Kelowna: Old World charm & tradition at Big White
"Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too…"
Everyone knows the classic Christmas carol Sleigh Ride, but when the decorative lights come down and Santa heads back up north, it's finally time to enjoy the world of winter activities, uninterrupted by shopping and dinners and the hustle and bustle of our hectic modern life.
Jim Long has found a way to bring us back to basics with a sleigh ride through a snow-covered forest.
All winter, Long brings Big White guests on little adventures, adding breakfasts and dinners and the odd special event to his regular roster of one-hour and half-hour tours.
On Valentine's Day, for example, he and his Clydesdales—either Tom and Jerry or Doc and Bud—took a few lucky lovers out for breakfast, ferrying those who booked a steakhouse dinner around for a particularly special evening in the snow.
Standing 17 hands tall, and weighing in at roughly a tonne per animal, there's no missing the magnificent creatures he pulls up in front of the Happy Valley Day Lodge with and the spectacular touch of romance they bring to a day.
"Belgians are the strong ones. Percherons are a good horse. Clydes, what they lack in strength they make up for in just eye appeal. They're just a classy looking animal," said Long.
Long is somewhat of an expert on sleigh rides. Although he's only been at Big White for the last seven years, spending roughly 125-130 days on the slopes, he's been riding behind horses like these his entire life.
"I guess the first I remember was my dad going to pick up my sister from school," he said. "We just had horses. So a sleigh ride at home meant you were just doing something. Out working."
Long was raised in the Canadian Badlands and, like any good cowboy, he isn't one to expend energy on words, particularly on himself.
But he knows how to entertain, offering pancakes or a rib and chicken barbecue in a woodsy cabin for those who would like to take a little time out on the hill.
And he knows how to train a group to enjoy an afternoon, day or even an overnight trip in the lifestyle he grew up enjoying.
Stationed just outside Red Deer, Alberta for the bulk of the year, his primary vocation sees him organizing authentic covered wagon tours—day, over-nighter and multi-day trips on an abandoned rail bed.
He has 12 wagons with wooden wheels and wooden seats and he trains those who come out to run the wagons themselves.
Prior to landing his Big White gig through an advertisement in a horse magazine, he would throw a few hayrides in for extra income, a sleigh ride in the winter.
"Jack of all trades master of none," he says when asked about his vocation. "I never could settle into much."
He built the 16-seater sleigh he uses on the mountain himself. Some of the parts are 100 years old, just pieces he was already using, he explains.
Long is nonplussed by any query about why he likes about his horses, why he chooses to work in the fields—cultivating, seeding, cutting hay—with them over machines that might work faster.
"Well, it's just what you do," he says. "I like the horses. Ask anybody with horses, they'll tell you."
And Long's particular pick of horse is a special one.
Clydesdales are originally Scottish. Developed in the early 1800s, they're draught horses derived from farm horses in the Clydesdale area of Scotland, and their tack includes a regal neck piece called a scotch top, originally ornamented with the family crest so anyone coming upon the sleigh would know who was approaching.
Today the scotch top really just protects the animal from the elements such that when the sleigh points into the weather, the Tom and Jerrys of this world have a dry warm neck.
Looking down at their legs, the distinctive white covered hooves—seemingly fitted in knee-high fur moccasins one might term mittens if these were a cats—often have a brown leg in the mix.
Tom and Jerry, brothers, each have a brown left leg, though there is no genetic significance Long insists.
"It's just the way the good Lord painted them," he says. "There are four legs and two colours and sometimes that's just what you wind up with."
Were one to have a brown right leg it would make the pair more of a match set and therefore more valuable; but the effect as they are is still breathtaking.
Glistening in the snow on a warm winter day, their legs appear to dance across the white carpet in front of them, first a dark leg, then a white, steady as they go.
Tom and Jerry are huge when compared with a saddle horse, but they're still a good six to eight inches shorter than the Budweiser Clydesdales that have so famously inspired a donkey to try hair extensions on his lower legs in one commercial and jumped the Grand Canyon in the name of love in another.
As this year's Superbowl commercial reminded those who watched—to the tune of Fleetwood Mac's Landslide, no less—one can follow the famous Clydesdales on Twitter, if one so desires.
This seems quite comical when confronted with the silent beauties checking out the pink Lululemon athletic bag of one woman milling about the mountain ice rink they call home each winter.
If you're looking for a real deal experience with a horse-drawn sleigh and the Clydesdales, it's far better just to join Long and his companions on the Big White trails.