High Country Ride

First hand experience is a great reminder for good horsemanship on high mountain backcountry trails.

Story and photography by CHRISTINE HAMILTON
September 21, 2017

downloadThe Carthew-Alderson trail in Alberta, Canada’s, Waterton Lakes National Park climbs to the Carthew summit at its highest point. It’s southern view overlooks Montana’s Glacier National Park.

Blinking under a bright sun in a royal blue sky, standing on a ridge above timberline, looking down at fir trees and cirque lakes—it was heaven. The Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park and Montana’s Glacier National Park couldn’t have been more magnificent.

It was all the better seen from the back of a good horse. I’ve packed horseback into wilderness, and I’ve hiked a lot of high country (including summiting a few “14-ers,” or 14,000-foot peaks).

But this trip—the last week in July 2017, with a small group from the historic Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies—was the first time I’d been that high horseback. If I have my way, it won’t be the last.

Our guide was Josh Watson of Alpine Stables. He ranches with his family (including his grandparents Dee and Lorna Barrus, and parents Jeff and Deb Watson) northeast of the park, and the family has guided rides and packed into the Rockies for decades. They accommodate every kind of rider you can imagine a national park would attract, as well as people like me who want more of an adventure in horsemanship.

Get more backcountry riding tips to preserve wilderness and leave no trace.

Adventure it was. And I loved experiencing yet another landscape where plain ol’ good horsemanship applies.

Like, trust your horse. I understand scrambling over scree but it’s a different ball of wax horseback.

download 2Horseman Josh Watson of Alpine Stables pauses on the ridge with the Carthew Summit Overlook behind him in Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park.

Scree is loose rock on a steep slope, and you often find it above timberline on switchback trails across bare mountain faces. It’s unstable ground consisting of small rock fragments that might be inches or feet deep. It slides out from under your foot and can carry you with it a long way down. Scree is why you stay on an established trail where it’s more likely to be packed down, but not always.

It’s tricky crossing loose scree on your own two feet; try trusting your horse on it. It was cool to see Lacey, the ranch and mountain-savvy mare I was riding, in action. I just needed to stay out of her way—sit centered, feet balanced in the stirrups, stay out of her mouth—and look up at the trail not down at the dizzying distance that dropped below my stirrup.

download 1Looking down the scree slope on the way up to Carthew Summit—the distance makes the fir trees look miniature. A shout-out to my Ariat combo riding/hiking boots—they were perfect for this trip.

And remember that old warning about not crowding the horse in front of you? Aside from rudeness or risking a kick, it’s dangerous to do when crossing a patch of scree or scrambling over slick rocks. You must wait and give the horse in front of you room in case they stumble and fall or get bogged down.

I also saw another reason why you should be able to mount and dismount from both sides of your horse, and your horse should know to let you. On a narrow switchback trail with no room to turn around, it’s far safer to dismount on the side where the mountain goes up rather than where you might dangle out over an edge. It’s a skill I apparently need to practice while also wrangling a big camera lens for work.

Horseman Joe Wolter takes young horses in big country for good lessons. 

You have to know when to get off, too. Josh made no bones about getting off to lead horses over spots, especially slick rock on a steep angle. We got to the ends of our reins and stayed out in front and to the side. Lacey imitated a mountain goat right with me.

On a decline, it’s easier to slip. If your horse gets its momentum up and scrambles faster than you can, drop the reins and let it go by. Chances are good the person up ahead will be able to grab it, or it’s not going to leave the other horses. Better to risk a loose horse than getting trampled.

I also learned some specifics for this terrain, like letting horses rest at a diagonal.

On an ascent, when we stopped to let the horses catch their breaths, Josh asked us to angle the horses at a diagonal across the trail as much as we could. It relieved the pull of the breast collars across their chests, just for a bit.

It’s funny, but minding etiquette applies everywhere: in the arena, on the ranch and in high country. You have to share the trail, plain and simple. In general, bikers yield to hikers and horses; hikers yield to horses; and whoever is trudging uphill has the right of way.

Josh was a model for being hiker-safe, calling out hello and stopping to let folks pass if they wanted. At one spot we met a pair of hikers coming down with some barking dogs. Josh asked them to step to the downside of the trail to let us pass, so if a horse shied a bit, it would move into the mountain, not off the trail.

It was a great experience, and just another example of how you can never stop learning with horses. Of course, the day also included trekking over snow, hitting a long trot in one stretch through the firs, and stopping to pick and eat thimbleberries.

It’s good for the horses, too. Josh takes the colts he’s starting for ranch work onto these high mountain trails to give them something new to think about, including where to put their feet. Scree is a good teacher.

Editor’s Note – In July 2017, Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, was under the threat of fire danger due to lack of rainfall and fires burning to the west in British Columbia. In mid-September the Kenow wildfire reached the park. The town was saved as was the historic Prince of Wales hotel, but Alpine Stables’ 50-year-old barn burned. The Barrus/Watson family was able to evacuate horses and tack and plan to be in operation again by May 2018.

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Tags: backcountryChristine Hamiltongood horsemanship, guided ridehigh countryWaterton Lakes National ParkAlpine StablesJosh WatsonDee BarrusTrail Riders of the Canadian Rockies