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Adventure: Horsing Around in Alberta on a Terrific Family Ranch Vacation

Riding through the middle of a poplar forest in the foothills of Alberta, I heard my greenhorn son on the trail up ahead yell, "Stop, Stop." I thought he was shouting for Mac Makenny, the owner of the Homeplace Ranch who was leading the trail ride, to wait up. But no, bumping along in a thicket strewn with fallen trees and low branches, Dustin had accidently dropped his reins and he was yelling for his furry piebald horse to halt. But Showboat continued trotting over the logs, blivious that the rider was unconnected, both halfs of the reins trailing beside him.

Luckily, within seconds, Mac was able to dismount and reach Showboat, talk softly to the other halted horses so they didn't get antsy, give Dustin back the two lines of leather, and hop back on the lead horse. Taking kids on their first ever ranch vacation can be nervewracking. And moments like these set a parent's heart beating with visions of horses bolting through the woods and junior broncos being dragged along a Rocky Mountain ledge.

But I needn't have worried. Mac and his wife Jayne had a seven-year-old of their own and were used to putting city-slicker children on horses. In fact, about 30 percent of their paying guests, both adults and kids, arrived without experience. Our cowboy host, who grew up in the guest ranch business, explained that his first concern too was safety. For two days, Makenny and wrangler John, taught us how to mount, hold the reins, and let our horses know what we wanted them to do. I was surprised to hear that most ranch accidents happen getting on and off the horses and I was glad that an experienced hand was there to help the kids get on and off.

My kids loved their first experience as cowboys. My 12-year-old daughter, ecstatic from the first sight of large horses roaming the front lawn at will, was ready to jump out of the car, wrap her arms around one of their necks, hop on and gallop off into the hills. My 14-year-old son, who had never been on a horse before and was hesitant from the first, took to riding as if he was born in the saddle. After a day of instruction, he was trotting along, one hand on the saddle horn and the other waving in the air. We rode up into the hills, along ridges, through forests and down again. The kids felt like real cowpokes as we waded through streams and wound around herds of cattle. A highlight was seeing three coyotes bounding through the waving, wheat-colored grass.

For years, participating parents have lauded the virtues of a family ranch vacation-enough fresh air and sunshine to make the kids really sleep at night, instant friends to play with, home-cooked food, but best of all, the chance for junior cowboys and cowgirls to look after their very own horse. Nevertheless, before putting the kids on a thousand-pound beast and sending them off into the sunset, one should ask a few questions. At what age should kids tag along? Most ranches take junior riders as young as seven. But would your second-grader freak if a horse behind bit his horse's bum? That happened twice on our trail rides. And is he prepared to feel like Jello at the end of a day's ride?

What about the ranch? Does it own its own horses? What's the wrangler-kid ratio? How long have the wranglers or trail leaders worked at the ranch? Some U.S. ranches now demand that kids wear helmets. And what about first aid or communication back-up? I recently heard of an all-kid expedition at a Utah ranch that was stranded by a severe hail storm. Of course, the kids were fine but the parents were nervous wrecks.

We found Alberta to be a terrific place to introduce kids to the excitement of horses because there are so many other equine-related activities: the new $15-million Western Heritage Centre on the historic Cochrane Ranch (about a half-hour drive west of Calgary) lets virtual cowboys rope a calf, hop on a chuckwagon or listen to a cowboy ballad (Call 403-932-3514). At Spruce Meadows, famous for its Canadian champions, budding riders get to watch equestrian show jumpers in practise. Calgary's famous Glenbow Museum is exhibiting Images of the Cowboys this year, a superb show of photos, images and sculptures of working cowboys, performing cowboys or fantasy cowboys in drag. In between activities, families can chow down on corn and hash at a slew of western eateries in Calgary and even shop for ten-gallon hats.

Waking Dustin up the next morning took some work. "Time to get up," I said upon hearing Lili the housekeeper ringing the school bell. "I can't get up," he argued. "I need a cowboy." I guess he really was in the middle of a dream about his horse.

The Homeplace Ranch is a year-round working ranch in the Rocky Mountain foothills 25 miles southwest of Calgary near Bragg Creek. Rates include riding, all meals, accommodations and activities and start at $542 per person, double occupancy for 4 days and 3 nights. There are special rates for children. Call 403-931-3245 or E-mail homeplace.ranch@cadvision.com

The Alberta Outfitters Association's 20-page booklet lists 19 other ranches that promisd "safe, guided and memorable horseback trips through the most spectacular scenery in the world." Call or fax 403-722-2692 or write to them at Box 277, Caroline, Alberta, TOM OMO. The American Wilderness Experience offers family ranch vacations in British Columbia and many western U.S. States. Call





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