One of the best ways to explore B.C.'s remote back-country is on horseback.

You don't have to be a cowboy to love exploring the forests, hidden lakes, craggy peaks and rolling plains of B.C.'s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast on horseback. In fact, horseback riding is one of the best and easiest ways to explore the region’s vast, pristine wilderness.

And the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region boasts guest ranches and dude ranches that cater to every taste and riding ability. Some offer luxury spa treatments, some are working cattle ranches where you can learn the cowboy life, some offer unaccompanied rides or multi-day rides for experienced riders, and others offer horseback riding and other activities for children and families.

Many of the ranches are family-owned and after last year's wildfires, which saw tourists stay away, Cariboo Chilcotin Coast ranchers are back in the saddle and looking forward to welcoming guests this spring and summer 2018.

At Free Rein Guest Ranch in the South Cariboo region, guests do more than just ride the horses.

Owner Debbie Atha said, “Here at my place, we really focus on the horsemanship. We have clients engaging in a multitude of equine disciplines, from simply learning to approach the horses, catching them, saddling, grooming, feeding etc. through to working them at liberty using body language and energy, bareback riding and of course riding out into the wilderness.”

Horses and nature are what led Atha to immigrate from England 11 years ago and to build her ranch from scratch.

“If you look at what people come here from all over the world to experience, it is that reconnecting with something that is fundamental to our wellbeing,” Atha said. “Being outdoors, breathing in the fresh air, hearing the birds, seeing the wildlife and feeling the energy of the trees -- that’s what drew me here, as well as the Canadians.”

Debbie Atha with her horse, Levi.
Debbie Atha, owner of Free Rein Guest Ranch, sits with Levi, one of her horses. Photo courtesy Free Rein Guest Ranch

Atha wants her guests to learn that horses are more than just a vehicle.

“They are really learning to forge a bond in the essence of understanding that they’re building a relationship and a rapport and trust, so that by the time they do climb on and ride, they will know they’re going out there on a living breathing animal with whom they’ve got a relationship,” Atha said.

She says she’s seen grown men – who claim to have no interest in horses – break down and cry when they experience wilderness from the back of a horse.

“I really do believe that these animals teach us to be better humans,” Atha said. “They teach us to be present and mindful and living in the moment. They’re very open to letting us in if we’re mindful of how we’re behaving and interacting with them.”

Free Rein Guest Ranch, Bridge Lake BC
Free Rein Guest Ranch Bridge Lake, B.C.

Free Rein Guest Ranch is surrounded by tens of thousands of wilderness acres in the South Cariboo region. It has 22 horses with personalities to suit beginners to experienced riders. Free Rein can accommodate 12 guests at a time, either in lakeside log cabins featuring private porches and kitchenettes, or in the main lodge luxury suites.

The ranch offers unlimited horseback riding from 9am-5pm daily, as well as mountain biking, nature hikes, & kayaking and is located between Vancouver and Banff or Jasper. Atha does pickups at both Williams Lake and Kamloops airports. Stays are all-inclusive, with home-cooked meals served family style.

Chris Gisler and family at Terra Nostra Ranch
Christoph Gisler with his wife, Corinne and daughters at Terra Nostra Ranch on Lake Clearwater. Photo courtesy Christoph Gisler.

From Switzerland to ‘the wild west of BC’ for the love of horses

“I got Canada fever,” said Swiss native Christoph Gisler, after a 10-day trip to the Chilcotin riding horses in the bush with Corinne, his then girlfriend, now wife. “The Chilcotin is the real wild west of Canada. It’s unique and it’s perfect.” said Gisler, who owned a sheet metal business in Switzerland.

When Terra Nostra Ranch on Clearwater Lake, in the Chilcotin region came up for sale, he jumped at the chance to purchase it and was happy to embrace the radical life change of becoming a rancher.

Terra Nostra, between Williams Lake and Bella Coola, has 26 horses. Trail rides usually have about six guests and two guides and last about an hour or two, Gisler said.

“Our horses are very calm and very friendly. We can go riding with beginners – they don’t need experience,” Gisler said. “There is a route along the lake, through the forest and over a small ridge with a nice view and then we have some other rides in sand dunes with a nice outlook and a nice view from a higher point.”

Terra Nostra Ranch
View of horses grazing on the pasture and Clearwater Lake from the lodge at Terra Nostra Ranch. Photo courtesy Terra Nostra Ranch.

The close proximity to Clearwater Lake also offers guests the opportunity to go canoeing, kayaking, fishing or hiking the trails around the lake. “The guests enjoy the silence, nature and wilderness at the ranch,” Gisler said.

The all-inclusive meals are served family-style, where everyone eats together.

“Some guests travel from the Williams Lake side and others travel from the Bella Coola side and usually there is a good discussion with each other about the next leg of the trip,” Gisler said. “It’s good for the guests.”

Guests arriving by plane can take the one hour flight from Vancouver to Anahim Lake Airport which is a 45 minute drive from the ranch.

There are 10 guest rooms with space for 26 people and three or four spaces for motor homes at the Terra Nostra Ranch.

Taylor Nichols and her horse Chinook.
Taylor Nichols grew up at her family's Sundance Guest Ranch, where she now works as part of the family business. Photo courtesy Sundance Guest Ranch.

From a first-time rider to adventure riding, this ranch promises it all

For Taylor Nichols, the Sundance Guest Ranch is a way of life. Now 25 years old, she was born and raised at the Ashcroft-area ranch, after her grandparents bought it in 1977.

Many guests have been coming back for 20 or more years, with some dating back to before her grandparents bought the family-run business, Nichols said. Kids love the ranch, with its heated outdoor pool, kids’ games room and lots of room to play outdoors. Kids must be eight years old to ride the horses. For adults, there is a bring-your-own-bottle bar lounge.

“We always like to call the ranch a home away from home. Our slogan is the first time it's a vacation, after that it’s coming home,” Nichols said.

Sundance has a herd of over 100 horses. Guests can ride up to five hours a day, with trail rides every morning and afternoon. When it gets really hot, they sometimes take the afternoon off and ride in the early evening instead.

"The Jingle" Horses at Sundance Guest Ranch head out to pasture for the evening. Video Courtesy Sundance Guest Ranch.

Trail rides are split into beginner, intermediate and advanced groups of about eight people, with the intermediate and advanced groups expected to run their horses a few times during the ride. And beginners get the chance to run their horses too.

“We want to provide the experience of adventure riding. It’s pretty incredible,” Nichols said. “It’s really rewarding to see people who come here and they’ve never been on a horse in their life and they’re terrified.… They go for a couple runs and get their confidence up and by the end of their stay they’ve gone for a couple runs and they’ve just loved it.”

A highlight for everyone is relaxing afterwards.

“It’s really nice to sit on the deck after a ride with people you’ve just met, but who you feel like you’ve known for years,” Nichols said. “People love the downtime after, when they can have a drink and watch the sunset.

The ranch is on the plateaus above the Thompson River and guests have been known to see lots of deer and coyotes and the occasional bear, Nichols said.

A set menu is included in all stays and includes a steak barbecue every Saturday night and a burger barbecue every Sunday. All dietary restrictions can be accommodated, Nichols said.

“We have dances every Saturday night where we teach line dancing and two stepping. It’s really fun,” Nichols said.

The maximum number of guests at the Sundance Guest Ranch is 50 to 55 people. Guests can fly into Kamloops Airport which is 59 kilometres from the ranch.

The quickest way to travel to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is to fly from Vancouver to Bella Coola, Anahim Lake or Quesnel. To drive from Vancouver is about 5 to 6 hours.

To make your Cariboo Chilcotin Coast stay part of an extended B.C. vacation, travel the Gold Rush Trail from Lillooet to Barkerville or drive from Vancouver to Port Hardy and take the ferry to Bella Coola. No matter how you get there, you're sure to leave with the deep sense of peace and calm that comes from touring B.C.'s backcountry on horseback.

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