There was a steady stream of visitors to the horse barns at Exhibition Park Saturday and RCMP Const. Dane McCarty couldn't stop smiling.
Meeting people and sharing the secret of how they get that maple leaf on the horses rumps are just some of the perks of his job as a rider in the RCMP's Musical Ride.
McCarty, 28, has been an RCMP officer for seven years and until he was chosen for the Musical Ride he only rarely dressed in red serge. Now, that icon of Canadiana is his daily uniform.
"Just to be able to represent your country, that's the biggest part of it, you almost feel like you're part of Team Canada wearing a hockey jersey, especially when you're overseas," said McCarty, while brushing a horse in preparation for Saturday night's ride at the outdoor ice oval.
McCarty is in his third year with the Musical Ride and he's come a long way from his first posting as an officer in Haines Junction, Yukon. He grew up on a farm in Ardrossen, Alta., the hometown of former Prince George Cougars hockey player Jarrett Smith, and McCarty's familiarity with horses from a young age makes him a go-to guy for other officers in the stables.
"I didn't ride a lot as a kid, I was too cool for that, at least I thought I was," laughed McCarty. "Only a few of the riders on the tour have been around horses before the basic course. We get people who have never been close to them before. But the Musical Ride has been doing this [since 1876] so they've done and seen it all and have programs in place to make sure things go right and you experience what you need to to do the job."
But horses aren't always predictable, like McCarty's first show in 2011 in noisy arena in Kindersley, Sask., where his young mount got spooked and reared up on her hind legs right in front of a photographer, giving him a memorable souvenir of his first show.
"I thought about bailing off the back, and she started going down and we recovered from there," he said.
McCarty, who rides a six-year-old gelding, Elliott, says it takes only a few minutes with a wet brush and a stencil to get the hair standing up in the familiar shape of a maple leaf on the hind ends of all 32 horses. That impromptu decoration never fails to intrigue fans of the show.
"It's such a simple thing, but people are always looking for it and they flock towards it and it always creates that reaction," said McCarty.
"People usually see us at a bad time, whether it's handing out tickets or a sudden death, we're usually not around for the good times and that's unfortunately how the job works. This is a chance for people to come out and they're happy to see us and that's very nice for us. It's a good break from regular police duties."
McCarty's father Jerry was also an RCMP officer who was with part of the Musical Ride tour in 1975 and 1976, then served as an instructor from 1978-2001. With his three-year commitment coming to an end, Dane has been asked to stay with the program as an instructor.
The Musical Ride was making its first Prince George stop since 2009. The tour hits Quesnel today, where Marty Chesser, the officer in charge of the Ride, was first posted as RCMP officer in 1987. His wife Maria (nee Martins) grew up in Quesnel and is also along for the tour. He remembers the steep learning curve he went through when he first joined the ride in 1988.
"The RCMP taught me how to ride a horse, so the first five weeks were very interesting," smiled Chesser.
Newer riders are given more experienced horses, most of which perform on the tour until they turn 18. Chesser rides a 24-year-old horse, Hector, who he says is too good for retirement. All horses on the tour are black, with the exception of two dark bays, which have been bleached brown in the sun. The black tradition started in 1937 when the RCMP commanding officer S.T. Wood noticed how well a black horse contrasted with the red tunics worn by the officers. Black horses are a rarity, making up only about five per cent of the equestrian world, so the RCMP breed their own horses.
Each year, between 300 and 500 RCMP offers apply to join the Ride. Only 32 are selected.
Half of that group goes on tour and the other half remains in Ottawa and will form the 2014 team, which will start practicing in January.
"We all consider ourselves very fortunate to have this opportunity, we're not only representing the RCMP but we also represent our country," said Chesser. "There are countless times in the last five years where I've been very proud to be a Canadian."
Chesser was at Windsor Castle last year for Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebrations where he and his wife got to meet the queen.
"We gave our horse, Elizabeth, to Queen Elizabeth, and she had a private reception," said Chesser. "She was 86 last year and very beautiful, just stunning."