Cpl. Jason O'Dell roars a challenge as he charges forth on his great chestnut charger. His red coat leaping out against the green grass, he gallops across the soccer field, stabs with his lance and vanquishes yet another threat to Canada. He hoists his lance skyward in triumph, his foe (a wooden plank) still upon it. The crowd of kids cheer.
About 400 students from J.J. Nearing Elementary in St. Albert played host to O'Dell and the rest of the Strathcona Mounted Troop Monday to witness their famous musical ride. The troop is made up of soldiers from the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) regiment.
A number of Strathconas have kids here, says Maj. John Cochrane, who organized the event, so they decided to visit. It's also a chance to teach kids a bit about the unit. "They see there's more in the military than simply tanks and soldiers."
The musical ride is part of a tradition that dates back to the beginnings of the Strathconas some 111 years ago, notes Capt. Philip Buckingham, head of the troop. "It's part of our main identity," he says. "We're cavalry."
If you missed them, don't worry — they'll be back in town this Saturday as part of the Freedom of the City event, which begins at 10:50 a.m. at the cenotaph downtown. Afterwards, there will be a parade to Riel Park where military vehicles, displays and free hot dogs will be available from 1 until 3 p.m.
Horse to tank and back again
These are busy times at the Strathconas' stables at the Edmonton Garrison. They practice for up to five hours a day during the summer season, Buckingham notes, and have done four shows in the last week.
The Strathconas formed in 1900 as a mounted cavalry unit, notes unit historian Ted MacLeod, charging foes on horseback as late as the First World War. The troops switched to vehicles by the Second World War, getting rid of their horses altogether in 1939. (The horses went to the RCMP's musical ride.)
The Strathconas revived the musical ride in 1974 as part of Calgary's 100th anniversary, Buckingham says. They now have 20 horses and 24 members who perform all summer long.
Soldiers volunteer to serve with the troop for about two years, Buckingham says — he's been with it for six months. "This is just as important as commanding a tank troop."
It's an interesting change of pace from regular soldiering, says Cpl. Joshua Ram, St. Albert resident and emcee for the ride. "You have to realize that horses don't run the same as tanks. It's not like filling them up with oil and that's it. You actually have to take close care of them."
Many of the riders come to the troop with no previous horseback experience. "The first few times it gets very tiring on the legs," Ram says, but you soon build up the muscles.
Fortunately, the horses know what to do — each serves about 10 years with the unit. "The horses are the veterans," Buckingham jokes. "They know the ride better than some of the riders."
The students at J.J. Nearing cheer as the troop trots across the field, whirling about in odd-sounding manoeuvres like the maze, the double shanghai and the parting-of-the-sea. They also giggle as a horse takes a dignified poop.
These moves date back to the Middle Ages, MacLeod notes, and were used to teach riders to swiftly change direction and bring their weapons upon the enemy. Tent pegging, where riders try to stab a plank on the ground at high speed, was used to practice accurate strikes for hunting and war.
It's probably the most difficult part of the ride, Buckingham says — you're moving at high speed, riding one handed and leaning off to one side, throwing the horse off balance. "Probably the most difficult part of it is keeping the horse riding in a straight line." Yelling, as O'Dell does, is optional.
The musical ride is lot of fun for the troops, Buckingham says, and helps them stay linked to their pasts. "If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going."
But it's not for everyone, Ram notes. "They're both different lifestyles … but if I had a choice, I'd pick tanks."