History of the RCMP Musical Ride

Illustration of NWMP member on the famous March West in 1874

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has become a symbol of our country and is the only national police department in the world to receive this recognition.

The courage, sacrifice and steadfast determination of Force members to maintain law and order have been the source of many legends, movies and books. The image of RCMP members on their trusted and faithful horses abounds on Canadian stamps, coins, souvenirs, and posters.  Many movies and over 300 fiction and non-fiction books have told the tale of the adventures and history of the Force. Even Queen Elizabeth II recalls reading Suzannah of the Mounties when she was only 9 years old.

Today’s RCMP Musical Ride provides the general public with a first-hand view of the precision and attention to detail for which the Force has become famous.

This article endeavours to provide a brief history of how the Musical Ride has evolved within the RCMP.

In early 1869, the Canadian government  purchased Rupert’s Land (now known as Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon, and Eastern Northwest Territories) from the Hudson’s Bay Company and renamed it the North-West Territories.

It was the desire of the Canadian government to encourage settlements in the North-West Territories, but, in order to do so, they needed an organization to establish and maintain social order.  The idea for instituting a police presence in the territories belonged to John A. MacDonald.  His recommendation was forwarded to Privy Council on April 6, 1870.

Based on the Privy Council submission, Captain Donald Roderick Cameron was tasked to research and develop preparation plans for the creation of a territorial policing force.  He was assisted by Arthur Griesbach who later became the Force’s first Corps Sergeant Major and would be assigned Regimental No. 1. Their report recommended a self-sustaining organization, which would be based on a military regimental model.  The policing duties of the organization would follow the successful examples of the Royal Irish Constabulary, a force that patrolled on horseback throughout Ireland maintaining law and order.

The legislation to organize the police force passed through parliament and received Royal Assent on May 23, 1873.  Later that year, an Order-in-Council was issued authorizing the creation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP).  It was originally thought that only 150 men would be required for this new police force, but later the following year, an additional 150 men were added.  These early uniforms were provided from the Canadian Militia stores.  It would be several years before the NWMP received its own distinctive uniform.  The uniform has changed much over the past 139 years.  However, the Force has retained the scarlet tunic as its own unique identifier to both the Canadian people and the world.

This new police force gathered at Fort Dufferin (Manitoba) where men were organized into troops, uniforms were issued, and constant training was received to prepare everyone for the March West expedition and police duties thereafter.

Most of the officers and senior non-commissioned officers were from the British Army or the Canadian Militia. A British Artillery Officer, George Arthur French, was appointed the first permanent Commissioner of the NWMP.  Once appointed, French was persistent in his efforts to recruit the best candidates, provide the best training, and establish high standards of discipline and morale.

The Force’s horses were drawn from various areas in Eastern Canada.  In these early pioneering times, the horse was a key component of Canadian life.  The early Force sought horses which were 4 to 7 years old, at least 14 hands high, and, for them, it paid up to $125 per horse.

At FortDufferin, Corps Sergeant Major Arthur Griesbach took charge to establish discipline and structure within this new police force, as well as to instruct the new members in foot drill. Also at Fort Dufferin, Staff Sergeant Sam Steele coordinated the breaking-in of the horses and instructed officers and men on riding.

In accordance with the British cavalry tradition, the members were divided into troops and horses were allocated by colour to each troop:

    • A Troop rode dark bay horses;
    • B Troop rode dark brown horses;
    • C Troop rode chestnut coloured horses (drawing artillery and ammunition);
    • D Troop rode gray horses (headquarters members);
    • E Troop rode black horses; and
    • F Troop rode light bay horses.

Illustration of the first members of the NWMP preparing to set out on the March West

 

On July 8, 1874, all members of the Force were on parade.  The composition of the Force at the beginning of the March West was: 302 policemen, 338 riding horses, 114 Red River Carts, 73 wagons, 142 oxen, 21 drivers, 2 field guns, and 93 head of cattle. Trumpeter Fred Bagley (15 years old and the youngest member in the Force) recalls this parade as: “an inspiring sight with every man in new scarlet tunic, white puggree-bound helmet, the loose ends hanging down each man’s back, giving a rather ‘Indian Mutiny’ effect; the horses fresh and in splendid condition, the metal parts of the accoutrements burnished and glittering in the sun,  and the artillery troop ‘C’ with its 9-pounder,  steel guns and bright chestnut horses conspicuous in the middle of the column. 

This was the one and only occasion in the entire history of the Force that it was to be seen thus on ceremonial parade in full strength, fully equipped and everyone officer and every man present.[1]

After reviewing the troops, the Commissioner gave the order for the Force to advance on his March West expedition. The Force embarked westward through uncharted territory and faced many obstacles, such as: battling dust, drought, starvation, sickness, lack of adequate drinking water, shortage of food,  thunderstorms and mosquitoes.  The long March West was a test of determination and courage, while under continual threat of attack.

Photograph of NWMP members on horse back formation holding British lances

On the March West, several troops in the expedition carried British Army lances.  The adoption of the lance was approved at this initial stage in the Force’s history.  Records of the March West reference the use of these lances, as John Peter Turner, Force Historian, notes on September 2, 1874:

A corps of lancers chosen from the several troops, made up of 20 picked men under Robert Belcher and Tom Miles, were formed to assist the lagging convey, also to impress any Indians who might appear.  The lances, adorned with pennants, had been provided especially for such a purpose.

Since the March West, weapons have come and gone, however, the British lance, with the red and white pennon, has remained constant, and today is now exclusively used by members of the Musical Ride.

After completing the March West, Commissioner French received instructions from the Canadian government to deploy each of the six divisions to specific areas within the North-West Territories.  In turn, each of the troops was to construct NWMP forts from which mounted police patrols would be conducted. Each NWMP post commander would provide the Commissioner with updates on issues within their geographical area. This would allow the Commissioner to issue orders for specific tasks to be undertaken.

It was a requirement by the Commissioner that all members receive regular drill to maintain morale and discipline. Sergeant Major Robert Belcher and other ex-British cavalry members continued to train and educate members in mounted precision drill.   Reputed for his leadership and direction, Belcher is credited with organizing the first display of mounted precision horsemanship in 1876 atFortMacLeod.

The first officially recorded NWMP Musical Ride was performed in Regina on January 16, 1887 before Commissioner Lawrence Herchmer and his wife were a number of guests from Regina.   There were four subsequent Musical Rides held shortly thereafter and consisted of 32 members.

These first Musical Rides were under the direction of  Inspector George Matthews and was assisted by Sergeant-Major George Kempster. 

This type of precision riding would become a key component of the Force and served later as a precursor to what we now know as the RCMP Musical Ride.

The first general public display of the Musical Ride was held in 1901 and consisted of senior recruits from “Depot” Division in Regina.  These early displays of horsemanship began at the Regina fair.  In later years, these equestrian displays were expanded to include other prairie fairs, which were in close proximity to the railway line – the service that was used to transport men and horses to each location.

Photograph of one of the first NWMP public displays of horsemenship

 In 1902, the uniform of the NWMP changed to a more modern uniform which included the popular Stetson.  Two years later, the prefix of “Royal” prefix was conferred on the NWMP by His Majesty King Edward VII, in recognition of its past service.

 Photograph of the 1915 RNWMP Musical Ride with members of the old Indian school in Regina

 In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, the Canadian government was expecting disruptive problems with German and Austrian immigrants on the prairies.  In September 1914, the government approved the recruiting, hiring and training of  300 new recruits.

With limited space available at “Depot” Division, the Force took over a vacant Indian School in Regina where 120 new recruits were trained.  The 1915 Musical Ride consisted of 60 members from the Indian School barracks.  The officer commanding the 1915 Musical Ride was Superintendent George Worsley who was, at the time, the Commanding Officer of “Depot” Division.

This unusually large sized Musical Ride is believed to be attributed to an overflow of recruits at “Depot” and the large open space that was available to conduct these performances. The 1915 Musical Ride holds the record as being the largest ever performed by the Force.

Photograph of RNWMP members performing a Ride demonstration at Vladivostok Siberia in 1919

 The first overseas Musical Ride demonstration took place on May 1, 1919 at the Vladivostok Racetrack in Siberia Russia. In late 1918, the Canadian government approved the creation of “B” Squadron RNWMP, which consisted of 6 officers and 184 members.  They were sent to Siberia as part of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force to support the White Russian government in their fight against the Bolsheviks.

Major George Worsley (commander of “B” Squadron RNWMP and previous Commanding Officer of “Depot”) suggested to Major General George Elmsley (Commander of the British and Canadian Forces in Siberia) that a Gymkhana – a special equestrian sports day – be held for the Allied Troops and the citizens of Vladivostok.  General Elmsley approved the Gymkhana.  Instead of lances, the members used swords.  This display was well received by the Russian citizens and Allied troops.

Photograph of three "B" Squadron RNWMP members at their barracks in Vladivostok Siberia in 1919

In 1920, the name of the Force changed from the Royal Northwest Mounted Police to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and was designated Canada’s national police force. As such, the Force’s headquarters were moved fromRegina toOttawa.  To accommodate the move east, 160 horses and members were transferred to Ottawa.  A large contingent of RCMP members were required in Ottawa to perform a wide range of federal policing duties, security details and to support the new headquarters.   Permanent barracks and stables were established at Rockcliffe, just outside of Ottawa, Ontario.

Photograph of RCMP member performing the first Musical Ride demonstration in Ottawa in 1921

 In the summer of 1921, the RCMP Musical Ride members performed their first public display in Ottawa and then marched 75 miles to Brockville Ontario for another performance.

From 1921 to 1939, Musical Rides were performed in other areas of Canada where there were available horses and recruits such as: Ottawa, “K” Division (Alberta), “E” Division (Vancouver), and Depot Division (Regina).

Photograph of the 1921 Musical Ride members being inspected by the Commissioner in Ottawa

The “E” Division members put on Musical Ride demonstrations in 1934, 1935, 1936, & 1937 while the “K” Division members conducted a Musical Ride performance in 1934.

1934 - RCMP Musical Ride performs in Portland Oregon.  Members of this ride were from the RCMP Fairmount Barracks in Vancouver (Source of photo - Ione Christensen).

1934 – RCMP Musical Ride performs in Portland Oregon. Members of this ride were from the RCMP Fairmount Barracks in Vancouver (Source of photo – Ione Christensen).

Photograph of the RCMP mounted members at Fairmount Barrack in Vancouver

Despite the fact that the Musical Ride was performed by different training areas across Canada, the Musical Ride group in Ottawa remained the primary group that performed the majority of the Musical Rides since 1921.

In 1924, a ten-man mounted team appeared at the Wembley Exhibition in London, England.  Then in 1930, the Musical Ride went to England for the first time to perform at Olympia and in London.  The first Musical Ride tour to the United States was in 1934 to New York City, with the Ride returning for a repeat performance the following year.

Photograph of the RCMP Members at the Chicago World Fair

 

Photograph Tim Griffin a famous RNWMP and RCMP Sergeant Major and riding master

 

 

Throughout the history of the Force, the various riding instructors endeavoured to produce the best riders.

In 1932, Constable James Ewart Rutherford (Reg. No. 11953) described his experiences in learning to ride: “our riding instructor Sgt./Maj. Tim Griffin (12 years in the Imperial 18th Hussars), claimed that you were not a rider until you could drop your reins, cross your arms, cross your stirrups across the front arch of your saddle, put a fifty cent piece between each knee and the saddle skirt, then take your mount over the jumps without losing either of the coins.  He was right in one respect, when you could do that, you were a rider.[2]

 

Constable Maurice Quinton (Reg. No. 11938) was a member based at the Vancouver Fairmont Barrack and was a member of the 1936 Musical Ride which toured Portland, Oregon. He left the Force in 1938 to return to England.  Once in England, he joined the 1st Royal Dragoons regiment.  When the Dragoons discovered that he was an ex-RCMP Musical Ride member, he was asked to demonstrate his horsemanship under the careful eye of the Royal’s Sergeant Major.  Thereafter, the Sergeant Major told Maurice, “the standard of training in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police must be a particularly high one.[3]   Maurice Quinton’s immediate thought was, “it made me feel extremely proud of the fact that I had been a member of the RCMP.

In 1937, Assistant Commissioner S.T. Wood accompanied a contingent of men and riders to the coronation of King George VI.  Wood was extremely impressed to see the scarlet tunics of the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry riding black horses.  He felt that the colour combination of scarlet red tunic and the black horses was a more impressive match than the RCMP’s past practice of using different coloured horses on the Musical Ride.  The following year, when Wood became Commissioner, he directed that all future Musical Ride horses were to be black, and this directive remains in effect today.

With the advent of World War II, no Musical Ride presentations were performed.

 Photograph of RCMP Ride member performing tent pegging

 In the spring of 1948, the Commissioner re-activated Musical Ride tours based on many requests received from organizations in Canada and the United States.  With this re-activation, 35 matching black horses were selected from “Depot” Division’s stable and specially-chosen recruits commenced training under the experienced eye of Staff Sergeant Cecil Walker.  By September 1948, the Ride members had reached an admirable degree of proficiency.

The new re-activated Musical Ride left Regina on  September 28, 1948 and headed to various performances across Canada and in the United States.

In 1951, a Musical Ride troop provided an escort for Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip when they visited Canada.  Two years later, when Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II, a Musical Ride troop acted as the RCMP contingent in her coronation procession.

 Photograph of RCMP Musical Ride members standing by their horse

 Between 1951 and 1961, the popularity and demand for Musical Ride performances rapidly grew rapidly.  To meet these demands, Musical Rides were provided from both the RCMP “Depot” Division and Rockcliffe in Ottawa.

In an effort to control the demands for these performances, it was decided in 1961 to establish an annual schedule which would accommodate the planning of future tours.  As such, the training, staffing and budgets for these Rides could be better planned and associated costs could be better managed.   The Rockcliffe base was Ottawa was designated as the permanent home of the RCMP Musical Ride.

With efforts to reduce costs in various federal government agencies, the Canadian government decided to eliminate the equitation portion of the RCMP Recruit Training at  “Depot” and Rockcliffe in 1966.  However, the government decided to retain the Musical Ride as a public relations initiative to promote the RCMP and highlight Canada throughout the world.

Traditionally, the members of the Musical Ride had been RCMP recruits in the final stages of their basic training.  With the action taken by the government in 1966, the Force shifted from recruits to volunteers  within the ranks of the Force.  Consequently, three equitation courses were created to train members in horse-handling and precision riding skills.  In the beginning, these courses were held each year, with a total of 12 members selected for each course.

The RCMP’s 1969 Regulations and Orders specified that each applicant for the course – “must be in top physical condition, free from allergies, between 5.9” and 6’0” in height and not more than 185 lbs.  Those who do not fall within these standards will be considered only if they possess exceptional experience and/or ability in the equitation field.”

In 1974, the RCMP Regulations changed to permit females to join the Force.  Six years later, the first female members were selected for the Musical Ride.  Since that time, two or more female members make up each Musical Ride.

Today, this volunteer approach and equitation training model continues.  Members applying for the equitation course must have at least 2 years of service in the Force and, remarkably, most have no previous riding experience.  Members only remain on the Ride for three years and approximately one-third of the members are rotated out each year.  Today’s Musical Ride consists of 32 riders and horses as well as the Officer in Charge of the Ride.

In following with the Force tradition, the Musical Ride executes a variety of intricate maneuvers and cavalry drills, all choreographed to music.  Each maneuver and drill demands the utmost control and coordination.

One of the most familiar Musical Ride formations is the “Dome” once featured on the back of the Canadian fifty-dollar bill.

The highlight of the Musical Ride is the “Charge,” when lances, with their red and white pennons, are lowered, and the riders launch into the gallop.

The conclusion is the “March Past,” performed to the strains of the “RCMP Regimental March”  and a salute to the guest of honour.

The RCMP Musical Ride continues to provide displays of horsemanship around the world, and has just returned from performances in England, as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration.

Photograph of RCMP Musical Ride performing the dome

Between May 9 and 13, 2012, the Musical Ride conducted performances at the Royal Windsor Horse Show as part of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  During the celebrations, the Queen approved for 15 RCMP Musical Ride members to stand were asked to

On May 23, 2012, Queen Elizabeth extended a special privilege to the Force by asking 15 members of the Musical Ride to replace her Lifeguard Cavalry. This privilege marked the first time in 350 years that a non-military unit was extended the privilege to guard a ruling monarch.

Photograph of RCMP female member on the Musical Ride standing on guard at Buckingham Palace

 As the Musical Ride members rode by Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth was observed watching her Mounties go by.

According to Gordon Campbell (Canada’s Royal Commissioner to London) in his interview with a reporter from the British Forces News, he stated for Her Majesty to be in Buckingham Palace as the Mounties marched by the Lifeguard Cavalry is something that everyone of these officers will remember but equally every Canadian sees this as a special link to Canada and to themselves.”

It is reported that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has always had a special place in her heart for the Canadian Mounties.  The Musical Ride is both a symbol of Canada and a representative extension of the RCMP.

 Photo - Sheldon Boles author of article block



[1] MacEwan, Grant – “Colonel James Walker: Men of the Western Frontier.” Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books (1989 (page 36)

 

[2] Rutherford, James Ewart – “Member Of The Clan: Rutherford” – self published -page 32

[3] Quinton, Maurice – “From Constable To Trooper” article appeared in the 44th Edition of the Scarlet and Gold magazine (1962) – page 18

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