If you know anything about Canada's famous mounted police, it's probably something about them being a stoic and unfailingly polite bunch of horseback-riding police who have become synonymous with Canadian identity. The tale you hear less often is the time some Mounties got bored and amused themselves by devising a musical ride that has grown into a Canadian institution.
“It’s almost like they’re dancing when they’re doing it,” says Sandi Davis, about the horses that are at the heart of this unique performance. Davis should know. She's the executive director of the Fort Museum of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in Fort Macleod in southern Alberta, and her family's history in the re-enactment goes way back.
Her stepfather was one of the first to ride in the performance when it was revived as an homage to the original musical ride; her sisters made it a family habit. So, Davis has been watching travellers from around the world get excited about local history for decades.
The amusement brought by the original musical ride followed a way less enjoyable journey by the Mounties, Davis explains. In 1874, 300 of the newly minted NWMP (precursor to today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who stage their own travelling musical ride) made a brutal 1,400-kilometre march west from Fort Dufferin, Man., to Fort Whoop-Up (modern-day Lethbridge, near Fort Macleod). Their goal: ignore the vicious bites of the black flies and drive out some pesky American whiskey traders. The traders split town when they heard the police were coming, so the troupe carried on to Plan B: establish the first police outposts in western Canada.
After they set up Fort Macleod, the Mounties got into the daily grind of cavalry drills. Then someone got a brainwave — why not play musical instruments while riding?
It was a terrible idea. “The horses went insane,” Davis says. But the Mounties didn’t give up. They invited local Métis men to play music for them and the musical ride was born. The expert horseback riding-musical choreography combo was kind of the troupe’s 19th-century answer to hanging out with the guys and watching hockey after work.
Today, the young riders who re-enact the musical ride throughout the summer at the museum aren’t official police officers keeping the peace like in the old days, but they aren't exactly relaxing in their English saddles either.
“Imagine putting on a wool coat, wool pants, gloves, boots, the whole nine yards — and it’s 35 degrees (Celsius) out there,” says Davis. “You’ve got to be crazy.”
Davis’ 19-year-old daughter Lisa, sergeant of the ride, is just that kind of crazy. When she’s wearing her famous red serge, which harkens back to the first iteration of the famous RCMP uniform used today, Lisa channels those early riders.
“I (want) to put out the determination that they probably had been marching west,” Lisa says. “All of our riders here, we’re very outspoken people. So being that silent, serious Mountie is something that can be a struggle some days.”
Before the mounted patrol riders Thread the Needle and gallop toward the audience in The Charge, visitors can get some quality time with the horses. The Groom A Horse program lets visitors play esthetician to a trusty steed. Lisa says she’s surprised at how delighted people are to perform the equine equivalent of cleaning under one’s nails. But the highlight is trotting around the arena on horseback.
Lisa grins under her spiked pith helmet remembering an 89-year-old visitor’s recent lap around the arena. “It made his life,” she says.
The only museum staff more spoiled than the horses are the resident pygmy goats, says Sandi. Pearl and Flip were supposed to nibble on the sod roof of the historical Kanouse House. But they live on the ground now ever since, in Davis’s words, the goats “ended up getting so stinkin’ fat that we couldn’t keep them on the roof because we were afraid they were going to roll off onto someone’s head.
The log-and-sod structure was built on this spot in 1883 by Fred Kanouse, a whiskey trader-turned-rancher. Davis says the Kanouse House became an early hangout of the Mounties; a table where they drank coffee and played cards remains in the historic building. “Not only did we have the first Mountie depot, but we got the first Tim Hortons, too,” Davis jokes.
Within the recreated Fort walls, other exhibits celebrate the Piikani, Kainai and Siksika First Nations and their centuries of history in the area, the living quarters of 19th-century Mounties, and transportation, medicine and religion on the prairies.
For Davis, seeing new audiences enjoy the museum and the ride, even after all these years in the thick of it, is a rush. “You almost take it for granted that you have it in your own backyard.”