In 1938, when S.T. Wood became commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he made an unusual stipulation: from then on, all of the Mounties’ horses must be black. Wood had been inspired by the spectacle of the Household Cavalry in scarlet tunics mounted on black horses at the coronation of King George VI in England in 1937. Finding enough horses of the colour, temperament and size required was difficult, so the RCMP started breeding its own stock in 1939. Over the decades, that endeavor has evolved into an elite warmblood breeding program with top European bloodlines that produces horses for the famous Musical Ride and other ceremonial duties.

Today, three stallions, 21 broodmares and more than three dozen youngsters live at the breeding farm on 150 acres in Pakenham, ON. At age three, horses designated as musical ride candidates move to the Rockcliffe Park Equestrian Centre in Ottawa for training. Those not meeting the criteria of colour, temperament, or size are sold at an RCMP auction every two years.

Warming up to Warmbloods

“In the early years, we used to accept some free horses from anyone who wanted to donate one to the program,” says breeding farm manager John Phillips, who has been with the RCMP with 39 years and has worked at the farm for 15. Much of the early breeding stock had a large percentage of Thoroughbred blood. But those horses tended to have hotter temperaments, thus were not well suited for a job that required calm dispositions, and “some of the men in the force were pretty big and the horses were too small and refined,” he explains.

In the 1990s, the RCMP started looking at warmbloods and contacted Bill Mulholland, CEO of the Bank of Montreal and a respected Hanoverian breeder. “He invited us to his farm to look at his Hanoverian mares and we tried to buy them,” recalls Phillips. Mulholland suggested the RCMP go to Europe to look for prospects, but there were no funds available to travel overseas to purchase horses. “Bill was very resourceful and made a lot of inquiries and the federal government provided $300,000 for us to go and shop in Europe,” says Phillips. “We purchased 13 weanlings and yearlings to put into the breeding program.”

It was also Mulholland’s idea to start an auction to sell surplus horses; the first was held in 1995. The first two auctions were open to other breeders until the RCMP decided to hold a sale solely for its own horses. Since then, they have produced around 20 horses for each auction including hunter, jumper, and dressage prospects and broodmares. There are no start-up or reserve bids and horses sell for what they bring when the gavel falls.

With funds generated by the auction, the breeding program was able to move from purchasing youngsters to buying mature unlicensed mares, to acquiring licensed Hanoverian mares and stallions. “We only buy horses that have been graded seven or better and our mandate is strict,” says Phillips. “All mares have to be black, around 16.1 hands, with a good temperament and good rideability.”

The Black Stallions

The three resident stallions on the farm include Dubai, one of the first Donnerhall sons in North America, who has been a reliable producer for the program. However, he is aged and his sperm count has been dropping, so finding a replacement for him is on the agenda this year. The other two stallions are Bugatti Hilltop, a proven dressage competitor and sire by Bergamon, and High Spirits, a Hanoverian sired by the Trakehner stallion Hohenstein.

Although High Spirits had more chrome than Phillips prefers for the RCMP program, “he’s produced some pure black horses and also produced some with white. My theory is that I’d rather keep a foal that has a good mind and white than a pure black one that has too much character.”

The criteria is also high for mares: they have two chances at producing a foal of quality. “The foal must be better than the dam,” says Phillips. “If we breed her the first year and the foal is of poor quality, we will breed her to a different stallion and if that foal is below average, the broodmare will be sold.” These quality broodmares may be better suited for different bloodlines and may produce lovely offspring with other stallions, but because of the RCMP criteria, the farm is restricted to breeding to black stallions and thus has a limited number of bloodlines with which to work.

Half the mare herd is bred using frozen semen from European stallions, while the other half is bred to a resident stallion or by chilled semen from a black licensed Hanoverian stallion elsewhere in North America. Those stallions have included western Canada’s Rubinus and Windfall CB, among others. Phillips, who has taken courses in artificial insemination and ultrasound techniques, handles the breeding duties. His success rate is about 90 per cent conception per year.

About 20 per cent of the foals born at the farm are chestnut or bay. Those ones are candidates for the auction, as well as black foals that don’t have suitable temperaments or size. “I can tell within three weeks if a foal will be suitable for the Ride,” says Phillips. “If I go to the stall and open the door and the foal meets me at the door, this is one I want to keep. I’m looking for braveness and curiosity. If I take it into the arena and kick an exercise ball around, it might be surprised, but then it will be curious. Foals that are climbing the walls could be good as sport horses, but not great for the Musical Ride.”

Superstar Auction Alumni

Sir Wanabi, born on the farm in 2002 and sired by the late RCMP stallion Santorini, was sold at the auction as a yearling. Although he was black and had a good temperament, Phillips felt he showed promise as a stallion prospect and that’s where his true worth would be. However, the RCMP does not develop young stallions, as it’s less risky to go to Europe and buy proven, licensed stallions.

When Sandra Laprise of Laprise Stables near Ottawa and her father contacted Phillips about the auction, he invited them to come and see the sale horses. They were looking for a young prospect and he pointed to Sir Wanabi. “I told them if there were going to bid on a horse, he was the one. He was scrawny and didn’t look like much and they were taken aback. But I said ‘I guarantee he’ll be special one day.’ He looked very immature until he was six and then really filled out,” Phillips says.

Sir Wanabi has shown successfully in dressage and the hunter ring, completed a 100-day stallion test in the US, and become an Elite Hanoverian stallion licensed by more than half a dozen registries. Two of his fillies bred by Laprise Stables won both the Governor General’s and Lieutenant Governor’s Cups at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in 2013 and 2015. His offspring are also proving to be competitive hunters in Canada and the US.

As Santorini had to be euthanized due to prostate disease after only three years as an RCMP breeding stallion, Phillips says it’s fortunate that Sir Wanabi was sold and kept as a breeding stallion. “We breed to him almost every year and still have access with that (Santorini) bloodline, so it worked out well for us,” he says.

Another stallion that was purchased through the auction is Color Guard (Eclipsed by Color), a 2005 Escudo son owned by Katrina Routsalo of Northern Legacy Farm near Sudbury, ON. While Color Guard’s temperament was exceptional, his bright chestnut coat and extravagant white markings ruled him out as a Musical Ride horse. He was reserve champion at the 70-day stallion test in Oklahoma in 2010, has shown in the jumper ring, and is licenced by several registries.

Other horses sold through the RCMP auction have gone on to successful competitive careers, including Sunset, a black Hanoverian mare by Santorini, owned and ridden by Liz Steacie, who competes her at the grand prix level in dressage.

The breeding program has attracted attention for the European bloodlines it has brought to North America, as well as the quality of horses it has produced. But outside breeders who may have designs on one of the farm’s resident stallions for their mares are out of luck … at least for now.

“If you want the breeding, come and buy a horse at the auction,” says Phillips. “And we are also so busy in the spring. To start shipping semen is an added burden we don’t need, but we might offer some limited breedings in a future auction.”