Travel Ontario: Cowboy Up while horseback riding in Caledon, Ontario

adalusian horse and me

Me and Alvero

I had the nerve to do it: I signed up for the ‘Cowboy Up’ two-hour trail ride and lunch option at Rawhide Adventures Inc.

It’s a cattle ranch and trail riding operation along the conservation lands of the Bruce Trail in Mulmur, Ontario about 60 minutes from Toronto. Approximately 110 heads of grass-feed cattle roam the acres and acres of property here that’s been home to beef cows for generations.

Here’s the nervy part: I asked for a vegetarian lunch.

“That’s alright,” says Carl “Crusty” Cosack, owner of the ranch that’s been offering riding and cattle drive experiences since 1998 – the same time the City Slickers movie hit the screens. Or for $100 at Rawhide Adventures, you get the Cowboy Up experience: two hours of trail riding and lunch around wooden tables beside a floor to ceiling rustic fireplace in the ranch house.

horseback trail riding Caledon, Ontario

Alvero the Andalusian

Crusty, as he’s called by everyone, then tells me about the good life of grass-fed cattle – something many non-meat eaters don’t always understand, he says – over a large salad and bowl of vegetable soup.

Horses (and cattle) are not only this family’s livelihood, but practically part of their DNA. Crusty has run this ranch for 40 years, along with his father before him who’s now 90 and living on the property. Daughter Nikki Cosack took me out on the trail, and from her I learned about the ranch’s view of horsemanship and care, less romantic than some places but exacting in rules.

“I have horse treats in the car,” I tell her.

“Well, they can stay there,” Nikki says. “We don’t give our horses treats.”

Here horses are not entirely pets but they’re more than property. Understanding the herd needs is an important part of the Crusty Cosack horse care philosophy, outlined on the website:

horse trail ride rawhide adventures

Nikki and Alvero

“When we bring our version of human ‘Love’ to our horses we are really doing them a disservice,” Cosack writes. “For horses, ‘Love’ really relates to respect, being kept safe, access to food and water, knowing one’s place in a herd; that there is play and that there is quiet.”

According to Crusty, cowboys were the originators of ‘natural horsemanship.’ “Cowboys had to depend on their horses to stay nearby overnight on the trail and with no guard dog, the horse was also the guard. Trust was important and so was establishing a relationship.”

Understanding herd dynamics is extremely important to this method of maintaining 36 healthy working horses. When you think about it, that’s not far from team building ideologies so popular in the corporate universe. So guess what? Company day retreats are also part of the business plan here at the ranch, and groups can participate in hiking, fishing and yes, riding excursions.

Groups poise some challenges, though, says Nikki, none the least of which is people don’t always admit their fear of horses in front of their colleagues, which can cause some issues on the trail.

Horse training courses in the summer fall under Nikki’s domain as well. She helps train other people’s horses and runs a series of clinics that build on owner’s skills. Again, herd dynamics are important. “Some new horses,” she says, “are nervous around people and for good reason. So we put them with the other horses. It’s the horses, not us, who teach them that here it’s ok to be around people again.”

thoroughbred trail riding

Gunner at Rawhide Adventures

Rescued from meat market, Gunner, the blind-in-one-eye Thoroughbred that Nikki rides on the trail with me is one such horse. “He came to us in poor shape,” she says. “I don’t know what happened, but he was one the herd had to teach.”

Now, he’s exclusively Nikki’s mount and a relaxed guide horse, which was helpful with Alvero, the strong Andalusian cross, alert in the forest and still learning confidence along the trail, especially downhill.

Yes, an Andalusian. Just like the ones I’m in love with in the Medieval Times show.

Alvero was my mount (and first Andalusian) on our two-hour journey across the grazing fields and through the Niagara Escarpment on a cool but comfortable winter’s afternoon. The ground should have been deeply covered in snow but is barely coated. Specifically, we’re in the Headwaters area north of Caledon, Ontario – a region that’s seeing creep in residential development, which hasn’t yet hit the boundaries of the conservation area that surrounds this rural property.

horseback trail riding Caledon, OntarioOur ride takes us through winding trails, up and down steep slopes, some requiring trotting to get up. Alvero is still finding his footing down steep trails, preferring to snake around a few trees rather than head straight down a slope after Gunner. I know enough to let him find his footing with minimal interference, yet at times must insist we protect my knees from tree trunks.

Our ride passes by a few small privately-owned cabin retreats along a marshland pond, large enough for one dock and a small rowboat used, I guess, to float inside the inlet. A fallen log interrupts the regular path, throwing Gunner’s routine off a bit, and we re-route back through the woods and past the pond.

The ride ends in an open field, not nose-to-tail but with Alvero gaining on Gunner’s no vision side when he sees the barn in the distance. Also in the distance is part of the herd of cattle grazing through open fields soon to be rounded up by the wranglers working here, and maybe a few brave Toronto urbanites wishing to get in touch with their inner cowboys (without having to fly west).horseback trail riding Caledon, Ontario

Rides here are by reservation only – individual or small groups but I recommend the longer two-hour version that culminates in lunch in the ranch house especially if it includes the company of the Cosack family, including Crusty, who will share his deeply held ideologies about western horsemanship, if pressed.

And they tell me the Black Angus beef burgers are good too.

DETAILS: Rides are by reservation only and vary by interest and experience: a two-hour trail is $80; the Cowboy-Up ride with lunch is $100; Wrangler’s Day with a four-hour ride and lunch is 150; and River Ride is a ½ day ride to Pine River for lunch and back. Overnight camping/riding trips can also be booked.

Meet the horses by checking out the personality profiles on the ranch website, along with a column called ‘Ramblings by Crusty’ posted seasonally.

TRAVEL GUIDE: Hills of Headwaters, according to the tourism association, is where Ontario gets real. The sprawling 2,534 square km region is about agriculture and the outdoors. It’s Ontario’s highest elevation, so hiking, biking and yes, riding over rolling hills are what people come her for, along with farm fresh produce and craft beer.

There are a couple of places nearby for lunch and a pint (after riding, of course): Terra Nova Public House Restaurant, 667294 20th Sideroad, Mulmur and The Old Mill House Pub in Creemore, a little further a field. If you’ve taken the cowboy life to heart, gear up at Herbert’s Boots and Western Wear (est. 1958) in Alliston, Ontario along Highway 89, about 15 minutes from Mulmur.

Check out a ride of a different colour at sort of nearby Fallbrook Trail Ranch, Georgetown, Ontario.

If you’re as horse crazy as me, you’ll need your own Andalusian horse shower curtain (affiliate link). Yes, that’s right. I bought a horse shower curtain. No regrets.


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