Not your regular stable job

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians saddle up with RCMP’s Musical Ride

Lillian Simmons
Published on July 16, 2011

When it comes to broken bones, bumps, bruises, cuts and lacerations, the RCMP Musical Ride might be the most risky job on the force.

Only those who have the passion required to get back on the horse make the cut. Three of those officers are Newfoundlanders. They’ll be part of the musical manoeuvres next week when the ride comes to their home province July 18-28.

Thirty-two riders in scarlet uniforms on gleaming black Hanoverian horses executing a kaleidoscope of drills choreographed to music might look like horseplay to some, but it’s a job that requires grit.

As lead file for the ride, Cpl. Jeremy Dawson knows it demands control, spot-on timing and excellent co-ordination.

Dawson has been with the RCMP for 11 years. He began training with the ride in 2006 and was promoted to instructor in 2009.

“I’d never sat on a horse in my life,” the Corner Brook-born corporal says.

For the first few days of training he had misgivings, but soon realized there weren’t many other places he’d rather be.

Out of the roughly 800 people who apply annually to participate in the ride, 30 are selected to do the basic five-week course. Only 15 of those are chosen to continue training for the year.

As lead file, Dawson signals and sets the pace for the other riders. That’s where a musical mind comes in handy.

“The main thing is to know rhythm; keeping the consistent pace is important.

“But you have to be on your toes at all times. Anything can go wrong — that’s what we preach.”

Training for the ride begins in January with at least 15 new riders and continues until May.

“During that time we find the horse that fits the rider and the rider that fits the horse,” Dawson explains. “Every horse is different and every rider is different. We juggle the horses to find which one matches the rider. And sometimes two horses don’t get along, they’ll try to bite each other, so we have to switch their positions.”

A regular day at the stables closely resembles a regular day at a show.

“Even for rehearsals the horses are groomed,” says Dawson. “We muck out the stall, clean the horse, tack up, get ready for turnout, then warm up the horse for 45 minutes and rehearse for an hour. There is a set time for everything.”

Well bred

The RCMP has its own breeding farm in Pakenham, Ont.

The force used to use thoroughbreds for the ride, but in 1989 they purchased Hanoverian broodmares and stallions to improve the bloodlines.

“The horses are a certain height (16 to 17.2 hands) and the majority are black. The Hanoverian German sport horse was picked for its temperament and size,” Dawson says.

The average age of Musical Ride horses is 13, but the Ottawa farm where training takes place houses horses from age six to 18 and older.

“We train new riders on the older, more experienced horses. We work them hard, but they’re well looked after, they have a vet, the care level is very high, and stables are immaculate,” he says.

Even then, some of the horses get up to mischief, like Dawson’s horse Warren did during the Musical Ride in June in Beggar, Sask.

“Warren knows how to take his halter off. So he took it off, escaped from the stables and ran down Main Street — we got calls from the public.”

Without a halter, nobody could hold on to Warren, who was apparently making the most of his freedom.

“He was in so many areas, people thought it was two horses.”

But herd bound and used to being with his group, after completing his private tour, Warren ran right back to his stable.

By the time Dawson went to check the stable, Warren was casually munching hay, wearing an innocent “nope-it-wasn’t-me” look.

Jumped at the chance

A love for horses is exactly what drew Jennifer Dowden to a career with the RCMP.

Growing up in Logy Bay, she rode whenever she could, mostly on trails, and at age 12 took some English riding lessons, which she tosses off as “nothing serious.”

All the while, for birthdays, Christmas and any occasion that might warrant it, she begged for a horse.

“I remember measuring up the back yard and saying, ‘There’s room to put a stable right here,’ and I knew it was something I would do eventually. That’s why I joined the RCMP.”

She’s been tossed and thrown through fences, been “bloody and broken, sometimes crying,” but it hasn’t stopped her getting back on the horse, her enthusiasm unscathed.

“You learn very quickly, or you don’t stay — but if you’ve got the passion. …”

No passion lacking here. In addition to riding twice a day at the RCMP farm, she takes private lessons on the side at a farm owned by two retired members of the Musical Ride.

“I’m taking all the steps I can to improve.”

And it’s paying off.

Usually members stay with the ride for three years. After being accepted, they move to Ottawa, train for one year and tour for two.

“You can stay and make a career depending on your passion and horse experience and if there’s a position available. They needed extra people for next year, so I put my name in the hat and was chosen.”

Dowden joined the force in 2006 and performed in her first musical ride in 2010.

Horses and riders each have specific positions. Dowden is a swing rider. She fills in for other riders and so has to know all the positions, riding a different position in every show.

Last year she rode a 12-year-old horse named Renoir.

“She wasn’t really friendly, but she knows the work well and is a great horse.”

This year she’s working with eight-year-old Ayame, who’s in her third year of the ride.

“She’s much more friendly and not quite as sure, but once they trust you, you have a better experience riding and they’re more willing to do what they have to do.”

1,500-pound dog

Const. Brent Edwards was raised in Goose Bay, but has family on the Burin Peninsula, Lawn and the St. Lawrence area.

“The ride isn’t going to Goose Bay this year,” Edwards says. “It’s a long haul over the dirt road for the horses — but there’ll be lots of family around.”

Edwards joined the RCMP in 2007 and requested a posting in northern Saskatchewan to get more experience. He spent two years on a fly-in reserve called Wollaston Lake where he attended the five-week tryout for the Musical Ride.

On the second-last day of the tryouts, Edwards was jumping and got tossed off his horse, breaking his ribs and collarbone. He passed the course, but it took him several months to recover, so it was back to police work for a while.

“I thought riding a horse would be like riding a bicycle,” he says. “I soon learned you have 1,400 pounds of I-don’t-want-to-do-that — so you really have to work hard to make a good show.”

After completing his posting in Saskatchewan, Edwards transferred to Ottawa and acquired the basic skills to join the Musical Ride.

Edwards says training consists of four hours a day riding and the remainder taking care of his horse Archie.

The eight-year-old gelding stands 16.3 hands high.

“Archie’s got a lot of character, he’s very forward and not afraid. I get (to the stables) in the morning and the other horses are lying down or standing up and Archie is sitting on his bum looking around. He’s the only horse I know of the 96 that sits on his bum like a dog.

“You grow really close to your horse, caring for them and feeding them. You work hard for them and they work hard for you.

Edwards says Archie is like a “1,500-pound dog,” who eats a lot of apples, although he once saw the horse eat a banana.

Unlike most horses, Archie has an unusual favourite treat.

“He eats Werther’s Originals after the show,” laughs Edwards.

But Archie can be excused for his indulgence.

“With 32 horses mounted and doing cavalry drills passing within feet and inches of each other, it can be frightening for the horses.”

This is Edwards’ first year touring with the ride and he’s excited about visiting Newfoundland. At the end of the show, riders from the home province are asked to step up and are introduced.

“So there’s a lot of applause and it’s a lot of fun. We’re all really looking forward to it.”