Musical pride: Here comes Canada …

In the instant before an actor makes an entrance onto the stage or a runner bursts from the starting blocks, there’s a brief, frozen moment — a gift of peace, time to focus on the performance ahead. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable Wendy Smith stretches taller in the saddle, tightens her grip on the lance balanced in the stirrup next to her right foot. The announcer is speaking in German. This is Zurich, Switzerland, and it’s Smith’s first public performance as a member of the famed R.C.M.P. Musical Ride.

Individual horses feel the excitement, shift nervously, chewing on their bits. Their black coats gleam, a maple leaf pattern brushed across their rumps captures the light. The music begins. It’s show time. Here comes Canada . . .

“They performed in my city, Campbellton, New Brunswick,” she recalls. “I was 10 or 11 and I was star-struck, watching them on the black horses, in their red tunics.” But it wasn’t until university that Smith began to consider joining the Force. Until then, “it wasn’t an occupation your mother would want you to pursue,” she grins.

Tall, and as fit as a track star, Smith acknowledges the possibility of joining the Ride had little influen on her decision to become a police officer. The seven years following basic training in Regina, Saskatchewan, have taken her far from the notion of R.C.M.P. stables to the restless streets of Toronto where she’s been a part of the Special Operations team, a surveillance unit.

But the lure of the Musical Ride is potent. Each year 1,000 to 1,200 R.C.M.P. members apply to become a part of the 32-member Ride. The list narrows to 28 members ranging in age from 25 to 38, who travel to the facility at Rockcliffe near Ottawa for a basic course lasting five weeks. Only 10 or 12 actually join each year.

“Probably 95 per cent of people on the Ride never rode a horse before they came here,” notes Smith. “It’s a matter of how much you improve while you’re here. They want to know your ability to learn, how well you work… and work with others.”

Women only became part of the Musical Ride in 1980. Currently there are five women with the Ride — three regular members and two members of the equitation staff. “The number of women fluctuates from year to year,” says Smith. “There’s no percentage that they aim for. If six women try out and none of them make it, then that’s it.”

Successful candidates spend the following six months in an intensive intermediate course, improving horsemanship and riding skills. Even seasoned riders find it challenging to adjust to riding with one hand on the reins, directing the horse with the legs, coping with a lance and finally, learning the riding patterns.

Members of the Ride, Smith notes, tend to be high achievers who have a strong interest in enhancing the public image of the R.C.M.P.

Public relations skills are put to the test for the two weeks the new Ride members spend on Parliament Hill portraying a quintessential vision of Canada. “I met people from all around the world,” Smith recalls with wonder. “A lot of them said that they came to Canada just to meet a Mountie on a horse!”

Occasionally tourists reveal they were unaware that women were even part of the R.C.M.P. “A lot of people,” Smith smiles,”thought it was fantastic.”

Smith was surprised at the unruffled attitude of the horses during the flight to Zurich. “They were very calm about it,” she notes. “It’s a bit different, but when you’ve got 36 horses all together, they’re with their buddies. They were all really good.”

And they were stars in Zurich. “Zurich was unbelievable,” Smith smiles. “The people were fantastic. To be able to perform in an arena that held 10 to 11 thousand people, all clapping and stomping their feet as you’re doing the show — a feeling comes over you that is just indescribable. Our very last show, they played the Canadian anthem. It kind of brought a tear to the eye.”

Travel and show business may be glamorous, but being part of the R.C.M.P. Musical Ride also means feeding horses, mucking stalls, cleaning saddles and grooming — chores faced by any rider. The stables are always open after the performances. Friendly and approachable, Smith enjoys meeting the public. “To see the smiles on their faces, and knowing that they really enjoyed the show — I think that’s probably the best part,” she says.

“It’s good to know that people really do appreciate the Force,” Smith says. “As opposed to doing investigations and talking to people for the criminal aspects of things, you’re actually talking to people, getting to know them, and it’s wonderful. You’re talking to people from across Canada, the United States — from all over the world.

“I had one couple come up to me when I was working on the Hill and their exact words were ‘When I see you, in uniform and on horseback, it makes me very proud to be Canadian.’ That day I’ll always remember.”

Under western skies
Good horsemanship was vital for the original North-West Mounted Police members. To amuse themselves and show off their skills, they developed a series of mounted patterns based on British cavalry drills. The first Musical Ride was performed at the Regina barracks of the Force in 1887 and became a permanent fixture in 1904. Two Rides, one based in Regina and one in Ottawa, existed until the late 1960s, when some horses were sold and the rest moved to the Rockcliffe facility. A breeding farm known as Remount Detachment is located at Pakenham, Ont., and supplies the substantial black horses the Ride is known for worldwide.