Alberta's Rafter Six Ranch back in the saddle

A popular guest ranch west of Calgary that was forced out of business in January is open again, but with a scaled back operation.

Members of the family that built the ranch west of Calgary 4 decades ago rebuilding business

A scaled-back version of Rafter Six Ranch, west of Calgary, is open again after a failed expansion plan sent the original operation into receivership. (Carla Beynon/CBC)

Dozens of horses stand in portable corrals, flicking away flies with their tails and snoozing in the sun. Some of them are saddled up, ready to go to work on stunning trails that wind through Kananaskis Country.

Many of them were born on Rafter Six Ranch, and seem to fit right in to the landscape of rolling foothills and Rocky Mountain peaks just off the Trans-Canada Highway, about 80 kilometres west of Calgary. 

Somewhere in the herd, Kateri Cowley picks out her horse Kokanee. They stand together as she looks back on a difficult few months.  

"When we closed down in January, I didn't think we would ever be back here. The future was really sketchy," said Cowley, whose family built Rafter Six and ran the resort for nearly four decades.

"It has been just a huge honour to be welcomed back here and be able to continue this. This is what my family is about." 

Horses at Rafter Six Ranch ready for the next bunch of riders. (Carla Beynon/CBC)

The grand old buildings that her father Stan Cowley built from the ground up are now empty and for sale.

The plan had been to expand the ranch into a five star resort, but the developer went into receivership and took the family business down with it. The Cowleys moved out in January.  

Now, they’re back at Rafter Six with a much smaller operation, focusing on camping, trail riding and horse training.

It's located on leased land right in front of the original resort. A holiday trailer houses the new office, a storage container is being used as a tack room. The staff has been downsized from about 50 employees to four. 

"We're doing the fun part of the business," said Stan Cowley. "That was work, this is fun."

Intimate and interactive

The new Rafter Six experience is all about being intimate and interactive with the horses and nature. The trail rides accommodate all levels of riders, and can be booked for any length of time — from an hour, to a full day, or even overnight.

"The horses are tried, tested and true," said Kateri Cowley, who has trained a lot of them herself.

"You won't be going on a trail ride with 50 other people for sure, it's more smaller groups of people."

Camping at Rafter Six is also a unique experience called "random camping" — people can choose any location to set up. They can also bring their horses and enjoy the trails.

The Cowleys say it has been a bit of a slow start, but business is starting to pick up. 

"People are still just learning that we're still operating," said Stan Cowley. "I'd like to let them know that we are actually riding." 

Original resort for sale

The original Rafter Six Ranch Resort, owned by the bank, is for sale for $12.5 million. The Cowleys are still hopeful a buyer will be found, preferably someone who will ask them to stay on and help bring the place back to its original glory.

In the meantime, they are carrying on with their dream, and encouraging anyone who wants to experience western hospitality to join them.   

"We're typical cowboys. Get up, dust yourself off, get back in the saddle and start working."

Directions, details and pricing are available on the Rafter Six website.