These Alberta cottagers built a cabin-barn they share with their horses

Owning a cabin-barn retreat means hard work, sacrifice, and some middle-of-the-night emergencies. But when you love horses, it’s worth it.

A dark brown pony named Marocha kicks showers of water through the sunshine of a hot Alberta summer afternoon. “She loves water so much she starts stomping at it the moment she steps in the creek,” says 11-year-old Levi with a giggle, perched atop Marocha, wearing denim dungarees and a cowboy hat.

On the banks of shallow Threepoint Creek behind Levi is her mother, Cathy Butler, 49, on Bolera, and Levi’s sister, Jessie, 7, who is nervous about riding her horse, Sammie, into the water. “Relax, and go slow,” Cathy says reassuringly, reaching over to take Sammie’s reins.

The family ambles upstream, chatting about upcoming riding competitions and enjoying the cool breeze off the water as cicadas buzz and birds dart across its surface. “Look, Mum!” Jessie suddenly shouts, pointing to a big red barn on the distant riverbank. “Ha! I don’t often see it from this angle,” Cathy says. “Okay. Let’s get up on the flats. We can do a little canter and head home.”

“Home” on this weekend—and most weekends year round—is that classic looking, two-level riverside barn that is neither a usual barn or an average cottage. It’s both, with a stylish cabin upstairs and living quarters for horses on the main floor, all set amid rolling farmland near Millarville, southwest of Calgary.

We scramble up the rocky tree-lined riverbank and canter briefly across a lush grass field and onto the dirt driveway leading towards the hitching posts in front of the barn. Cathy carries saddles into the tack room while the girls lead the horses into the adjacent paddock. “How about finishing up with crazy, really local cocktail?” Cathy asks, wiping sweat from her face with the back of her hand. Leading the way through the barn, she points to four stalls that, since the horses stay outside, are typically empty. “They’re styled on British Loddon stalls, great quality and easily disassembled and re-purposed,” she says. “Queen Elizabeth has them, and they’re one of her recommended brands.”

Never having entered a cottage via a barn before, I’m surprised to then step into a fittingly barn-themed office, where Cathy, a self-employed chartered financial analyst, works when she’s not at the Calgary condo she shares with her daughters. The desk, cabinets, and shelving were crafted from weathered barnboards and trimmed in walnut by a local artisan. Colourful images of cattle, horses, and barn scenes adorn the walls.

Stairs lead up into a surprisingly bright and open living space, which feels much bigger than its 1,500 sq. ft. because of the 16-foot vaulted ceiling and the two dormers on each side. A criss-cross of dark beams, with a 14-inch-square main beam at the apex, stands out strikingly against the cream-coloured ceiling and walls. “We say 2,000 sq. ft. for humans, including my office,” Cathy says, pulling a bottle out of a cupboard in the open concept kitchen-dining-living room, “and 1,000 sq. ft. for horses.”

In the kitchen, beneath a light fixture of stylized brass fox-hunting bugles, Cathy pours a dash of Prickly Pear EquineOx liqueur—from a local distillery—into a glass of elderflower water, bitters, and ice. “Cheers!”

Cathy herself grew up on a large piece of land with horses in rural Springbank, west of Calgary, and started riding at seven. She was so mad about the sport that she attended an equestrian boarding school for grade eight. With various trainers, she successfully competed in eventing and show jumping across Canada and the U.S. through her teens until she left for Queen’s University in Ontario. While studying for an economics degree, she met fellow student Steven Stein, with whom she created and ran a tree-planting business through the mid-’90s (years later, the pair would marry). Then Cathy sold her share and returned to Calgary. “I longed for a piece of land,” she says, “and to get back to riding.”

In 1997, she found what she was looking for 85 km southwest of Calgary, amid the scenic foothills of the Rockies that rise dramatically on the horizon. It was a “quarter”—164 acers—of woods and pasture on meandering Threepoint Creek, a one-hour drive from the city. It had been part of a substantial homesteading ranch that once boasted a post office and a general store. Like many prairie farmers, the long-time owners were forced to sell off a quarter at a time as their kids got older and chose not to ranch. “Families usually hang on to the home quarter with the farmhouse until last,” she says with a sigh. “And that’s what I bought.”

Cathy had always dreamed of buying a barn and turning it into a cottage, with an eye to eventually retiring there. She wanted one foot in the city as well as a true country outdoor life with horses, hiking, and cross-country skiing. For months she scouted rural Alberta and Saskatchewan for an old barn or outbuilding structurally sound enough to move and convert. She finally gave up in 2001 and handed her father, a geologist from rural Saskatchewan with an artistic eye, a piece of paper. “Draw me a traditional barn.” He quickly sketched a properly proportioned barn with a symmetrical, two-sided roof with two slopes on each side, designed to maximize interior space.

She took that drawing to Jurgen Seyfried of Swiz Timber Frame Homes in Nelson, B.C., to work on a design for a solid timber-framed structure. They decided on Douglas fir beams, structurally strong and common in timber frames. “It was dead standing wood, so I wasn’t killing old growth or living trees,” says Cathy. But the wood was reddish-blond, and she wanted something darker. “I drove them nuts trying to make it look like old barnwood,” she says. Through trial and error they got the right look by steel-brushing, staining, then torching it—“burning” the wood lightly with a low-flame blowtorch—to tone down the orange and bring out the texture. “It was fun!” Her contractor, Grainger Nimmo of Calgary’s Rockwood Custom Homes, sourced not only the barnboard used throughout from local salvagers, but also vintage pine from a disassembled Saskatchewan grain elevator. That wood was re-milled and became the cabin flooring.

“I was still single, with no kids so I wanted a simple loft above a barn, even though I hadn’t bought a horse yet,” says Cathy, but Nimmo talked her into enclosing an open space alongside the stairs for a guest room. The barn, with its four stalls and a feed and tack room, has its own ventilation system, though she rarely turns it on, as the horses prefer to be outdoors. “People are surprised that I live atop a barn, but humans have always kept animals below their living quarters for the heat,” she says.

After two years of planning and construction, the barn was completed in 2003. “It turned out to be lucky that Grainger talked me into that guest bedroom, which is now Levi’s,” says Cathy. “Jessie actually sleeps in my walk-in closet. She’s like Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs.”

The following dawn starts serenely with heavy dew pearls on long grasses, river sounds, and rustling birch leaves. But the morning soon turns into a scramble, with Cathy and the girls loading horses and their gear into their horse trailer. The trio—with breeches, riding boots, and show coats replacing yesterday’s Western riding garb—is bustling off o compete in equestrian events at the 109th annual country fair in nearby Millarville, held on the community’s historic racetrack.

Helping them get ready this morning is Sage Kindt, a local student Cathy has hired to help take care of her horses for the summer; in winter, Sage’s brother, Tucker, does the job. Cathy is at the farm every weekend and most holidays, and Cathy’s parents, Calgary-based Bev and Dave Butler, check on the farm when they can. They purchased the adjoining quarter of hay fields when it came up or sale years ago and spend about half their time living in the property’s farmhouse. Dave loads bales of hay into feeders and manages the population of gophers, whose huge holes can injure horses (“He’s the best shot in the West,” Cathy vows). “Keeping horses at a cottage takes good family, friends, and horse-savvy neighbours,” says Cathy. “We all help each other out.”

During winter, Tucker arrives at the barn once or twice a day. Doing a circuit through the cottage interior, he checks doors, windows, and plumbing, and makes sure the horses have food and water, which is piped into heated troughs. Most importantly, he counts the horses. “Horses are social creatures and don’t like to be alone,” says Cathy. “If one of them takes off alone, something is wrong.” A decade ago, Tom Gordon, Cathy’s brother-in-law, dropped by one −25°C winter day and found one horse missing. He followed the trail through snow for an hour until he found the horse covered in ice balls and dripping icicles, in shock and sweating with colic—a painful disorder when the intestines become entangled, the leading cause of death in domesticated horses. Tom and Cathy rubbed him down with burlap sacks while a vet treated him, then loaded him into the horse trailer to safely get him to the animal hospital.

“Flooding, pipe leaks, fences breaking, septic field backups, and winter power outages that cut the water supply to the animals are stressful,” says Cathy. “Midnight calls with horses sick or in trouble are heart-wrenching.”

Millarville’s fair and farmers’ market is a rollicking event, with a variety of classes for kids and adults. An entire community of horse trailers is lined up on a grass field. Jessie enters the arena for the first time ever, for a lead line class on Sammie and is overjoyed with her red ribbon. When Cathy competes in front of the Stetson-sporting and cowboy boot-wearing crowd, Levi watches critically, then leans over the fence as she passes: “Sit up straighter, Mum.”

Between events, the girls take off with friends for the show barns—alongside stands of Hutterites selling Taber corn and food trucks serving perogies—to see the animals and attend the rooster-crowing competition. Later, Jessie and the family’s German shepherd, Solo, dress up as Dr. Seuss’ Thing One and Thing Two for a costume competition and walk away with yet another ribbon.

“This is prime horse country,” says Cathy, relaxing in the shade as upcoming riding events are blared out on a loudspeaker. “There are ranches and rodeos everywhere. And Spruce Meadows, a world-class show jumping venue, is 20 minutes down the road. It’s heaven.”

It’s clear that Cathy and the girls passionately build their lives around the farm. They arrive Friday night and head back to Calgary on Monday, with Cathy driving the girls straight to school. Mid-week, she’ll pick them up after classes. “We ride, eat, sleep, and then go straight back to school the next morning,” says Levi, adding with a huge grin, “Sometimes there’s barely time for homework.”

Summer is busy. Jessie attends a horse camp, and Levi does horse shows at least twice a month and every weekend in August. She also enjoys polo, but it’s Cathy who fell in love with the sport over a decade ago, and plays three times a week, May to September.

There are challenges year-round. One time, Cathy stepped out the front door with a backpack on her shoulders, about to depart for a week-long hike along B.C.s’ West Coast Trail with friends, only to see two horses “foundering”—suffering a severe and painful inflammation of their feet. “That was the end of my hiking trip,” she says. Another time, during an Easter Sunday brunch, a neighbour called with the nightmarish news that two horses belonging to another farm had became entangled in snow-covered barbed wire, struggling until one sliced its neck and the other almost ripped off a leg. Cathy rushed over to help. She can no longer count the number of times she’s piled on a winter jacket in the middle of a frigid night to check on a horse she was worried about.

Of course, Cathy rarely talks about these challenges unless someone brings them up. “Sure, there are sacrifices, and the barn has changed my lifestyle. I’ve been knocked out of some social circles, and it’s different—I don’t get asked to Saturday night dinner parties anymore,” she says. “But right now my life is a wave of dedication for my kids and the farm. Then it will be travel…and the farm. Then other stuff… and the farm.”

Back at the barn, Levi grabs the pitchfork and tosses hay into the paddock, then picks up her bow and arrows and heads into the field, Solo loyally at her heels. “He has to stay with Jessie and me because there’s coyotes around,” she says, pointing to a small wooden shed—the feed shed from the original ranch—in the middle of the driveway roundabout. A ramp on one outside wall leads to a small flap door. “We taught our three cats to hide in there if there’s a coyote around.

“I especially love it here in winter,” she says, as she searches the tall grass for a wayward arrow. “I love cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, sledding, snow angels, hot chocolate, Christmas, and snow…” she lists off without pausing. In winter, Cathy sweeps clear a nearby frozen beaver pond so the girls can skate. They never miss Christmas in the country. Though Cathy and Steven Stein recently separated, he is still a big part of their Calgary family life and spends holidays with them at the farm.

While Cathy, still clad in riding clothes, fires up the barbecue on the deck, Jessie shows off the girls’ playhouse, built by their uncle Tom Gordon, a woodworker, in classic English-cottage style. He and Cathy headed off to Nanton, Alta., and combed through its half-dozen antique shops, picking up everything from stained glass windows to an old-style ladder, a medicine cabinet, and wee chairs. “There’s even a trap door,” Jessie says with awe, shoving aside a rug to prove it. Tom added even more mystery by including a secret loft hidden above the bunk beds where the girls sometimes sleep, even in winter.

“Where we’re sitting right now we would have been up to our necks in water,” says Cathy, lounging beside a campfire after dinner. Just 50 feet from where we are cozily gathered is the steep bank into slowly meandering Threepoint Creek. In 2005, Cathy, her parents, neighbours, and friends were at this same spot, frantically piling up four feet of sandbags around the barn as the river surged. The horses remained calm but were stranded on islands in the fields. Cathy rode through the waters with a hay-loaded ATV, spinning the wheels and sending waves over her head as she struggled uphill. Then, as the water table rose and rose, her parents’ basement also flooded. “We were losing the war,” she recalls. Luckily, the waters retreated, but not before she had lost 50 feet of frontage.

Cathy worked with people from the federal fisheries ministry and the local government, who reinforced the creek bank with huge boulders. But in 2013, another 100-year flood struck, this one hitting Calgary as well. “Those boulders floated away like corks. There were 40-foot-long timbers swinging back and forth like metronomes, chewing out the banks,” says Cathy. “We considered that if it rose farther we would just move the furniture, open the barn doors, and let it flow through.” Again the waters retreated—but she lost another 20 feet of land in front of her barn. “It’s a big deal, but there’s nothing to do but deal.”

Dealing meant that in the summer of 2016, Cathy undertook a major landscaping project, creating a slope and installing underground “weeping tiles” leading to drainage channels to send water back towards the river in the case of another inundation. “Fingers crossed,” she says. “But you can never be really prepared for Alberta floods.”

As the campfire blazes, Levi and Jessie create and then devour s’mores, and the stars come out. The talk shifts to the wildlife they often see—a bear playing in the river, elk running across the field, a moose with her babies. Cathy sighs and pokes at the flames, Levi’s head resting on her shoulder. “I grew up with horses, and I tree-planted for 10 years in adverse conditions. I’m not a city girl,” Cathy says, staring into the fire, “so I pretty much knew what I was getting myself into, having a cottage barn in the country.” She hugs her daughter. “But not a day goes by when I don’t wake up to watch the horses run in and the kids run out and know how lucky I am to be in this countryside.”

Top tips for cabin builds

  1. Local only. “Local, local, local people” is Cathy Butler’s building mantra. Hook up with nearby craftspeople, who have a network of contacts throughout the community. They can be great at sourcing old wood and fixtures and at giving advice on any traditional design features.

  2. Choose your pieces wisely. Cathy used iconic bits and pieces creatively to enhance the cottage’s atmosphere. She worked with a local ironworker to incorporate old horseshoes into her bedroom’s balcony railing and light fixtures. He powder coated them to protect them from rust and weather and welded them together into an abstract pattern. “They were easy to find,” says Cathy, “and they add some character.”

  3. Consult resources. Cathy quickly learned there are many more barn cottages in Europe and the U.S. than in Canada. She picked up countless tips and ideas by flipping through barn books.

  4. Get help. If she were to build another barn, Cathy would get more help from designers and contractors to advise on lighting and other electrical details. “A timber frame is not easy to go back into and work with afterwards. I should have thought more carefully about subtleties like lights shining up and downwards and where they are located, where switches should be placed, and how many electrical outlets I’d actually need,” she says. “It’s always better to overestimate from the get-go.”

Margo Pfeiff is a frequent contributor to Cottage Life West. She wrote about an Alberta eco-cabin in our Fall ’16 issue.

This story was originally published as “A Stable Relationship” in the Spring 2017 issue of Cottage Life West.

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