Excerpt from Award-Winning Horseback Riding article,
“Horsing around the Gatineaus”
By Jane Defalco
The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Ontario
I hadn’t ridden a horse for at least five years, so I was nervous about taking this trip, but intrigued also. Most of the horsepacking trips in Canada take place in the Rockies, but this is new and it’s happening in a wilderness. I started to relax the minute we drove down the long lane into Captiva Farms, located on de la Montagne Road just down the road from the Edelweiss Golf Course. Set in hay fields and green pastures that roll away in to the Gatineau Hills, the farm just says welcome.
As we pulled into the stable area, a pair of squawking geese greeted us. Children, part of a summer day camp offered by Captiva, were riding ponies and chasing each other around, giggling.
Weather beaten, tall and lanky, mustachioed Craig Clost Sr. Looks every bit the horse man. He has owned Captiva Farms since 1982, when it was a horse breeding farm. He has bred horses and raced thoroughbreds and knows his way around a barn.
Learning to horseback ride in the hills
On the first day of this horseback riding trip, riders basically camp on a hill just above Captiva Farm and spend the day with guides, learning how to handle the horses, saddle them up, groom them and ride on trails, especially through hilly, forested trails on Captiva land, to prepare for the rugged wilderness trails they’ll be hitting the next day.
I was given a sleek mare named Rowdy. Craig Sr. warned me as I mounted her that if she decides she doesn’t like a horseback rider, she usually just tosses them off. Nice. I stayed on.
Once we were comfortable walking and trotting the horses in a paddock, we paused for a hearty lunch of chili, then two young volunteer guides, Crystal Todd, 16, of Ottawa, and Amanda Jennings, 14, of nearby Cantley, led our group to the trails sprawling around the farm.
The horseback riding wilderness trails cuts through a leafy canopy.
Soon we were horseback riding across fields of wildflowers, heading for the tougher wooded trails, where we had to learn how to shift our weight and lean way back in the saddle when going down steep hills, and way forward when climbing them to help the horses carry us and our loaded saddle-bags.
As I sat way back on Rowdy and looked up at the steep, densely treed trail ahead of me, I began to feel more than a little nervous about what the horseback riding “wilderness” trails through the mountains would be like.
My knees were throbbing, my boots were rubbing hard against my legs, my rear end was already feeling bruised and tree branches kept lashing me as I tried to steer her through the woods and keep pace with the other riders.
Coming back into the field leading back to the barn, the horses surged eagerly forward and we weary, dirty riders held on, as eager to get off them as they were to shed us.
Back at camp on the top of the hill, thunder rumbled menacingly and the sky billowed with dark clouds. Lightning pierced the sky as Craig Sr. barbecued hamburgers and hotdogs for dinner. Just as the meal was ready, rain came down in torrents and we scrambled for rain gear and stood under trees, dripping and eating soggy burgers.
The stormed passed through quickly and we dried off soggy tents and lit a fire then turned in early to the sound of horses neighing from the trails and fields where they are left to roam overnight.
We were told to be ready to round them up at 7:30am.
Next morning, Craig Sr. and his son and 11-year-old daughter climbed up the hill with a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, coffee and juice, which disappeared in record time.
We headed to the barns and saddled up to round up the rest of the horses that are used at the farm for hourly and daily riding.
As soon as the roaming horses spied us, they took off in different directions, not wanting to be torn away from the endless supply of food in the fields.
My horse led the charge, instinctively heading them off and gerding them at a run across muddy fields and over gullies and ditches. I hung on, nearly losing a stirrup as we thundered down a narrow, muddy gully.
As we slowed to a walk near the paddock leading to the barn, I realized my legs were shaking and my heart was pounding. I was mud splattered, but still on my horse. And I was grinning.
After a rest for man and beast, we began to pack for the overnight trip to the lake. Craig Sr. strapped a shotgun on to his horse. He’d seen a bear and her cubs on the trail a few days before and wanted to be prepared for trouble.
After a leisurely 20 minutes of crossing fields and passing by the Edelweiss Golf Course, we began our ascent into the forested hills. The world around us quickly fell away and there was nothing but the sound of hooves nimbly picking their way over mossy, slippery rocks and fallen trees.
Everyone fell silent as we focused all our concentration on keeping the horses on the barely discernable trail and from rubbing against trees and catching our saddle-bags or legs.
Just as I was starting to relax into the steep dips, sharp turns and dizzying climbs, the horses all stopped dead. Craig Sr. had led his horse easily down a steep slope and across a trickling, rocky stream and was heading back up the other side, but our horses refused to move forward. My horse, already twitchy, sensed the alarm of the other horses and turned and headed back the other way. I had to rein her sharply around in circles a few times and hold her firmly while the other riders kicked, cajoled and wheeled until one by one, the horses reluctantly crossed the stream. Rowdy followed, leaping across the stream and dashing straight up hill, with me hanging on. I felt triumphant, but was beginning to wonder how I’d get out of this place if the horse had thrown me and I had broken a limb.
After several of these adrenaline-pumping episodes, I was tired, sweaty, thirsty and tense when we finally arrived at the camp. I could see the lake glinting in the distance and, as we hitched our sweating steeds to posts and unloaded our packs and saddles, I craved a cooling swim.
When I did fall into the refreshing water, I was elated. We’d reached this wilderness paradise safely. The lake was ours and ours alone and we drank in her unspoiled beauty.
Then from across the lake we heard a loud crack of breaking wood and Craig Sr.’s shouts as the horses bolted for home.
When we returned to the camp, he assured us we wouldn’t be walking back. We relaxed. The day ended in the glow of a sunset, some great red wine and a spaghetti dinner cooked over an open fire and served by candlelight.
Sated and saddle sore, we gratefully crawled into our tents and burrowed into sleeping bags and tried to sleep. Sore muscles, hard ground and an almost deafening chorus of bullfrogs made sleep difficult for city slickers accustomed to pillows and beds.
When we awoke the next morning, it was to the sounds of Craig Sr. making fresh coffee and frying the few small fish caught the evening before. He left the camp early, taking only a canteen of water and promising he’d be back at day’s end with the horses to bring us back to the farm.
We spent a lazy day swimming, sunning and paddling. Kim and Eva from Denmark were delighted to see real Canadian beavers on their exploration of the lake. We were all happy we saw no bears.
At about 2pm., we were all dozing in our cool tents when we heard the horses return. Craig Sr. and the two sweaty and tired guides, Amanda and Crystal, led them back to the hitching post as we scrambled from our tents to help secure them.
While Craig Sr. headed for the water to cool off, the teen guides sat at the picnic table and devoured roast beef sandwiches, telling us between mouthfuls the story from their end of how the horses had run out of the mountain trails and headed straight for the irresistibly green golf course.
They had to round them up on an all-terrain vehicles and bring them back to the farm. Luckily, aside from causing a few golfers to putt badly, little damage was done.
After a rest and a bite to eat, it was time to break camp and load the horses and head home before darkness set in.
A thunderstorm kicked up and we were all soaked by the time we mounted the horses. The two guides had to double up with riders on the biggest horses, riding behind the saddles, without stirrups.
The rain stopped and the sun began to break through the trees as we left the camp. The forest was dripping and fragrant and everyone was happy and relaxed heading home.
We came out of the mountain trails and crossed fields of wildflowers to the farm just as the sun was setting and a full moon was rising.
We arrived back at the farm to cheering and a hot meal of shepherd’s pie as if we’d be away on a long, difficult journey.
Sitting in Craig’s farmhouse dining room eating around a long table, there was a feeling of camaraderie as we all laughed about the trip.
The phone rang and Craig started to grin. To his chagrin, the tale of the runaway horses had already spread among his friends and neighbours.
“My friend just told me I wasn’t supposed to take the horses golfing.”
Courtesy of The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa OntarioBook Your Captiva Adventure Today