When the RCMP musical ride hits Swangard Stadium next Wednesday, one Burnaby Mountie will be scrutinizing every intricate move and figure.
Cpl. Brett Cunningham was with the ride for three years, and some of the friends he rode with are now instructors in the program.
The local Mountie knows all too well how quickly things can go south.
During one of his first tours in 2013, the ride was performing in a small Northern Ontario town when a water fountain suddenly went off, shooting a plume of water into the air near the show grounds.
“The horses scattered,” Cunningham says. “No one knew where their position was. There were horses just dancing in the middle, horses standing in the way of other horses. It was chaos.”
Watching an experienced team of scarlet-clad Mounties executing complicated formations like the star and the wagonwheel on trotting and cantering horses, the ride looks pretty effortless and foolproof.
But riders know it’s not, according to Cunningham.
'A point of pride'
He didn’t think he’d ever end up on the ride because he had zero horse experience. Five years into his RCMP career, though, during a posting in Fort St. John, he ticked off the musical ride on an annual career interest questionnaire almost as a joke. He compares it to astronaut training – sure you’d go if you got picked, but that was never going to happen.
But no experience is required to get into the basic musical ride course, and once he was in, he says he gave it his best shot.
His mother was a Mountie who joined the force in the ’70s, he explains, and the musical ride is the iconic image of the RCMP.
“So it’s a point of pride, I guess,” he says.
Half the battle is being able to work with other people, according to Cunningham.
“There’s such a close-knit group travelling all the time together,” he says. “You have to be a good team player, so a lot of people get cut just because they don’t blend with the team.”
The other half, of course, is riding – and the basic fear of getting on a 1,200-pound animal.
“I was terrified,” Cunningham says.
Musical ride instructors ease new members into the training, he says, but he remembers a few harrowing moments, like the first time he and his mount, Renoir, picked up a canter with the rest of the team in training.
The group was cantering in a small circle single file, when an instructor called for him to “go large,” or lead the rest of the group out of the small circle to canter around the whole arena.
He and Renoir got to the far end of the arena before they realized no one had followed them.
“I tensed up; Renoir tensed up, and we flew back, stirrups flying off the side, at a full gallop, straight into the other horses cantering safely in a circle, causing mayhem. The horses scattered, they bucked, they reared. I think my heart stopped.”
Later, he remembers a training session gone awry on a mount named Bentley.
Something startled the animal, Cunningham says, and sent the Mountie face first into the arena wall.
“It started with a rear and then turned into a bunch of bucking, and I flew off the back of him and slid off the wall and landed on my feet,” he says.
And if you think the lances riders carry throughout the show couldn’t do any harm, think again.
One of the instructors at the Ottawa training centre when Cunningham was there had had his leg skewered by a lance during a drill in 1986.
By the time the team starts touring, however, audience members usually see only 32 scarlet-clad Mounties and 32 black horses moving in perfect unison.
Ultimately, a successful ride is a feat of teamwork, he says, not just between members, but also between each rider and the unique, individual animal he or she is riding.
Cunningham was on the ride from 2012 to 2015, before going back to regular policing in North Vancouver. He joined the Burnaby detachment three months ago.
He says he misses the ride: the teamwork, the horses and meeting regular Canadians from all corners of the country.
The experience, however, has left a lasting mark on his work as a regular Mountie.
“I find myself as a police officer now, being much more personable, with clients, both victims and accused, and not being as guarded.”
The RCMP musical ride hits Swangard Stadium from 5 to 9 p.m. on Aug. 15. For more information or to buy tickets, visit tickets.shadboltcentre.com.