*This post on horseback riding in Prince Albert National Park is created in partnership with Sturgeon River Ranch. But as always, experiences and opinions are genuinely and authentically my own
The first time I ever rode a horse was at Sturgeon River Ranch – five years ago as the 2015 Saskatchewanderer.
When the opportunity arose to come out to Sturgeon River Ranch this autumn, I couldn’t wait to hop in the saddle again. Instead of a day trip like last time, I’d be spending the night in a genuine ranch house with two whole days on the trails.
Little did I know I’d have several experiences of a lifetime while at the ranch.
Sturgeon River Ranch
Located just outside the “Wild West Side” of Prince Albert National Park and in the Sturgeon Valley, the ranch offers a truly unique experience unlike any other in Saskatchewan. At the heart of where prairies, parkland and boreal forest meet is the home of the only free-ranging herd of Plains bison in their natural habitat. Accessing the trails on horseback is one of the best ways to comfortably explore the million-acre park in search of the largest animal on the plains.
John Prosak has been the owner of Sturgeon River Ranch since 2016. But he’s been part of the ranch since its inception in 2007. John has continued to build onto the experiences available, including the ranch house accommodation, four-season rides, camping and access to a backcountry site on a lake.
When not on horseback, John runs an outfitting company near Saskatoon and has spent plenty of time in northern Canada. This means he’s incredibly knowledgeable about birds, wildlife and all the flora in the region. He is quick to spot animals, plants and birds I never would have noticed. He always has a story that will either have you laughing out loud or dropping your jaw in amazement.
While his work as an outfitter allows him to travel and spend time in the Canadian wilderness, it’s clear the Ranch and the horses are his true passion.
Day 1 – Riding To Long Meadow
Bumping along the gravel driveway leading to the ranch, I arrived early for my two-day ride. Parking in front of the little white farmhouse, I hopped out and headed directly for the horses. They were already standing outside the barn, tied up to posts while waiting to be saddled.
A man dressed in worn cowboy boots and tan hat with matching denim jacket and jeans walked out of the barn with a saddle in his arms. He nodded a greeting at me and introduced himself as Luke. He’s a seasonal ranch hand guiding rides and taking care of the horses through the autumn. We quickly realized we had met earlier this summer in Meadow Lake Provincial Park where he’s also a park game warden.
Luke introduced me to Rambo, a black and white quarter horse that would be my riding partner-in-crime. I gently rubbed his muzzle and he pushed into my hand, nibbling at my palm in search of a treat. A lover of snacks and treats myself, I knew Rambo and I would be a good fit.
Learning to Ride a Horse
For the next two days, I’d be riding alongside Luke and John. Two couples from Saskatchewan would also be joining us. With varied experiences in riding horses between us, John gave us an overview of how to ride and guide our horses correctly.
It’s important to keep your feet in the stirrups and make sure to put the ball of your foot in the tread. A little pressure in the stirrups while riding will help keep your balance and soften the ride so you’re less saddle sore.
Reins are important as a paddle when canoeing: never let go of them. They let you safely guide your horse where to go. It’s also important not to hold them too tightly as the bit is sensitive in their mouths.
To get the horse to stop, John showed us how to pull back on the reins. Pulling a little more firmly and longer will encourage them to back up. To turn, a tug on the right or left rein will have them move in the respective direction.
The instructions were simple to follow and I learned quickly that confidence was key with Rambo. If I was firm with how I wanted him to move, he was much more willing to listen. John assured all of us that every horse was well-trained and anyone – even little kids – can ride safely.
With a gentle squeeze of my lower legs, we were off and winding up the valley into the forest.
The Wild West Side of Prince Albert National Park
The Ranch is conveniently located only a couple of kilometres from the park’s west gate. We moved along the top of the Sturgeon Valley through a forest of trembling aspen. The brilliantly yellow leaves waved their greeting at us in the stiff breeze. We had timed our ride perfectly with the peak of autumn and its glorious array of colours.
Once in the park, we turned onto the Valleyview Trail Network. The entire route is nearly 30 kilometres long. The trail is broken into a series of three nested loops with adjoining spurs (and variable difficulty – a description more targeted to hikers in the park than horses.) This trail system is also one of the best places to see the bison.
With two directions to choose from, we decided to take the scenic route first and stop at Stoney Plain Meadow lookout point. A natural clearing in the forest, the picnic stop offers sweeping views of the winding Sturgeon River. (Hiking tip: This part of the trail is wheelchair accessible and worth the 200-metre trip in from the parking lot.)
Continuing along the eastern edge of the valley, we had opportunities to take in Jonassons Flats. The meadows in the park are ecologically important because of their rarity. Outside of the park, these fescue grasslands have been lost to agricultural and urban development. But in the park, they’re protected and provide sustenance for the herd of 100 bison.
We turned off and connected onto the main trail. It’s often used by the ranch for their wagon ride trips. John regaled us with stories about his experiences in the park and the interesting animal encounters he’s had. There are fewer annual visitors to the wild west side so animals like deer, moose, bears, timber wolves and lynx can be seen here.
Illustrating his stories perfectly, we spotted prints in the hardened mud. At first glance, the paw print appeared to be from a wolf. But as we rode closer, we realized it was a cougar that had passed through several days earlier.
Connecting onto the spur trail towards Amyot Lake, we quietened our conversation as we approached the edge of the forest and the beginning of the meadow. This place in particular is one of the best to see them – if you’re lucky.
We slowly walked our horses into the clearing. But we were greeted only by waving grass rippling in the wind.
There were no bison in Long Meadow today.
Hiking to Amyot Lake
We tied the horses on the edge of a thicket of aspens. Pulling our lunches from the saddlebags we basked in the warmth of the sun while we ate. The wind rustled the trees and sent leaves fluttering down around us. The autumn season is short here on the prairies and the colour change only lasts a week or two at most. It would likely be one of the last days of such colourful riding.
While summer seems the obvious season to ride, autumn and spring are arguably better. Temperatures are more moderate and there are fewer bugs to deal with – a benefit for both humans and horses. But Sturgeon River Ranch doesn’t let the weather affect their commitment to riding. They offer trips year-round – rain, shine or snow. (A winter ride is one of the most magical experiences especially if timed perfectly with hoarfrost rimming the branches of the trees.)
After lunch, we headed out on foot to Amyot Lake, not only to see the lake but hoping we might spot the bison further into the meadow. Following the edge of the lake, we pushed forward through the knee-high grass, letting the natural waterline guide us to where the lake turns into marshland. We scanned across the meadow to the northern end where the forest started again. There were no bison anywhere.
A Night at The Ranch House
Riding back the way we came, we returned to the Ranch and settled in for the night. With a verandah on the front with an outdoor stove fireplace and a patio out back with a fire pit, there are several places to hang out and enjoy pre-supper drinks or a night around the fire.
The ranch house is the epitome of cowboy culture. There are elk and deer antlers hung inside and out, bridles and blankets casually slung over the fence and lanterns lit by kerosene on the outdoor patio.
More antlers, animal skulls and cowboy hats adorn the wooden mantle above the fireplace in the spacious open concept dining and living room. There’s even a piano for anyone who feels so inclined to offer entertainment in the evening. A full service kitchen is available for guests to cook their own meals.
There are three bedrooms with double or queen-sized beds. Guests can rent out the entire house or a bedroom for the night.
With cooler temperatures setting in at night, the dining room called to us post-supper and we sat around until late learning how to play a game of liars dice. (I admit I wasn’t very good at the game).
Day 2 – On The Bison Trail
I woke before sunrise the next morning to hang with the horses in the pasture. Guests have full access to anywhere in the yard and pasture and are welcome to visit the horses anytime they’d like. Having had few opportunities throughout my childhood and adult life to spend time with these intelligent animals, I wanted to maximise my experience at the ranch.
The horses were all in the back pasture together. They’re very social animals and like to stick close to one another in their herd. As I walked out past the gate, they eagerly came towards me, likely expecting a nice treat of oats. Although I had no snacks to offer, I was able to walk amongst them and enjoy the peace of the early morning sun as it rose above the treeline.
Already I could tell it was going to be another great day for a ride.
I am paired with a different horse today – a gorgeous Appaloosa by the name of Charlie. He has a colourful and striking brown and white spotted pattern on his coat, a feature characteristic of his breed and similar in appearance to the polka dots on a Dalmatian. I snuck him a handful of grass I had plucked with hopes of quickly winning him over.
On the trail, many of the leaves from the previous day had fallen, leaving a kaleidoscope of browns, yellows and oranges to guide our way. The horse’s hooves crunched as we plodded through the forest. We were heading back into the national park, but this time we were going to push further north along the Bison Trail. Once again, we were in search of the majestic beasts we had been unable to find the day before.
Galloping a Horse for the First Time
On the stretch of road leading up into the park, John asked if any of us were interested in galloping with our horses. Never one to say no to an opportunity for a new experience, I wrapped my camera in my felt hat and stuffed both of them into my saddlebags. Grinning, I turned to John and replied “giddyup!”
He explained the differences between trotting, cantering (loping) and galloping. He said that cantering and galloping are much smoother than trotting because the horses step pattern changes. Having briefly trotted on a horse before, I knew the most important thing would be to catch the rhythm of Charlie and ride in sync with his movements as we transitioned into the lope.
Heart racing, we lined up along the gravel road and followed John and his horses’ lead. Gripping both reins yet keeping them loose, I leaned forward towards the crest of my horse and tried to keep my weight in my stirrups with legs pressed against Charlie’s sides.
As soon as Charlie switched from the jolting bounce of a trot to a canter, I knew. The feeling was magical. The road rushed past and it seemed like we were floating above the ground, his hooves pounding beneath us in a melodic rhythm as he galloped effortlessly up the road.
This was one of the most intoxicating and freeing experiences of my life, not only because of the adrenaline rush you get from it but knowing it’s the communication between you and an animal and their speed, power and strength that made it all happen. Galloping with Charlie was warm and real and alive. The energy from him burst out through me and I whooped and laughed as we raced to the top of the hill.
Rejoining the group, we turned off and headed out on the Bison Trail. If anyone had looked back at me for the next 10 minutes, all they would have seen was an ear-to-ear grin spread across my face.
Riding The Bison Trail
Passing by the game warden’s log cabin, we kept an eye out for the bison herd in the meadows along the way. Arriving at our lunch spot a few hours later, we had seen no active signs of the elusive animals. It was a sharp reminder of how massive this park is – nearly 4,000 square kilometres of rolling boreal forest.
Instead of an out-and-back trip like yesterday, we continued on a loop into what would be my favourite section of the trail. We pushed through the bush, weaving around old-growth jack pines and white spruce mixed in with the aspen.
Occasionally, we’d come across parts of a downed tree. While often able to simply go around the branch, I encountered one my horse needed to step over. Trusting his ability to choose the best spot, I unexpectedly experienced my first jump on horseback. Charlie gracefully leaped over the low-lying branch as I reached in surprise for my cowboy hat and a firmer grip on the reins. Bubbling over with a mix of shock and delight, I whooped and giggled as we continued down the trail.
Signs the bison had recently been in this part of the park appeared in the form of dozens of wallows full of fresh hoof prints. These large depressions are how the bison “clean” themselves in a dirt bath. As they roll on their sides, they can relieve skin irritations or shed their winter coat. These wallows are also ecologically important as they hold rain and runoff and act as a temporary watering hole for other wildlife. We joked that the bison were playing a trick on us, likely having spent the day here yesterday while we were looking for them in the meadow and then moving to the meadow today.
Coming back to the main trail, we admitted the bison had eluded us this trip. However, we all agreed we would have to come back another time.
But this whole adventure wasn’t really about seeing the bison. That would have been a bonus. For me, the ride was about connecting with nature on a deeper level by sharing the experience on horseback with a powerful and intelligent animal.
We are fortunate to have access to incredible parks to explore in Saskatchewan and passionate tourism operators like John and Sturgeon River Ranch who make it possible. The past two days were a wonderful experience while offering those looking for a wilderness trip a safe way to do so.
Experiencing The Northern Lights
I often find myself in completely unexpected situations that take my breath away when adventuring in the province. About to leave and drive back to Saskatoon that evening, I turned around to say goodbye to John when a flutter in the darkening sky caught my attention.
Low on the horizon was a pillar of green so bright it was noticeable even in the post-sunset light. I grabbed my camera and tripod. John and I rushed down to the pasture to set up a test shot.
My camera confirmed what my eyes had noticed – an arcing band of green light with pillars streaking off of it. We were looking at one of the best northern lights shows I had seen in months, if not more than a year.
READ MORE: 30 of the Most Spectacular Northern Lights Photos from Around Saskatchewan
Heading back to the ranch house, I dropped a couple of batteries on the charger while Luke and John went to round up two horses. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to capture horses under the aurora borealis.
The men’s skills at keeping the horses still were remarkable. I danced around in excitement with my tripod, attempting to snap the best shots I could with moving animals in a complicated low light setting.
The sky exploded in colour for more than 30 minutes – green and white and even streaks of purple and red flickering and pulsing and rippling above the barn. After snapping dozens of photos, I was content to sit back and watch the sky perform its magic.
Although we didn’t spot bison on our horseback trip over the two days, the presence and experience of the northern lights more than made up for it.
Saskatchewan and all its wonders never ceases to amaze me.
Things to Know About Horseback Riding with Sturgeon River Ranch
Is experience necessary?
Nope! You don’t need to be an expert rider to book a trip. In fact, you don’t need any experience at all. As long as you’re comfortable and able to ride, you’ll have a great experience. John and his team make sure to pair you with the perfect horse, but all the horses are very well trained and comfortable with riders of any age.
Is there WiFi or cell-service?
The ranch house has WiFi and plenty of places to charge your phone and camera. There is no access to cell service once you’re in the park. (There may be spotty access in some locations but don’t depend on it). Keep your phone in airplane mode to preserve battery or bring a small portable charger with you.
What all is covered during our stay?
For an overnight trip, you’ll get two days of riding and one night at the ranch house. Guests have all-access to the house. There’s a fully equipped kitchen to cook in and a dining room to enjoy your meals. Make sure to prepare a packable lunch and snacks for each day of riding.
What should I wear?
A good pair of denim goes a long way. Stick to jeans or comfortable hiking pants (no shorts or skirts). A closed-toe boot with a heel is the best option (think cowboy boots) but hiking boots also work.
I opted for warm layers of merino wool and flannel as the days are cooler in autumn. In summer, keeping covered from the sun is a good idea. Appropriate winter gear includes toque, mitts, buff, ski pants and insulated winter boots and jacket.
If you choose to wear a hat, make sure it will stay on with a drawstring. There’s always a chance the wind can blow it off and spook the horses.
Rides go rain or shine so pack a rain jacket and warm layers. Extra layers can be tied onto the saddle or placed in saddlebags.
What should I bring with me?
Make sure to bring sunscreen, bug spray, water, lunch and snacks. Don’t forget warm layers and your camera or cell phone.
Can I book a private trip?
Yes! Sturgeon River Ranch has a variety of trips you can book. Options include wagon rides, overnight adventures and private tours depending on your group size.
What kind of wildlife will we see?
The west side of Prince Albert National Park is truly wild. But as with nature, it’s always a surprise what you might come across. John also runs an outfitting company and can spot and identify birds from miles away. You’ll hopefully get to see the bison but there are also chances of seeing wolves, cougars, deer, bears, elk, moose and likely a few ruffed grouse.
When is the best time to ride?
Sturgeon River Ranch offers rides rain or shine – or snow! Dressed in winter gear, a horseback ride in the snow can be even more magical than during our warmer seasons.
Are the horses well-cared for?
There are nearly 30 horses at the Ranch and they are very well-cared for. In fact, they’re all part of the family. The horses enjoy going out on rides with customers. But when they’re back at the ranch, they also have lots of space to hang out and run around. The pasture surrounds the house on three sides and goes up the valley into the forest. Half the fun is waking up and figuring out where the horses might be that morning. While at the Ranch you can even brush the horses yourself if you’d like.
What if I want an even more backcountry experience?
Sturgeon River Ranch offers a true wilderness experience. For those looking for a little more adventure overnight backcountry trips into the National Park are available. The camp is set up alongside a lake where you’ll also get to fish for your supper. But the best part is falling asleep to the calls of loons, coyotes and maybe even a few wolves.
There is also camping available on-site for those who prefer to bring a camper or tent. Fishing and canoeing is also available at a third lake the ranch has access to.
How can I book a trip?
Check out Sturgeon River Ranch’s website here.
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