned it also meant being aware of when your horse is peeing – as every time they did you need to stand up in the stirrups and take pressure off their kidneys. That was news to me.
After being helped onto Sly, the name of my horse, staff adjusted the stirrups. You don’t want them too long or too short as you might end up with a numb bum or sore knees. Mind you after 4 – 6 hours on a horse, you’ll likely have a bit of both anyway, unless you’re a regular horseback rider.
Then we were off. It was basically follow the leader. We walked single file – all 10 of us, with a guide at either end, along with a donkey to carry our overnight bags. Only a few times did we get to a trotting pace – but it was short-lived. In fact, the guides want you to keep your horse in line – so they don’t develop bad habits. Apparently, I didn’t do a very good job with Sly, as I was admonished on several occasions – “Leigh, get back into single file.” (How did they remember my name so well?)
The guides do a good job of narrating the journey as you go, though at times they can be difficult to hear, if you’re in the middle of the pack. Our route took us past the historic Cave and Basin Hot Springs – considered to be the birthplace of Banff National Park. Then we followed the Bow River, passing the turnoffs to Sulphur Mountain and Sundance Canyon. After a few hours in the saddle we passed the turnoff to Sundance Lodge, continuing for another 15 minutes to reach a scenic spot on the Bow River set up for hosting large groups of horseback riders at lunch time.
After tying up our horses it was time to massage my legs, revive my feet in the Bow’s numbing waters and delight in the beauty of the scene before me. The mountainscape in Banff National Park never gets old, no matter how often you see it.
In short order, we all had a steak cooked to order, along with salads, apples, bars and hot drinks in hand. People found logs or rocks to sit on and caught up on the last 16 months of each other lives. At one point, I took a break from chatting and spotted a grizzly bear just casually walking along the far side of the Bow River. That caused a stir until he ambled out of sight.
From our lunch spot to Sundance Lodge, it was approximately a 4-hour horseback ride at a walking pace. I’ve skied the route several times on winter trips to the lodge – something I highly recommend doing so I knew what was in store. Most of the trail is uphill at a moderate gradient – but since I wasn’t the horse, I could sit back and enjoy the ride, daydreaming away.
However, once we got the Brewster Creek crossing, the guides had my full attention. I did not want to be that person that didn’t follow instructions and ended up going for a freezing cold swim. You need to turn your horses head upstream and give them a quick kick if they stop part way across. Fortunately for all of us, it was non-eventful. After one more stream crossing, we were at the stable – a little stiff and tired but otherwise fine.
The beauty of a stay at Sundance Lodge is a fully catered experience along with hot showers, in-lodge bathrooms, and a beautiful big deck outside. After changing out of my horsey wear it was time to enjoy the company of my fellow colleagues along with a few drinks in as spectacular setting. Dinner was served about 7:30 PM and I think almost everyone was in bed by 9 PM. A full day of fresh air and sitting on a horse does that to you.
However, if you think six hours on a horse is hard for a few days, read the inspiring account of The Ride of Her Life – The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America. I’m halfway through and in awe of a 63 year old woman going it alone from Maine to California without even a map in the 1950’s!!
Day 2 on the horse
Our second day was a much easier day. We had a leisurely breakfast and didn’t even start to get organized on our horses till after 10 AM. The plan for the day was to ride about three hours south towards Halfway Lodge and stop in a scenic meadow near Brewster Creek for lunch – with views of the starkly beautiful Sundance Range.
There were no tough stream crossings, just some narrow trails through the forest where you had to pay attention and avoid getting your foot caught while the horse continued moving forward. At times the scenery really opened up – with far-reaching views that beckoned the explorer in me – and why I’d be up for the five-day trip. After a relaxing lunch – sandwiches – not grilled steak this time, it was back in the saddle for a few more hours.
With a 4 PM arrival at the lodge, there was some time to read and relax before meeting up with my friends and colleagues outside on the deck. Everyone seemed upbeat – enjoying conversation and laughter in addition to appetizers and drinks along with the delicious feeling of being out of the saddle.
I was a party pooper that night – heading to bed after dinner though I heard others stayed up around a campfire drinking and telling stories till after midnight – the benefit of a summer visit to the lodge as the sound doesn’t travel across the creek so all remains quiet in the lodge.
Day 3 horseback riding in Banff – back to the barn
By the third day, I think we were all feeling darned comfortable in the saddle. That showed in the way no one panicked when the horses saw a deer, and they all got a tad jumpy. With an average of six hours in the saddle a day, you start to relax. I know I felt my decades long fear of horseback riding lessening – though if I was suddenly put on a galloping horse, that might change again. Either that or I’d wonder what I’d missed all these years as my daughter describes galloping as a freeing experience.
On the third day, we retraced our steps back to the lunch spot – and caught up with a second round of colleagues who were just going in for a night. There was lots of lunchtime chatter over grilled bratwurst and salad before our last few hours on the trail back to the barn. The final ride was a delight on a lovely section beside the Bow River that met up with part of the scenic Marsh Loop trail.
Why go horseback riding in Banff with Banff Trail Riders
Banff Trail Riders has a vast amount of experience. They’ve been around since 1962, guiding historic routes that the original explorers used in the 1920’s. But the best thing about them is their people and horses. Personable horsemen and horsewoman know how to match a horse to your personality and skill level. They teamed me up with Sly – a great fit – and a horse I’d happily ride again. All in all, I had a very positive, non-scary experience – and with my fear-of-horses background, that speaks volumes!
Tours are run from May until October. Most people opt for a one-to-four-hour ride, but I’d encourage you to go for longer, and see more. Enjoy the full experience with the night at Sundance Lodge. It helps a lot if you go prepared with the right clothing (long pants and any cowboy like garb you might own) and the right attitude. You may not always be comfortable, but you will remember this trip for a long time to come.
Where to stay in Banff
If you want to stay in Banff the night before and/or after your horseback riding adventure, you’ll find plenty of choice. Some of my favourite hotels include Buffalo Mountain Lodge, Moose Hotel & Suites and the Mount Royal Hotel. But you’ll also fine everything in between from the Banff Hostel to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Further reading on things to do in Banff
Thank you to both Banff Lake Louise Tourism and Banff Trail Riders for hosting me. It was an absolute pleasure to experience a three-day ride.
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