In light of the recent shooting of an Alberta wild horse north west of Calgary it is fitting that one comes to understand that this death is not just about a horse but a legacy that western Canadians own and created; a past so rich, sadly so forgotten that if one understood the significance I wonder that maybe finally the law would protect not just an animal but a tradition that epitomizes the heritage of the western provinces, cowboys and a police force in mounted form that staked out the claim of freedom for all and made the west a peaceful and free place to settle. It may be said that Canada lacks a common heritage, however heritage has to be appreciated to be valued. One thing is for sure the west holds claim to cowboys and a way of life that was both rugged and romantic; the rider facing long rides across vast prairie and foothills of these great provinces. And as Westerners we should honor the mustang or wild horse as a symbol of a conveyor of the law, the principle strength of the Royal Mounted Police force in its infancy in 1873; without which you can’t have the mounted part, as then a man without a horse had a long walk across the prairies. The wild horse of the west is the true mount of the RCMP.
If you look past to 1873 and understand that the 278 eastern breed horses were given to the first RCMP stationed in what was the Stone Fort north of Winnipeg and Fort Garry were brought out by train to the 350 troops, 16 officers before their long march west into the new province of Manitoba, and the newly acquired lands of the Hudson Bay Company: the North-West Territories which consisted of B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nunavat. Those horses march the newly formed Police Force that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald wanted as a force of mounted rifles to establish peaceful law and order among warring native American tribes, to protect them and settlers from American whiskey traders, mandated to clean up Fort Whoop up and other whiskey trading forts and to stop illegal liquor trade. The Prime Minister’s plan was not a military force blood covered as was the notorious US Cavalry but a well respect peace officers fashioned in principle along the Royal Irish Constabulary; an efficient run civil body under military discipline well trained with a single purpose to keep peace as was their motto “uphold the right”. The principle worked as our history shows that early RCMP were stoic men with grit and dedication to the policing of a vast early wilderness with respect held for all peoples and that all respected the fair laws meant to govern brought by them. Major James Morrow Walsh-(a true Canadian hero) was one of the leaders to make the early trek west in 1874 leaving Dufferin on the banks of the red river just north of the Dakota border. The RCMP had bodily strength to ride into the prairies but their naivety of the west was obvious and within a week of the trek those eastern breed horses did not have the stamina to withstand the long vast prairies distances, the hot arid landscape with little food and water. In Ian Anderson book “Sitting Bull’s Boss” he writes that “two months and 700 miles out from Dufferin” and into the “Great Lone Land”… “34 eastern horses selected had fared poorly compared to the mongrel mustangs most of his officers favored” by the time they had reached Fort Benton many more horses had died. Obviously those officers begun to understand the rigors of our western landscape demanded a horse bred and naturally made to survive here. Henri Julien was an artist with the Canadian Illustrated News sketched the trek of the RCMP and the picture of the hand picked mounts were of dying horses on the unforgiving trail. Those early days saw the RCMP make better decisions in tuned to the west, early guides such as Jerry Potts were employed as astute Native Americans knowing the land and where to find the trading forts and they acquired horses which were native American prairie ponies traded and bought from natives and ranchers living in the west.
The early clean up of Fort Whoop up and the ambassadorial meetings the RCMP did with many tribes such the Blood, Assiniboine, Cree and Blackfoot was an immense undertaking, the distances covered were daunting; from Fort Macleod in the fall of 1874 Inspector Walsh with a small party went south towards Fort Benton again to winter their horses and get supplies; they covered 400 miles on horseback and returned to Fort Macleod Christmas Eve! The spring of 1875 again saw a trip to Fort Benton country to claim the herd and purchase more suitable mounts; more hardy mustangs-the “Indian pony”. It is a presumption to think that the Native Americans did not have a high standard of breeding, the Sioux and Sou shone as well as the Nez Perce traded off poorer quality animals and practiced gelding of stallions to produce their prize ponies. Their horses obtained from the wild and traded from other tribes were rigorously tested on decades of hunting trails chasing deer and buffalo.
For the RCMP the late 1800’s were tenuous times. 1873 saw the massacre at Cypress Hills from a group of American wolfer’s against the Assiniboines; this act moved Macdonald to form the NWMP. In 1876 news reached Ottawa of Custer’s last stand and that the resulting hostility of the US military drove the Sioux north into Canadian soil to use Canada as a base to continue their warfare. Sitting Bull’s camp was at Wood Mountain. A few days ride away from Wood Mountain B Troop stationed at Fort Walsh under the command of Major Walsh had been sent reinforcements from the north-100 RCMP were transferred to the Fort Walsh post and to Fort Macleod. And fears for the RCMP were well placed as the Sioux had spoken with the Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot to join with them to fight their common enemy the blue coats of the south; with this unity the Native American alliance would have been invincible. Major Walsh and his men patrolled the border and country between Fort Walsh and Wood Mountain November and December of 1876 meeting with the Sioux; it took several days to ride on horse back (not in a warm patrol car) to reach the camp and there would be many rides back and forth for the years to come.
Those early years prior to 1900 saw the RCMP patrol this vast country on horses as strong and determined as they were, and if you study those old photos you can see the dust from the countless trails, the officers did not wear their redcoats all the time, to do so meant dirtying your uniform; they wore buckskins leather jackets, leather hats to shade their faces from the hot sun, and chaps and boots to protect from brush and sticks on the trail. The pictures tell a brave story and the horses are often the star of the photos for those men hold these horses in high regard; they were the backbone of their accomplishments and meant living or dying in a wild frontier, our western prairie. All the horses are stout native ponies, mirror images of mustangs; they are not the black long legged warm bloods seen in todays RCMP musical ride; their elegant dressage stature does not reckon with the useful form and toughness that is seen of the first police horses, yet they also preform the calvary drills. I wonder where we would be had it not been for those gritty RCMP preparing peace in the land for our ancestors’ arrival. And of their horses which carried them over miles of wilderness; a testament of stamina. Of course we value our police and the traditions of the RCMounted P are evident; everyday you see a patrol car there’s a picture of a long legged dark horse and rider with the redcoat. A wonderful tradition we should be proud of; but a bittersweet tradition as the politics outranks reality and the dark long legged picturesque creature Ottawa wanted is the chosen photo mount of our soldiers. Yet that horse failed the western test and the true spirit of the Canadian west is shot down. Our traditions need to be saved and upheld; the NWMP-now a national icon was given to west as police officers, then the west shaped them as heroes on horseback. Now our wild horses of Alberta need saving and given its rightful place of honor and remembered as the first true Canadian mount of the NWMP.