Every so often, we are afforded the opportunity to share a few moments with someone whose approach to life inspires us in such a way that we are forever changed; made better. I had a moment such as this when I met Mac Makenny on a cool and foggy spring afternoon at his Southern Alberta guest ranch.
Mac was quick to make me feel welcome at Homeplace Ranch, the 460-acre facility he has owned and operated since 1978. He poured us both a cup of green tea, sat by the wood stove and delighted me with endless stories about his life’s passion: horses.
To visitors from afar, the 75-year-old could be mistaken for a just cowboy – a cowboy in the way we all want to believe a true cowboy still exists: a man who lives each day with courage, takes pride in his work, finishes what he starts, is tough but fair, makes a promise and keeps it. “The truth is that I’m not a cowboy at all,” he stressed. “What I want to be known as is a good horseman.”
Hundreds of photos wallpaper the large country kitchen, each one capturing the awestruck look of guests enjoying views of the area’s wilderness, from what seems like the top of the world; snapshots of moments with exceptionally well-trained horses whose good mindedness and sensitivity could only have been nurtured by the finest of horsemen indeed.
A Horseman Through and Through
Horses run deep in the Makenny bloodline. At the turn of the last century, Mac’s great-grandfather and grandfather sold horses to settlers who came to claim their piece of the wild Canadian West. Mac grew up the son of parents who turned their own passion for horses into a way of life. Even their wedding photo was taken on horseback. Mac inherited this affinity for horses and was fortunate to grow up in Jasper, AB, where his parents, aunt and uncle operated an outfitting and summer holiday business.
“We had over 80 head of horses back then,” he said. “It was a young boy’s dream.
“Of course, this was much before natural horsemanship became popular. When I was a kid, starting horses meant laying down a lasso in the corral and waiting for a horse to step into the rope. You would then take the legs out from under him, tie him so that he wouldn’t kick and sack him out with a blanket until he got tired of spooking. Eventually, you would throw a saddle on and if you were a kid like I was, off you’d go, hoping for the best.”
It is perhaps this rough and tumble beginning that would motivate Mac to find a better way and develop into the horseman that he has become. “In those days, the attitude was pretty prevalent that you made a horse do what you wanted him to do,” said Mac. “It took great horsemen the likes of Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance to really explain that it’s a partnership you want to have with a horse.
“One of my own beliefs is that you have to give horses time to figure things out. You cannot rush them, or put them into situations that are going to lead to trouble. If you make that kind of mistake with a horse, you will regret if for a very long time.”
Mixing It Up
This instinctive consideration for the well-being of his horses is likely one of the qualities that has allowed Mac to foster strong partnerships with more spirited horses. In fact, a closer look at the wall of photos reveals that several of the ranch’s horses are Thoroughbreds – an unlikely choice in a land where the Quarter Horse is king. “Our herd is split about 50/50 between Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds,” said Mac. “I love Thoroughbreds because they have spirit and a lot of heart.”
An accomplished polo player, Mac knows a thing or two about riding this athletic breed of horse. “I started playing polo when I was just about 50 and played for roughly 14 years,” he said. “That was a buzz…an absolute buzz. I had the opportunity to be out on the field with several top players. One of which was [late polo Hall of Famer] Joe Barry. He was the number-one player at the time. He would help anyone along during practice games and tell you what to do. Not after the fact, but while you were playing. For me, that was the equivalent of playing hockey with Wayne Gretzky and having him give you tips.”
Shortly after a tragic polo accident claimed the life of one of his teammates, Mac exchanged his polo mallets for breeches and a jacket. The then 70-year-old horseman set new sights on competitive show jumping. Given that Homeplace Ranch is located just west of famed Spruce Meadows, Mac saw no reason to train anywhere else. “I started by just riding and exercising a few horses during my ranch’s down time since I was going a little stir-crazy,” he remembered. “Then, one day, [legendary Spruce Meadows Riding Master] Albert Kley asked if I might want to jump. I answered, “Yes!”
“Eventually, Albert asked if I might like to try my hand at showing and I told him that I really would like to do that too! Of course, as a novice jumper, that meant that my competition was going to be 12- to 16-year-old girls that were well-mounted and well-trained. I did not let that stop me. They took most of the ribbons, but I was certainly proud of the one I earned!
“Show jumping is definitely a discipline that commands respect. I had jumped ditches and logs all of my life, but the biggest difference for me was the quickness with which everything happens (in a show jumping arena). I can remember going off course in a competition when the horse took a duck and a dive. I was almost off, but convinced myself that I was certainly not going to hit the ground. I may have been out there for a full minute or two, but I grabbed mane and was determined to stay on!”
For Mac, true horsemanship is knowing your horse and recognizing when you are asking too much or too little. “Both of these extremes are damaging to horses,” he explained. “When I was younger, I had a mare that was incredibly smart. She was so brilliant that she could cut and herd cattle without a rider. Unfortunately, I did not do enough to keep her busy and she became aggressive and sour from doing only mundane things. I was fortunate enough to be young at the time and have never made that same mistake again.”
A lifetime of experience has also provided Mac with the wisdom to use the right horse for the right job. This is how Rollin Thunder, an Appendix Quarter Horse, became Mac’s chosen mount when he was bestowed the honour of carrying the Olympic torch for the 2010 Winter Games.
The duo completed their section of the torch relay amid the ruckus of Calgary’s vibrant 17th Avenue. “I knew Rollin could handle all the commotion like the noise makers, traffic and
go-go dancers that came with the relay,” said Mac. “I was worried about the actual exchange of the flame, but he was great – a lot calmer than I was. Of course, this was a horse who had played polo, been hit with mallets and balls and had the advantage of hearing screaming fans before.”
Sharing the Knowledge
The year 2010 also proved to be a landmark year in Makenny’s own life. That August, he married Dr. Susan Lea-Makenny, a physician and general practitioner of integrative and preventative medicine. In keeping with family tradition, the newlyweds had their own wedding photo taken on horseback.
Dr. Makenny has also brought her own touch to the ranch by helping to create the ranch’s Horse Awareness Program. Through this initiative, the couple helps people understand themselves while connecting with horses.
Countless people have benefited from their time at the ranch, this inviting place that offers nuggets of adventure, relaxation and western hospitality. Lives have been touched. Friends have been made.
This year, Homeplace Ranch will be operated on a self-catering basis as the couple travel, ride their horses and enjoy the good friends they have made along the way. Upon his return from this sabbatical year, Mac does have some ideas about his next competitive endeavour. “I think I might like to try team penning next,” he said. Maybe there really is a little cowboy in him after all.
Before I leave, Mac opens his notebook and shares words written by English poet Ronald Duncan: “Horse: nobility without conceit, friendship without envy, beauty without vanity, a willing spirit, yet no slave.” “This has become one of my favourite passages,” he shared in a profound sort of a way. “It really says it all doesn’t it?”
As I drive along the long dirt road that will eventually lead me back to my own piece of land, I am struck by how much the poetic passage describes not only horses but the philosophy of the talented horseman I have just met. I have been touched by this humble and passionate tiger of a man. My horses will be better for it.