Riding a Quarter Horse named Josie around his family farm in Paris, young James Guthrie couldn’t have imagined he would one day saddle up with one of the world’s elite mounted police units.
“I always thought I was going to be a farmer,” Guthrie said from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stables in Ottawa, where the 39-year-old is preparing for his second season with the famed Musical Ride. “But my dad said to get a job because there was no money in farming.”
Guthrie sold John Deere farm equipment and loaded trucks for a cold storage company before moving to Calgary to run a warehouse. But policing was always at the back of his mind.
“It sounds cliché, but it’s a way to give back to your country and your community,” he said.
Guthrie applied to the RCMP and soon found himself at the force’s training depot in Regina, Saskatchewan. After graduating in 2006, he was sent to police the small town of Grande Prairie, Alberta.
Four years later, Guthrie’s career took an unexpected turn. As a member of his detachment’s police dog services unit, he led a canine demonstration before a Musical Ride show in Valleyview, Alberta. Later that day, the officer in charge of the Musical Ride asked Guthrie if he felt like a challenge.
“I love horses and I just thought, for a 25-year career, what’s three years on the Musical Ride?” Guthrie said.
About half of the Ride’s 32 riders are replaced every year, giving officers from across the country the chance to become part of a national icon on par with the Snowbirds. Guthrie made new friends and reunited with a troop mate from Regina, who joined the Ride the same year.
Connecting with his horse, a lively nine-year-old mare named Anne, was less of a joy.
“I actually didn’t like Anne when we first met,” Guthrie admitted. “It takes a while to build a bond.”
Over four months spent practicing the show’s choreography, horse and rider learned to work together. It helped that Anne, a four-year veteran, knew the show better than Guthrie did.
“The horses have a good idea of where they’re supposed to be, but it’s the rider’s job to keep it nice and crisp, with the lines straight,” Guthrie said.
The routine changes every year, but Guthrie is more confident now that he is used to English riding – having grown up riding Western in the 4-H Club – and has the show’s set pieces down pat, including his favourite, the recall, which sees all riders line up and gallop single file down the course.
This year, he is paired with another energetic horse, a gelding named Chief.
“The edgier the horse, the more calm I can be, which makes them calmer,” he said.
Guthrie was also named a lead rider, which means he directs a group of eight officers who look to him should something go wrong during a performance. Something as seemingly insignificant as a banner coming loose off a fence can startle the horses.
“We practice and practice and practice, but they’re live animals and things can go sideways in a hurry,” Guthrie said.
With the Ride, Guthrie visited northern Manitoba last year and will tour northern Ontario and British Columbia this summer. On a trip to Europe to perform at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the group dropped by the Hanoverian Society in Verden, Germany, where the RCMP buys the Ride’s distinctive black horses.
“You’re going into the community to represent the country and the organization,” Guthrie said. “Those are opportunities I never would have had.”
A highlight of his first season was performing in front of his family during a show in Rockton.
“My whole family thinks it’s great,” he said. “They’re really proud.”
Though the Musical Ride has been a nice break from shift work and late nights, Guthrie plans to return to front-line policing when his tour ends. He said he will miss the smiles on spectators’ faces.
“I would say the smaller the communities the better the reactions,” he said. “When in one night you can raise $20,000 for their local volunteer fire department, that’s huge for those communities. You can see the excitement.”