Tuesday 19 July 2016

Writing-On-Stone Part I

Alright, prior warning, this is going to be a monster post, if you want just the highlights, see Weekend in Numbers.


In January, I saw on Facebook an event for a trail riding trip to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. The ride was organized as an official AQHA trail ride event, but was open to any one and any type of equine. My friend S and I regularly go for hacks on the roads and fields around the barn, but we had been itching to go ride somewhere else and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. We jumped on it and mailed in our registrations. The event had a huge amount of interest. Even though it was January and the ride wasn't until July, all 50 spots filled up in less than 2 weeks and there were enough people on the waiting list that they created a second ride for a following weekend.

For those of you not familiar with Writing-on-Stone, it is a Provincial Park and a National Historic Site. It is protected for both it's natural landscape and for it's cultural and historic importance. Writing-on-Stone is located in Southern Alberta and pretty far from civilization. Most of Alberta's streams and rivers flow either East to Hudson's Bay, or North to the Arctic Ocean, however the Milk River is actually part of the Mississippi River system and it flows South, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico. The park consists of natural grasslands, plus dramatic coulees, hoodoos and other rock formations where glaciers carved through sandstone. The Sweetgrass hills in Montana can be clearly seen from the park and shows just how close it is to the US border. The area is important to the Blackfoot people, and there are archaelogical sites and rock carvings and paintings that were done by First Nations people thousands of years ago. There was also an outpost of the Northwest Mounted Police here back in the day. More information available here if you're interested. Because of all this, you can only ride in the area if you are on a guided tour, and only 2 or 3 groups of horse riders are allowed in each year.

Creative Commons image from Wikipedia (by Wheateater) of Writing-on-Stone,
showing the Milk River, and some of the Sweetgrass hills in the background

Even if it wasn't for the restrictions, there's no way I would ever ride here without a guide. There are game trails, but no actual trails and only years of experience with the area allows you to know where the safe places are to cross the river and make your way through the rocks and hills. They don't call it the badlands for nothing.


Our basecamp was located at the Writing-on-Stone rodeo grounds. The grounds are located in a curve of the Milk River and has flat land to camp, a rodeo arena, and a covered bbq area. There are no services of any kind (no electricity, no cell service, no plumbing, there were two port-a-potties for washrooms, and a water truck for water for the horses).

Our camp with our puny little tents

We had to figure out our own way to keep our horses overnight. When I signed up for the ride originally, I thought that there were permanent pens at the rodeo grounds that we could use. Unfortunately, I found out a week before the ride that that wasn't the case and had to do a mad scramble to figure out a Plan B. I ended up buying four Hi-Hog portable horse panels. I cleaned the local co-op out of their entire stock so I got their last 3 normal panels and their one-off bright pink one! The panels were expensive and I was not happy at the unexpected cost, but they are a good design, nice and sturdy, and fit into my trailer perfectly. The panels created a decent size pen for Kachina and I had a lot of peace of mind knowing that she could move around and lie down as she wanted. Now that I have the panels I will have to search out more trail rides to use them on!

Kachina's home for the weekend

My friend S kept her horse (who's name also starts with K, so let's call her SK) tied to the trailer overnight, with a long enough lead for her to move around and eat and drink, but not trip up with (SK is a lot better behaved with being tied than Kachina is!).

SK at the trailer
S and I slept in tiny little tents. They worked fine, but we were jealous of all the fancy rigs around us, especially when it was raining buckets!

Fancy rig across from us

The Group

There were 50 riders and horses on the ride. I was struck by what a diverse group it was, of both humans and equines. There were all ages from two juniors, up to two people over 70 years old. There was a pretty even split between men and women (can't say that for dressage shows!). The horses included mules, arabs, thoroughbreds, quarter horses, standardbreds, appaloosas, paints, draft crosses, etc.

Part of the group

There was one large group of people who came together from the Bowden Horse Club, but for the most part there were smaller groups and pairs of people. We met and chatted with some really genuinely nice folks from across Alberta and even BC and Saskatchewan.

More of the group

Most people were in Western tack, and so was I (it's just more suited to attaching a breast collar and saddle bags, wading through a river, etc), but there were also a couple of endurance saddles in the mix. I saw one girl with a dressage saddle and got excited, but she just likes having a lighter saddle to hoist up on her tall horse, she doesn't actually ride dressage. Some people were clearly very seasoned trail riders, but there were plenty of horses and riders who weren't used to the challenges of the trail and usually do something else.

One of the waits on the trail

One thing that impressed me was the number of helmets. Usually in the western world, you don't see many helmets. I was going to wear mine regardless, but I was prepared to be one of the only ones who did. Instead, a full half of the group were wearing helmets. Baseball caps and cowboy hats made up the remainder (and a couple of the mule riders had hats big enough to call sombreros!).


We had packed up most of our stuff on Thursday night, and so Friday morning we just had to load the people food and the horses. We got to Writing-on-Stone just after noon, and had lots of time to set up camp and settle in before the pre-ride meeting at 3:30pm. Immediately after the meeting and introductions, we all tacked up and left for our first ride at about 4pm.

Super beautiful area with lots of cool rock formations

At the pre-ride meeting we were told that the first ride would just be about an hour and a half, and we got the impression it would be a pretty low key first ride. Well, that wasn't quite the case.

We left the rodeo grounds and pretty quickly came to the river crossing. I've never done a river crossing with Kachina, but was doing a pretty good job of telling myself and S that it would be okay and we didn't need to stress. Then, about three horses before me, a young mare on her first river crossing decided to buck and rear and leap through the river. The guy riding bounced pretty good in the saddle and came off about halfway across. He kept a hold of the reins and got back on, only to be unseated into the water a second time. He never let go of his horse and they got across in the end. He was completely soaked but was a super good sport about it and had no qualms about continuing the ride. After he was back on his horse on the other bank, the group continued crossing. I was getting nervous about crossing myself, but figured that I could use the solid looking appy in front of me as a lead and we'd be okay. Of course, said appy balked pretty good about entering the water too. I prepared myself for the worst but looked up and kicked on. Kachina was a bit unsteady, but she behaved herself and we made it across in one piece. This crossing was only up to the bottom of my stirrups, though people with longer legs and/or shorter horses got their boots wet.

Waiting around after the river crossing

On the other side of the river, we stopped while everyone else made it across the river, a few horses at a time. There were 43 horses on Friday's ride, so that takes a while, especially when not all the horses want to go. Standing around waiting was by far the toughest thing for Kachina and I all weekend, and the first ride was the hardest. Kachina is pretty steady when you let her go forward, but make her stand for too long and she starts dancing around and tossing her head pretty good. I definitely wasn't the only one having this problem. Once the whole group was across, our guide started on this long story about the northwest mounted police who had lived in this little cabin by the river's edge. It would have been interesting another time, but in this situation, me and a few other riders were just praying he would stop talking so we could get our horses moving.

The old Northwest Mounted Police outpost

Next up, was going down and up to cross a pretty deep dry gully. This was our first taste of really having to lean back going down and lean forward and give the horse their head on the way up. I know how to ride hills on horseback in theory, but the terrain around the barn is very flat so I don't get much practice. At the pre-ride meeting we were told the story of one rider who let her horse run up a steep hill, and when the lady behind them tried to stop her horse from following, she inadvertantly pulled her horse back on top of her and had to be flown out on a medi-vac helicopter. It was a good warning, and I was very careful to not let Kachina run up hills but at the same time make sure not to pull on her. We made it through the gully okay, but a few horses later I looked back and all I could see was a horse leaping out of the gully at a run, minus their rider. We got the horse caught, the rider back on, and carried on.

After that, we traveled down a coulee valley along narrow single track beside steep drop offs. The drop offs weren't that far down, but one misplaced hoof and you and your horse would still be in for a tumble. I was super grateful that there weren't any long waits while we were on this part of the trail. Kachina was listening very well to me and allowed me to steer her along precise zig zags and keep her back from the red-ribboned tail in front of us. S had her mare right behind us for the whole ride as Kachina doesn't care and it helps SK to stay in control.

I didn't take photos of the dicey parts of the trail for obvious reasons, so here's Kachina 

We got to one place with a bit of a grassy slope where we again were standing around for another story and waiting for who knows what. There was a steep hill on one side, and a drop off, with a cliff going up on the other side. Kachina was pretty antsy again but this was the fourth or fifth stop of the ride at this point and she was better than she had been near the river. The area was filled with wild sage and it smelled amazing. The group started to move off again in single-file. We were stuck near the back, so by the time we were leaving the grassy area, we could see the first riders riding up on top of where the cliff was across from us. They were quite high compared to us and I didn't have a good feeling about what kind of hill must be around the bend. We got to the end of the valley and the trail turned sharply to go uphill. the first part was steep but manageable. Then there was this big piece of sandstone embedded into the hill, it was big enough where the horses couldn't step over or around it and had to go over. Kachina was surefooted on it, but the change of surface made her hesitate a little. It was only a split second, but unfortunately, that hesitation happened as SK was stepping onto the rock behind us. She's an older horse and doesn't have quite the same range of motion in her joints to recover from losing her footing. SK slipped and fell down, completely down on all 4 legs. There was a couple of terrifying seconds where S could see her horse's legs splayed out in different directions and thought the worst. An outrider who was supervising the hill climb yelled at S to get off, and her mare scrambled to her feet and started up the hill on her own. SK passed by Kachina and I and I could see that she was sound and okay. We followed her up to a flat section, caught her, and I held SK until S made it up to us on foot. We later learned that another horse slipped and fell on that same rock after us (they were also okay).

S and SK looking dapper

When we reached the top of the hill we were riding across flat prairie and it was a nice break. Of course S's stirrup decided to break and fall off completely. We got it fixed and carried on. Kachina got to show off her power walk as we motored across the grass to catch up the rest of the group.

The rest of the ride was less eventful. We came down from the prairie back to the low land. We went back across the gully and retraced our steps across the river and back to camp. That gully seemed a lot easier the second time around compared to the bigger hills we had encountered.

SK in the middle of a head toss, lol!

All in all it was about a three hour ride. It wasn't a super difficult ride, but certainly challenging enough for our level of group, and less of a cake walk than we expected for this first ride.

During the ride, we could see storm clouds roll in and thunder and lightening start in the distance. The rain gratefully held off just long enough for us to get back to camp and peel our saddles off, but then the downpour started. It started raining at around 7pm, and other than two brief reprieves, it didn't stop until about noon the next day.

We had a lot of this kind of sky

That much rain doesn't make for very fun tenting. We did what we had to outside, but took cover in the truck or trailer when the rain intensified. We abandoned plans to bbq chicken for supper and cobbled together things that were easier to prepare in the rain. Once we dove inside our tents at night, we did our best to not have to come out again.

Taking refuge from sideways rain inside the truck

I was glad I had decided to set up my tent with the door facing Kachina's pen. Throughout the night, I sat up frequently and cracked the corner of the zipper to make sure that Kachina was doing okay.  That night was quite the test for her rain sheet, but it seemed to keep her dry. She did really well in the pen and was eating and drinking nicely.

My view out of my tent!

This is already a novel, so I'll wrap up this post here and continue with Saturday and Sunday in Part II!


  1. This sounds like so much fun (minus the tent in the rain)! I can't wait to hear the rest.

    1. It was an awesome weekend! It definitely pushed me but I have knowledge now of what Kachina and I can handle and that's pretty cool

  2. This looks like an AMAZING ride! Too bad about tenting in the rain- that's never fun.

    1. The terrain was definitely cool, it had a bit of everything: open fields, narrow single-track, hills, flat, rocks, sand, mud, grass, bushes, water... Beautiful too