On the eve of your 50th birthday, do something that scares you. Something that makes your heart beat out of your chest while holding your breath. I did and big surprise, it involved horses.
Imagine running on foot through bushes, hiding in tall grass and making a break for it through the woods as oilskin-coat-clad horseback riders in dark hats hunted you down. That’s the Mantracker Adventure at Conestoga River Horse Adventures in Waterloo, Ontario.
Only I wasn’t being hunted. I was riding … which was scarier.
I’ve ridden at Conestoga River before and loved my winter ride astride my first Norwegian Fjord, so I was excited to find out trail riding isn’t the only equine activity at this stable near St. Jacobs, Ontario.
Pony clubs, riding lessons, wagon rides and yes, Mantracker. It’s an adventure ideal for groups such as kids’ sports teams, like the figure skating club playing today, or wannabe survivalist dudes, like those who signed up last week instead of a bachelor party.
If you’ve watch the TV Show Mantracker (affiliate link), you have some idea what this is about. A team of people (or a pair) set off in the woods by foot, given a head start by the expert trackers on horseback. Then, like Western bounty hunters, the riders set out to find, and chase down, the outlaws before they make it to the finish line.
At Conestoga River Horse Adventures, it works like this too (only safer). Fleeting teams acquire points by finding flags along the wooded 4.5 km route back to the barn while avoiding the Mantrackers for two hours. If a Mantracker catches you, you give up one of your coloured bracelets. You get three. Cost is $10 per person for teams up to 12 people.
Riding as a Mantracker isn’t an option for the public. Two Conestoga River trail guides, or sometimes Tatyanna, the owner herself, saddle up, set up the course and meet the groups at the trail’s beginning. The course starts at a park and winds along through private lands that, thanks to bylaws, must remain accessible to both people and horses.
I’m a third wheel – or third mount actually. Today, I’m riding as a Mantracker because I’m writing about the adventure and because I’m an experienced rider – or that’s what someone told Tatyanna.
By Mantracker Adventure standards (and my own), I’m a novice. Because it’s muddy and wet – really muddy and wet – we aren’t moving as fast as usual, though still catering across open spaces.
It first takes an hour to trot and canter the course distributing flags. Thankfully, I’m riding laidback Jagger. The young employee, who’s training today, is riding spirited Twilight and Tatyanna is on Salvero.
Along the way, we meet hikers, dog walkers and even three crazy little ponies sent to pastures on private land we’re allowed to cross, but only before opening and closing the gates on either side of the enclosure. The ponies are really excited by our horses and weave around us like Super Mario chasing mushrooms – only we have reins for controllers and a horse for an Xbox.
Then Twilight bucks.
We’re cantering across a field to cover distance and save time. Thanks to the mud and extra tacking up in the barn (because of me), we’re late meeting the group waiting to Mantrack. Twilight wants to win and feels Salvero gaining on her – she bucks in mid-canter throwing her rider.
Fortunately, my Jagger is in no mood to race and is all too happy to slow down to a walk … and eat.
“I’m ok,” the young guide says, bouncing back from the fall. “I play polo. This happens all the time.”
And so we continue. My heart is pounding. At this point, I’m concentrating more on not falling than riding with any grace or speed.
We meet the group Mantracking today at the end of the woods – fifteen kids and six adults. Today there’ll be two teams racing back to the barn evading us ‘mantrackers’ along the way. There’s a strict ‘no man left behind’ rule and boundaries where they can’t run (specifically the adjacent highway or farmer’s fields).
We give them a head start. Our horses are supposed to drink in the river by my Jagger won’t stop eating. And eating. I give up pulling him back because I still have two hours left in the saddle and my hands are red.
You’d think spotting a team of fifteen girl figure skaters running through the woods with their chaperones would be easy, right? Especially from the vantage point of a Quarter Horse’s back?
It was harder than you’d think. Out of the gate we spotted one group: “pretend you don’t see them, Tatyanna says, “it’s too earlier.” A strategic mistake.
Navigated the obstacle course back, crazy ponies still lurking like a landmine, we wove through trails at a walk and a trot, past the marshland, along a farmer’s field where Twilight kicked again, this time sending my horse cantering away – but only for seconds. Once Jagger noticed he was standing in the middle of an alfalfa field, he stopped dead to eat. Dude’s got priorities.
We rode slower and more cautiously than usual on a Mantracker, thanks to mud and me. I no doubt underperformed according to my fellow riders, but exceeded my own expectations. Three hours of walking, trotting, cantering and even kicking (albeit another horse) through sloppy forest and I made it out alive – and exhilarated. And shamelessly proud of myself.
Did we catch the kids? No. Not once and both groups made it back to the barn thrilled and elated they’d ‘won.’ We might have underestimated them – one pair of Dads where hunters and taught the girls how to hide in the brush to avoid detection. Apparently, we rode by them twice. “As we passed within yards of them,” one girl said, “her heart was pounding.”
She wasn’t the only one. But I did it. Just don’t expect to see me on T.V. anytime soon.
Want to learn more about Conestoga River Horse Adventures?
Check out Conestoga River Horse Adventures.
Want to learn more about the Waterloo/St. Jacobs area?
Check out our dog-friendly Waterloo adventures on dogtrotting.net.