The Nor’-West Farmer Vol. 49, No. 3 Summer 1984
How The RCMP Came To Have Black Horses
By D/Commr. W. H. Kelly (Rtd.)**
During the early days of the Force when horses were the only means of transportation, the NWMP found it difficult to obtain a sufficient number of the right type of horses for the patrol work required of them – long arduous patrols, often with little feed. The “march west” resulted in the death of many horses as well as leaving a large number of them in poor health with a condition known as “alkalied.”
As a result, Assistant Commissioner Macleod, who was in charge of their first post – later to be named Fort Macleod – was forced to send some members into the United States to buy horses, and such trips continued for a number of years. The only horses the Mounties were able to purchase were unbroken bronchos, which in time became just the kind of horses the Force required.
In addition to the horses purchased in the U.S., the NWMP managed to acquire some horses raised by local ranchers to augment the periodic shipments of eastern horses. The latter were never really suited to Force requirements in the west, but because of the general difficulty in obtaining horses it was a number of years before the Force could replace the eastern mounts with horses raised in western Canada or the United States.
Suitability being the determining factor in selection, the NWMP made no attempt to obtain horses of any particular colour. For example, when the Force began its march west to the prairie region from Fort Dufferin in 1874, the mounts obtained from Ontario were so varied in colour that each of the NWMP’s six divisions had a predominantly different hue of horse: “A” Division had dark bays; “B” Division dark brown; “C” Division, bright chestnuts; “D” Division, grays and buckskins; “E” Division, blacks; and “F” Division, light bays. The horses on the march included the forty or so that had been purchased by Acting Commissioner W. Osborne-Smith around Winnipeg in 1873, in preparation for the arrival of the NWMP in the late fall of that year.
When the prairies began to be settled, western businesses and ranchers competed for the type of horse required in the west, so the difficulty in obtaining the right kind of horses for the Force remained. This problem still existed at the time the RNWMP began to mechanize its transportation. Westerners who had used horses began to use mechanical means of getting around. This caused the many horse breeders to go out of business, giving the Force even less choice as to the colour and quality of horses it purchased. Up until the time when black horses were introduced into the Musical Ride, the colour of RCMP horses was generally bay of one shade or another.
It was over sixty years after the inception of the NWMP that the idea of standardizing the colour of its horses came to a man who was in a position to do something about it. In 1935, Assistant Commissioner S. T. Wood had been in London, England, taking a modus operandi course at Scotland Yard, and he was there again as the officer in charge of the RCMP King George VI coronation contingent. On both occasions he saw the scarlet-coated Life Guards on their black horses and was very impressed with their appearance. Some years later,
Commissioner Wood told me that seeing the Life Guards with their black horses had given him the idea that the RCMP should turn to black horses, first for the Musical Ride and then for recruit equitation training.
During this time and for many years thereafter, and as had been done since 1873, the Force purchased its remounts when they were three years old. They were often small in stature, but with proper care and feeding usually grew to the standards required by the Force – 15.2 hands in height and weighing between 1,100 and 1,200 pounds. They were initially roughly broken in and only after an additional four to six months training, when a recruit could safely ride them, were they used for recruit training.
When S. T. Wood became the eighth commissioner of the Force in 1938, word went out to purchase as many black horses as possible. It was soon apparent that a suitable number of horses of this colour could not be obtained, and equally apparent that if the Force was ever to get black horses in sufficient numbers it would have to raise its own. And so it was that, in 1939, a limited breeding program began at the Depot Division stables in Regina.
World War II began that fall and this undoubtedly slowed the implementation of any plans for an extensive breeding program. A few mares were purchased and some of the old equitation mares were transferred to the breeding program. The stallion “King” was purchased at this time. He was black in colour and was the son of an American saddle horse sire and a Thoroughbred/Percheron-cross mare. He clearly showed the Percheron strain.
“King” was not particularly successful as a sire and was replaced by a black Thoroughbred stallion named “Fred Tracey,” rented from his owner in Ottawa at the rate of $35 a foal. However, it soon became clear that the facilities at Regina were not suited to a breeding program commensurate with the
needs of the Force, so consideration was given to moving them elsewhere.
S. T. Wood was familiar with the horse-breeding area of southwestern Saskatchewan. This area included the Cypress Hills and the site of old Fort Walsh, a former headquarters of the NWMP, which later became one of Canada’s official historic sites.
The RCMP purchased 706 acres of land, which included the location of the old fort. Suitable buildings were erected on the exact site of the fort, and a manager (soon to be known as the “wrangler”) was engaged. The Force also leased 2,305 acres of adjacent range land from the provincial government.
There was some delay in acquiring and developing the properties because war duties required all possible manpower and money, and later it was necessary to temporarily abandon equitation training of recruits as well as the colourful Musical Ride. Nevertheless, by the spring of 1943 the property, now referred to in the Force as “the ranch,” was ready to receive the nucleus of the proposed expanded breeding program from Regina: twenty-three mares, eleven foals and the rented stallion “Fred Tracey.”
The problem of obtaining the right kind of stallion was ever present during the early years of the breeding program. Among the stallions used for breeding purposes, one or two were actually chestnut in colour, a colour the Force expected would dominate in the foals thrown by the black mares. During the early period, stallions other than Thoroughbreds were also kept. Later on (with one exception, when “Hymeryk,” a stallion of the Trahkener breed was used), only Thoroughbred stallions were accepted. Although most of these stallions were black in colour, some of them were actually registered as dark brown.
By the 1950’s, black foals began to appear with some regularity, while others were various shades of brown. Occasionally a bright chestnut foal was
born, sometimes to a black mare by a black or dark-brown stallion.
The breeding program at Fort Walsh was based on the hard style of raising horses. The animals were kept outdoors summer and winter, fending for themselves on the natural grassy range, with practically no supplementary feeding. The Force horses were rounded up in the fall, identified among others belonging to the neighbouring ranches by the fused MP brand – the Force brand since 1887. The young stock was branded and then put back on the range after the three-year-old remounts had been selected.
Those responsible for the program believed that raising horses in this manner would produce a horse with strong muscles and good bones, and generally tough enough to carry heavy policemen in the saddle. No doubt there was some merit to this view, but some authorities now believe that these good characteristics were offset by the fact that the remounts began saddle work only a few months after leaving the ranch. In the 1950’s, a program of regular supplementary feeding was put into effect, and this not only improved the appearance of the stock but produced better breeding results as well.
Commissioner Wood retired from the RCMP in the spring of 1951, and was immediately appointed a special constable of the Force (without pay) so that he could officially remain involved in the breeding program which he had begun. He spent every summer and fall at the ranch until 1965, when he was stricken with a serious illness which eventually resulted in his death.
By the mid-1950’s the Force was still not producing either the quantity or the quality of remounts that it required,
so the purchase of remounts continued mostly in colours other than black. On the advice of several experts, the breeding program was expanded, so as to ensure not only an increase in quantity of foals but in quality as well. The first obvious step was to purchase suitable mares and the price for them was set at about $250 each.
About this same time there was a fear that with the continuous use of Thoroughbred stallions the horses were developing too fine a bone for the work required of them. As an experiment, two purebred Clydesdale mares were obtained from the Dominion Experimental Farm at Indian Head, Saskatchewan, and bred to a black Thoroughbred stallion. No one expected that the result of this mating would produce black saddle horses for Force use, but that the filly foals through subsequent breedings might produce a heavier-boned black horse. The experiment was limited to the extent that only a few filly foals were used in this way, leaving a residue of Clydesdale blood even in some of the beautiful three-quarter or more black Thoroughbred horses the Force uses today.
In spite of the prolonged efforts of the Force to raise its own horses, it wasn’t until the mid-1960’s, 25 years after the breeding program began, that all the horses in the Musical Ride were raised by the Force. Even then, there were a few whose colour was dark brown, not black. Not until the mid 1970’s were all the RCMP horses – breeding stock (except stallions), Musical Ride and equitation – of the Force’s own breeding.
Before this period, however, a great change had taken place in regard to RCMP horses. In the summer of 1966 the federal government, as an economy measure, decided that RCMP recruit equitation training should end, but the RCMP Musical Ride should be retained as a permanent public relations attraction. The government also decided that the Musical Ride operations base should be transferred from Regina, Saskatchewan, to Rockcliffe, Ontario, and that the breeding operation should be moved from Fort Walsh to some place near Ottawa.
The Force realized that if recruits did not take equitation training it would be necessary to retain a number of equitation horses – in addition to those used in the Musical Ride – to train those members in equitation who would volunteer for Musical Ride duty. Thus a number of such horses were also retained, and the remainder were sold in Regina at public auction. At the same time plans were being made to ship the breeding stock to Ontario.
Soon the Force purchased 345 acres of farmland at Pakenham in the pastoral Ottawa Valley, about 30 miles northwest of Ottawa. New buildings and fences were erected and by late 1967 and early 1968, the breeding stock from the ranch found themselves in completely different surroundings. Instead of grazing on the hilly range land at Fort Walsh, they now grazed on the flat prairie-like pastures of Pakenham. Whereas the range at Fort Walsh had never seen a plough, the pastures at Pakenham had been farmland for more than 150 years. Instead of living outdoors all year round, the horses could now be taken indoors during severe weather. In addition, the farm soon began to produce enough hay to feed not only the Pakenham breeding stock, but the Musical Ride and equitation horses at Rockcliffe as well. Despite these differences, there is one great similarity between the ranch at Fort Walsh and the farm at Pakenham: both have fine fresh-water creeks running through their properties.
In the 15 years since the Pakenham remount station was officially opened on December 1, 1968, it has developed into a model horse-breeding station. It was at first under the management of Ralph Baumann, who came to Pakenham from Fort Walsh, and later under the watchful eye of Bruce Parr, Baumann’s assistant at Fort Walsh and later at Pakenham.
The breeding program has not only resulted in the black colour of RCMP horses being stabilized, but to a remarkable degree it has been responsible for their standardization in size, conformation and temperament. These horses must be considered as a definite type of Thoroughbred, even though not of full Thoroughbred blood. However, they cannot be considered as a separate breed, as one international writer on horses had concluded.
The present horses of the RCMP are three-quarters to seven-eights Thoroughbred, with a few pure Thoroughbreds among them, but there is no great concern about these and future horses being too fine-boned for the work they are required to do. Continued attention to the type of stallions and mares used in the breeding program, as well as the continuing practice of not using remounts until they are 5 to 6 years old (by which time they have had about two years training), has resulted in a satisfactory type of horse.
It is now 46 years since the late Commissioner S. T. Wood conceived the idea of the RCMP using black horses, and during that time many of our members have helped to develop the breeding program which today is at peak efficiency. Our beautiful black horses are now seen by more people, at home and abroad, than ever before. As long as the RCMP have such horses they will remain a tribute to Commissioner S. T. Wood. But even he could not have foreseen the high degree of success the breeding program has reached today.