What could be more Canadian than a Mountie in red serge, riding tall on a sleek black horse? It’s an image as Canadian as the Maple Leaf. From their beige Stetsons to their brown Strathcona high-top boots, Mounties are a much-beloved icon of this country.
So imagine a field of 32 riders – a blush of scarlet, a flurry of black manes and tails, and the synchronized rhythm of military manoeuvres. This is the RCMP Musical Ride, a 123-year-old institution guaranteed to make you stand a little taller and be a little prouder of this Bonavista-to-Vancouver Island nation.
Who isn’t moved while watching the intricate patterns, the most famous of which is the Dome – once featured on the back of the $50 bill – where riders face one another in a circle, their lances pointed inwards? There’s the Wagon Wheel, the Bridal Arch, the Swinging Gates and Thread the Needle, each requiring precise and perfect timing. Performances end with the charge, turning the field into thundering drama: 32 black horses galloping in formation; scarlet tunics and yellow-striped breeches; red and white lances lowered and aimed at an imaginary foe.
Look closely at the horses’ rumps as they parade by. You will see a Maple Leaf that has been brushed onto their hips. Before each performance, an officer uses a stencil, back-brushing the hair so that it stands out.
RCMP officers who apply to be part of the Musical Ride undergo a two-phase equitation course. Out of about 800 applications, as few as 14 will be chosen. They are with the ride for three years before returning to regular duty. Some come from equine backgrounds, while others have never sat in a saddle. Team work is vital, whether it be working together in the stables, riding in formation or sharing buses and hotel rooms.
The ride tours between May and November (though last year they performed during the Vancouver Olympics in February), performing about 100 times in 40 different communities. It performs in many Canadian regions each year and occasionally travels to the U.S. and overseas. Greeted everywhere they go by huge crowds, nowhere are the crowds larger or more appreciative than at Spruce Meadows.
To ensure horses are dark and of a docile temperament, the RCMP has its own breeding program, based in Pakenham, ON (in the 1940s, it was at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan). Most of the horses have Thoroughbred and Hannoverian blood. Handled from the day they are born, the horses undergo intensive training at the RCMP Rockcliff Stables in Ottawa. Not all will make the cut. Those that are not dark enough, or blessed with a personality suitable for the ride will be auctioned off to other horse enthusiasts.
Each measures between 16 and 17 hands, and all must have a calm temperament, as they will be exposed to numerous distractions and loud noises as they tour the country, performing and parading in front of large crowds. Conditions vary between searing hot and soaking wet, and muddy turf and solid footing.
He may not have been black, but Ian Millar’s famous chestnut jumper, Big Ben, was made an honorary member of the Musical Ride during a sunset ceremony at Rockcliffe. He received his RCMP shabrack, the horse’s blue saddle blanket outlined in yellow and bearing the letters MP, the RCMP’s brand.
Thirty-six horses travel with the Ride, and 32 participate in the performance. They are transported in three trucks, with a fourth truck carrying all the gear, from saddles and white head ropes, to bridles and blankets. Each horse has its own tack box, and there are shovels, wheelbarrows, rakes and feed bowls. A farrier also travels with the team.
The horses can be viewed at Spruce Meadows in the West Meadows stables, with RCMP members willing to field questions. The public’s curiosity about the Ride is huge, and visitors new to Canada have even asked if the horses are black so that they are easier to find in snow.
Capture the spirit of the ride. Witness the partnership between rider and horse. Share in this Canadian tradition and rich part of our heritage only at the 2011 Spruce Meadows Masters tournament. This September’s command performance by the ride is its only stop in Alberta in 2011. .