Dude ranching in Western Canada

Kathy Carter


If you’re after something off the beaten track, a holiday at a wilderness resort could be just the ticket. Nestled in the wilds of western Canada are thousands of acres of raw wilderness, just waiting to be explored. Leave the ‘tech’ behind, and try some home-spun activities, from nature walks and fly-fishing to target shooting, kayaking, canoeing and of course, horse riding, western-style.

Wonderful wildlife – what you may see on your travels, from caribou to coyotes

In today’s hectic, built-up world, the chance to travel to an expansive wilderness to connect with stunning natural beauty should not be missed. The area surrounding British Columbia’s Cariboo Mountains, including the area’s Provincial Park, is particularly special. Serrated mountain peaks meet densely forested valleys and alpine valleys, with ancient red-cedar trees standing to attention as high as the eye can see. Because the habitats are diverse, they support an impressive array of wildlife species. The now-threatened mountain caribou mooches along the same paths as grizzly bears and black bears (you can differentiate a grizzly by their pronounced hump of muscle, and dished face). Meanwhile, wolves sneakily pad about in the shadows, with their other-worldly presence; (they sometimes look similar to coyotes, but usually carry their tail higher). Perhaps most astonishing here, for the uninitiated, is the sighting of a moose – they’re up to 7.5 feet tall at the shoulder, with antlers that spread to around 5 feet, and are generally inquisitive and unafraid of humans; hence they’re often seen ambling in public areas. A sobering sight.

Wildfires – the new ‘normal’?

British Columbia is a particularly striking area, and immersed in nature. It forms part of the region of Western Canada, along with the Prairies of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. There’s even a ‘BC’ effect: the power of nature to bring clarity and improve well-being. However, nature bought something far more alarming in 2018, when wildfires struck the region (following already-catastrophic fires the previous year). Almost 1.4 million hectares of land were razed to the ground, with the territory’s firefighting bill reaching $615 million. The area surrounding the aforementioned Cariboo Mountains sadly suffered 66.5 thousand hectares of burned land; smaller mammals like nesting birds, snakes and frogs are thought to have been most at risk, as well as the young of larger animals, such as deer and bears, and curtailed farm animals. Due to a lack of resources, many tourism facilities were reportedly left to their own devices, in terms of protecting their properties and animals. (A new ‘Blueprint for Wildland Fire Science in Canada’ guide has since been produced). Tourism facilities and ranches in some areas are now acknowledging that wildfires could be the ‘new normal’, and are making plans accordingly, to retain their annual visitors to this beautiful region, and educate them about fire ecology and climate change.

Saddle up for adventure – explore the changing landscape, through fire-licked forests and lush, rolling meadows

Tourism is key to this area of Western Canada, hence much work is being implemented by authorities to improve knowledge of fire ecology, including using fire intentionally and effectively, to protect local ecosystems. Yes, some areas of this region have been visually changed by fire damage, but nature is working her magic, and creating new, beautiful landscapes. This paradox of clusters of charred forests against a backdrop of pristine valleys makes for a startling and interesting nature experience; comparing the stark, fire-licked areas with their neighbouring cascading waterfalls, and lush green spaces. If horse riding is your thing, then exploring the wilderness on a western saddle and a trusty steed can’t be beaten. There’s something special about being ‘at one’ with another animal while your senses are bombarded with such beauty. (Horses are noted for their healing abilities, because they mirror human behaviour; they can even hear the human heartbeat from four feet away, and often synchronise their own heartbeat with us). The foothills of the Cariboo Mountains are the perfect place to enjoy this bonding experience, cantering through golden grasslands and meandering through sunny glades. You can even visit or stay at a working ranch and try your hand at roping, branding and herding, or sign up for a horse-whispering workshop. 

Why ranching is a trip of a lifetime; and how immersing yourself in nature can develop your connection with our planet

Whether you’re immersing yourself in the life of a cowboy, or simply taking a rustic ride on horseback as part of a longer stay, your connection with a horse and the subsequent blending with nature that develops can’t be underestimated. It’s the ultimate exercise in mindfulness. Being immersed in nature helps reduce stress, and creates equilibrium in the body. If you’ve travelled with friends or family to a ranching retreat, expect to bond further with them as you discuss the day’s exhilarating activities around the campfire, while the fireflies (or lightning bugs as the Canadians call them), mesmerisingly dance and flit. There are also of course other benefits to this type of holiday – such as improved fitness and gastronomic experimentation. Activity-wise, there are many more adventures to be had – from nature walks and fly-fishing to target shooting, kayaking and canoeing. You will also enjoy the immersion in different cultures. Do check out a rodeo, if you’re staying at a dude ranch – the Quesnel rodeo, which sees townsfolk parading in their finest 1860s garb while enjoying festival activities, takes place July 18-21. (Incidentally, ‘Dude’ ranching reportedly garnered its name from the cultured socialites or ‘dudes’ who first visited their less wealthy neighbours in the Old West for vacations.)

Three things you will learn on your trip that you can incorporate into your life back home

Your planet is important. Canadians are working hard to tackle environmental challenges, notably reducing plastic pollution; they plan to ban single-use plastic well within the next couple of years. Montana might have the moniker of Big Sky Country, however if you hail from a smaller country, all of the Americas will highlight the beauty of our planet, the sheer size of these territories, the cyclicality of nature, and the need to protect our resources.

Downtime is key. Spending time in the wilderness helps re-set our internal time-clocks. Getting into the natural rhythm of a slower pace of life helps us to breathe more slowly, and take time to process and appreciate the sensory input; if we can take even a tiny piece of this concept back to our home lives, we may be happier and healthier.

Learning a new skill challenges and enriches our lives in so many ways. If you haven’t tried western riding before, why not take it up on your return home? Of all the equestrian riding disciplines, western is especially growing in popularity, with many more training centres and coaches becoming available worldwide. Remember, the horse to human bond is unquestionably good for the soul!

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