For the Toronto Police's mounted unit, finding the right horse is a finicky business.
With just a hint of trepidation, Sergeant Jim Patterson urged his ride—a five-year-old smallish black gelding named Bobby—through the back door of the CNE Horse Palace and out onto Manitoba Drive.
To Patterson’s left, Constable Harold Williamson sat atop Moose, whose dark mane was cropped short save for a frizzy forelock hanging down between his eyes. Despite the inexperience signified by this hairdo—it’s given to all horses who are still undergoing the months-long training process that precedes a job with the Toronto Police Service’s mounted unit—it would be up to Moose to set a good example, on this rainy November day, for a horse more green even than he. Bobby, from a farm in the vicinity of Wingham, Ontario, had been in the police stables less than two short weeks.
“I’ve ridden him for the last week or so,” Williamson had explained earlier that morning from beneath his droopy mustache as Bobby and Moose were being groomed and saddled. “Sergeant Patterson’s going to take a crack at him today.”
Turning left onto Princes’ Boulevard, Patterson, Williamson, Bobby, and Moose headed east towards the Princes’ Gates, with frantic Lake Shore Boulevard in the distance. “I try to communicate my calmness,” said Patterson, aware of how unpredictable these early rides on busy city streets can be. “It doesn’t take much for me to transmit to this thing that there’s a problem.” But, later that morning, after the foursome had returned from a two-hour stroll through Parkdale, Patterson was impressed. “Some streetcars, big vehicles, guys unloading off the back of their truck on one occasion, bicycles,” he said. “He doesn’t seem to mind much at all.”
Bobby was making a good impression. Provided a visit with the vet didn’t reveal any problems he’d have a job, and the police wouldn’t need to buy another horse until the spring. For Patterson and Williamson—the ones in charge of choosing and buying the unit’s mounts—this would be something of a relief; unfortunately for them, they have no magic formula when it comes to finding horses well-suited to police work.
With 25 horses belonging to the unit, and with each capable of working a good 20 years, Patterson and Williamson are only periodically in the market for a new recruit. Unlike the RCMP, which runs its own breeding farm in the Ottawa Valley, Toronto’s mounted police rely on a small handful of local farmers and breeders to be always on the lookout for a good horse at a reasonable price.
The amount the police are willing to spend ranges from $3,500 for an average horse to as much as $5,000 for an exceptional one. In the world of buying and selling horses, even the latter number isn’t a huge sum. “We kinda take what we can get,” says Patterson. “To us, it’s not so important what they look like, it’s what’s between the ears—how they think and how they perform.” Negotiations begin with an asking price from the horse’s owner. “It’s no different than selling a used car,” Patterson explains. “They go, ‘This horse is pretty good, he’s big, he’s handsome.’ All these different attributes. The big thing is: how much training have they put into him?”
The value of training is not lost on Glen Lundy, a breeder from Creemore, Ontario, visiting Toronto in early November with the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. “The training and the hours that go into a horse make the horse,” says Lundy, who has seen some of his mounts go on to work for Patterson and Williamson. “The only value you get paid for is the time you put into it.” The slow training process—initiated by either Lundy or his granddaughter, who works with him—begins with establishing trust. “That horse has to trust you on the ground. If a horse doesn’t trust you on the ground,” Lundy says, “you better not get up.”
Though the police used to save about $1,000 an animal by buying horses that were completely untrained, they will now only consider ones that are able to be ridden. And Williamson, the person who is most often sent out to test-ride candidate horses, has developed a strategy for ensuring that they will, in fact, calmly wear saddle and rider before he climbs aboard. “I say [to the seller], ‘Okay, you get on him,’” Williamson explains. “Because I’ve had a few times when the guy’s said, ‘Oh, he’s good,’ and then you get on him and all hell breaks loose.” Williamson would just as soon leave such excitement to people like Lundy, who has considerable experience in the field. “If you’ve ever gotten on a horse, more than a few times,” Lundy says, grinning, “you’ve probably been off.”
The decision to buy is not based solely on Williamson’s initial assessment. A sale is only finalized after the horse has had a successful tryout with the unit. “We have kind of a unique deal with people,” Patterson says. “If we agree to buy the horse, we’re going to pay you $3,500, but we have two weeks to look at him, and the vet has to pass him.”
This policy proved to be Bobby’s undoing. By early January, his time in the police stables was little more than a memory. The day after his successful ride with Patterson, his candidacy was over when the vet discovered problems with his hocks that would make him vulnerable to developing arthritis as he aged. “In the country, a horse with arthritis, they have a bit more time to sort of get up and get moving in a pasture,” Patterson explains. Not so for a stall horse. “It was just one of those things that, potentially, he was not going to work out in terms of a long life for us.”
His replacement did not prove easy to find. “All our usual places just had nothing in the stream that was usable for us,” says Patterson. “So for this one we just sort of cast our net a little wider.” Eventually, they got wind of a family near Shelburne, Ontario that was looking to sell a bay-coloured Clydesdale-thoroughbred cross named Tetris. At seven, he’s a little older than the horses Williamson and Patterson tend to buy, but he did well during his two-week trial, passed his vet check, and was welcomed into the fold. Now he faces at least an additional six months of training, a name change to something befitting his personality, and assignment to one of the unit’s constables.
For the time being, Patterson and Williamson can put their trial-and-error search to rest. Soon enough, though, a horse will have to be retired, and the hunt for a replacement will be on again. “There’s always another horse out there,” Patterson says. “We’ll always find another one.”