Volunteering and working with horses in Canada


Hi! My name is Marlies and in this guest blog I take you with me on my adventure of working with horses for 6 months in Canada.

How it started - traveling to Canada

In 2015 I’ve graduated from the university and started my first full-time job. I was happier than ever! My career in (online) marketing had started and I felt like a real grown-up with this serious, high demanding job. Sounds perfect right? It was, except for the fact that I was slowly dying behind that desk. Every day was the same and at 2pm I was already counting the minutes until I could leave the office and go outside.

One year later I decided that a serious adult life had to wait a little longer. I wanted to explore! See the world. Preferably through the ears of a horse while chasing a cow on a mountain in.. Canada!

Serious, adult life had to wait a little longer. I wanted to experience the western way of life in Canada
My dream coming true

Why work with horses in Canada?

Choosing a country can be difficult. The world has so much beautiful places to offer. For me the decision was rather simple because Canada:

  • Is a huge country with lots of diversity
  • Is known for the western way of life, real rodeos are a thing
  • Is partly English, so I spoke the language
  • Would teach me how to ride western

Besides all that I have the luck that my aunt lives in Vancouver. For a first solo trip it’s nice to have someone around who loves you unconditionally and would pick you up if you ever get in trouble.

It was said and done! On April 6th (2016) I left home for 6 months and flew to Vancouver!
Guiding trail rides in Kamloops, Canada

Cost of living in Canada

Canada is an expensive country. Just for reference, you’ll pay at least $5 for a small bucket of yoghurt and public transportation barely exists. All Canadians own a car. You can take the bus or a train, but the schedules are very inconvenient, and the prices are high.

That’s why I decided to stay and work at three different horse ranches for a longer period. After a lot of paperwork, I managed to get a Working Holiday Visa. You are eligible for this visa when you are between 18 and 30 years old and you can only apply once in your life.

Canada is an expensive country and public transportation barely exists, everybody owns a car. Backpacking through Canada without a car is almost impossible. That's why I decided to work and stay at three different horse ranches.

Thanks to the website www.workaway.info I found three different places throughout the country where I could work in exchange for room and board. You can see this as a way of volunteering, but the Canadian government sees it as work. That’s why you officially need the Working Holiday Visa.

It was not only horses, I also did multiple trips to the famous Rocky Mountains! 🇨🇦

Little horse ranch in Enderby, British Columbia

After spending a couple of days in Vancouver I booked an 8h bus ride to the little town Enderby in British Colombia. It was a strange feeling to go somewhere I had never been before and spending time with people for at least one month without knowing them.

Thoughts like, will they really be there or what if they are not good people were running through my mind. Luckily they came to pick me up and that night I slept in a trailer under six blankets.

It was a strange feeling to go somewhere you've never been before and knowing that it will be your home for a month
Little horse ranch in Enderby, British Columbia

Canadian horses

This ranch mainly owned Canadian horses for guiding trail rides with tourists. And yes, it’s an official breed! This breed is strong and well-muscled. Usually, they are cool minded and perfect for rough terrain. Besides riding, people use the horses as packhorses. This means that the horses need to carry large amounts of luggage to mostly very remote places from where people go hunting.

Canadian horse

My job at the horse ranch

To be honest, I had big expectations. Too big. It was hard work at the ranch, and it usually didn’t include a single horse. We had to stack hay while it was 30 degrees outside or had to paint a basement for three days in a row. Horse riding was just a small part of my day. The property was stunning and the trail amazing! But I had those cowboy movies in mind, where you can gallop over endless fields as fast and as far as you want.

Feeding the horses

However, I learned the very important basics. Like how to tack a horse with a western saddle (I had no idea). This came in very handy at my next place: a family-owned horse ranch in Ponoka, Alberta!

I had big expectations, too big. Riding and taking care for horses was just a small part of my day.

Also read: how to volunteer with horses abroad

Cowboys in Alberta

Together with a girl from Austria I worked at this little family-owned horse ranch.These people lived for rodeos. They were a married couple, and the man earned his living with calf roping and the lady with barrel racing. Our job was to ride the young horses during events.  

We didn’t compete but had to make these young and green horses familiar with the busy warming-up ring. This asked for some real riding skills! And I loved it! Even though the days were very long, I enjoyed this totally different life. Sometimes we had to drive 5h to get to a rodeo, stayed there for 3h and then had to drive all the way back.

The weather in Alberta is strange! It can be 5 degrees in the morning and 30 at the end of the day. My advice, always bring a raincoat

They even let me drive their huge pick-up truck which was pulling a 6 horse trailer, so they could take a nap. By that time, I didn’t have a special driver license for pulling a trailer, but that rule doesn’t exist in Canada. So here we go!

We drove 5h for a rodeo pulling a six horse trailer. Sometimes we drove back the same day, others we slept on the terrain of the next rodeo, so they could compete again in the morning.
Together with the horses we camped at the Rodeo terrain. It was cold!

Also read: volunteering with horses in Ecuador

Roping and branding calves

Do you know why a western saddle has this big horn in the front of the saddle? No, not for you to hold on too (even though that sometimes helps). It’s designed for tying down the rope to your saddle when you catch a cow. Seriously!  

I figured this out on the second day at the ranch when we went to a branding. This experience probably impressed me the most.

Our job? Castrate, vaccinate, brand (with a burning stick) and ear tag 150 calves. There were three cowboys on horses who were catching the calves. Once they caught them, they dragged them on their back legs to the “wrestlers”. These were usually two men who held the calf on the ground.

They gave me the vaccination pistol. I quietly mumbled some words like, I’m not a vet and I don’t want to hurt them. But once I saw what the rest had to do, I was very happy with my vaccination job. It felt like pushing through tough leather. While I gave the calf it’s vaccination, three other people were busy with branding, castration, and the ear tag.

When a calf is not branded, people won't know who the calf belongs to. They wander over huge properties and their life is lived free together with their moms.

Of course, seeing those little calves suffer like that was hard. I’m not used to anything like that here in the Netherlands. But it’s just the way they work. When a calf is not branded, people won’t know who the calf belongs to. They wander over huge properties and their life is lived free together with their moms. That’s worth something too.

The cows and calves wander over huge properties living a free life

Also read: volunteering with horses in Zimbabwe

Learning natural horsemanship skills in Kamloops

After my time in Alberta I went back to British Colombia and ended up by accident on the ranch of the famous horse trainer Doug Mills. Here I met Alena, a girl from Switzerland and we hit it off right away.

Schedules in Canada are way less tight in comparison to the Netherlands. And there is never a plan. It's hard but also good to let go of this pressure for a little while.

We’ve both worked in the stables and were part of the Training Thru Trust Team. This meant that the training horses brought by their owners were our responsibility. Some days I rode at least six horses on one day. It was great, except for one thing, I felt like I didn’t know ANYTHING about horses. And I can tell you, that feels strange for being a horse girl since I was seven years old.

Riding with Alena

Training Thru Trust Apprentice camp

Seeing Doug and his family work with the horses is a whole different level. They work with the natural instincts of a horse and therefore work with their brain, instead of steering “the meat”.

By watching the Mills family work with horses I felt like I didn't know anything about horses. That felt strange and awkward for being a horse girl since I was seven. I was determined to learn!

Horses are prey animals and are incredibly sensitive for pressure and release. By working with the TTT method, you make the right choice easy and the wrong choice hard. When you want a horse to go the left, you point your hand to the direction you want him to go (no pressure on the rains). When he is not taking it, he must work until he finds out it’s less work to just follow the feel instead of going in restraint.

Training Cassie during Adult camp

This is just one simple example, but you can probably imagine that I was hooked! I wanted to learn! I extended my flight, paid for the camp, and started my journey as a Doug Mills apprentice.

Also read: volunteering with horses in Namibia

Long dusty days filled with horses

The program was not cheap. For a full month of training, you pay $5000 Canadian dollars. Obviously, I couldn’t afford that. But I was willing to work and that gave me the deal of “only” paying $3000 dollars in exchange for 2 months of work.

Sunday mornings..

Alena did the same, so we started at 7:00 am in the barn. Cleaning stables, feeding, and watering all the horses. Then the camp started at 9:00. In total we had to train 15 horses a day with 5 people and of course, Doug Mills as a coach. These 15 horses all had a story, from being 4 years old and never seen a person before to bucking off everybody who tried to sit on them.

The training horses had either never seen a human before or were bucking everybody off who tried to sit on them. We got the tough cases to train with.

When the training day was over, we again cleaned the stables, fed, and watered the horses. After that, we could eat ourselves. One time we didn’t had any food and a woman looked at us in the grocery store and said: “Girls, you are working way too hard”. We looked at each other. Covered in dirt and sweat (it was hot, 35 degrees at least every day). Laughed at the lady and told her we love our job.

Teaching horses to come to the fence so you can get on easily

Crazy trail rides with amazing horses

Beside work we made time to go into the mountains with the horses. When you left the backyard of the ranch, you were already on the track to the mountains. Insane! When the night started to fall, we tacked our horses, pack their saddle bags full of beer and went out!

Drinking beer while sitting on my horse and watching the sunset was my new favourite thing.
Awesome trail rides

Can you imagine doing that in your country? I couldn’t! Seeing the sunset through the ears of your horse, from above those mountains while zipping on your beer and looking at your friends made me feel like the luckiest (and probably most tired) girl in the world.

This experience changed my (horse) life

When I was offered to join the apprentice camp I had so many doubts. It was too expensive. I would come home with less money than planned. What if I can’t get a job right away when I’m back home? All these thoughts almost made me decide not to do it.

Looking back, going for it was the best thing I could have ever done! It totally changed my life. As of today, I’m giving lessons here in the Netherlands. I got my own horse and trained him exactly like I want him to be. My advice, don’t worry too much. If you feel like you must do it, do it! A chance like that won’t come around again.

Stunning views

Saying goodbye to stunning Canada

After 5 months I said goodbye to this beautiful country that gave me so much. New, lifelong friends, skills I could have never dreamed of and a full heart with lots of stories.

Canada just didn’t let me go, so I went back in 2017 and in 2018 and planning my trip in 2022! So the story continues..

Our last ride together

Please have a look here to find loads of different horse riding holidays in Canada.

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