Sergeant Al Spratt, along with Constables Hillary Allen and David Alexander, have been with the Toronto Police Service a combined 47 years.
Yet on April 7, they felt like rookie officers as they joined six other Service members who graduated from the Mounted Unit.
“The feeling and excitement are almost beyond belief,” said Allen, who started her law enforcement career a decade ago at 14 Division, before being transferred to 23 Division three years later. “It’s like graduation day when I first started and was presented with that precious badge.”
Allen is the only officer among the group with extensive equestrian training prior to being accepted to the Mounted Unit, celebrating its 130th anniversary this year.
She started riding horses at age eight.
“I was fortunate in that my parents were able to pay for me to take riding lessons for six years,” said Allen, a former School Resource Officer born and raised in St. Catharines. “When I became a police officer, I resumed taking riding lessons until I was forced to quit a few years ago because it was just too expensive. I decided to get my feet wet as a cop before considering joining the Mounted Unit.”
She said her horse training made the transition to the unit almost seamless.
“Horses are large and unpredictable animals, so my previous experience certainly helped when I got here,” Allen said.
Though trained on several of the horses in the unit’s stable, new recruits often take a liking to one animal.
“I rode Davis for a long time and enjoyed being on him,” added Allen. “I found that we had a good bond and I really gelled with him.”
For Spratt, the journey to graduation was much more challenging.
Joining the Service 29 years ago, he was assigned to Central Traffic, 13, 23 and 14 Divisions, before transferring to the Financial Crimes Unit (FCU) in 2008.
“I plan to retire in the next six years and I was blessed to have a good position with Financial Crimes,” said the veteran officer, who headed the FCU mass marketing fraud section. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, but I just needed a change. I wanted to do something physical because I was basically sitting at a desk in front of a computer. I also needed a break from long drawn-out investigations and working with animals was appealing.”
Spratt had never ridden a four-legged animal prior to applying to the Mounted Unit.
“I definitely struggled in the beginning and I quickly learned you just can’t jump on a horse and ride off,” he said. “It was difficult to find the correct seat, but the training staff kept encouraging me. They were very helpful. Without the correct seat, I was unable to apply the aids properly, which meant I wasn’t communicating well with the horse. If you don’t know to communicate to a horse what you need it to do, it will decide on its own what to do. You communicate with them through your hands, using the reins and through your legs, using signals. I definitely think part of it is I am older and it took a little longer for my body to adjust.”
Spratt’s favourite horse is Simcoe, a Black Percheron acquired in 2006, named after Toronto founder John Simcoe.
“The guys at the unit say he’s one of the smoothest horses and I found that to be the case, as it was easy for me to find the correct seat with him,” he said. “I found the rhythm of horse riding with him.”
Alexander’s previous riding experience was on a trail ride nine years ago.
“I was green as green can be when I got here, and it was quite the challenge in the first few weeks,” he recalled. “My biggest question coming in was, ‘How do you control an animal that weighs about 1,800 pounds?’”
It didn’t take long for Alexander, whose eight-year assignment at 22 Division was briefly interrupted by an eight-month stint with TAVIS (The Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy), to find out.
“They key is holding your reins and managing your weight in terms of getting the horse to do what you want it to do,” he noted. “It sounds simple, but that’s hard to achieve. The most difficult aspect of the training, for me, was properly applying the aids to ride the horse and getting comfortable. That comes through constant training.”
Alexander, whose bucket list with the Service also includes being an Emergency Task Force member, was determined to graduate.
“I never second-guess myself,” he said. “When I put my mind to something, I will get it done. There is no quitting.”
The long hours of intense training were interspersed with humorous moments at the Horse Palace.
“On a few occasions, after cleaning up a stall, I locked and made sure the horse’s enclosure was double-locked, forgetting that the animal was taken out,” said Alexander, whose favourite horse in training was Blue Moon. “The guys had quite the chuckle.”
Also graduating were Sergeant Colleen Bowker and Constables Christina Cooper, Brian McFadyen, Wil Chambers, Matthew Ho and Mark DaSilva.
Acting Deputy Chief Rick Stubbings congratulated the graduates and presented them with their certificates.
“You have a responsibility to the Mounted officers of the past and present to work with your mount at light-hearted community events, meritorious ceremonies, parades and while searching for people and other trying circumstances where the public and officers are going to need you to be at your absolutely very best, harnessing whatever the situation may be,” he told them. “…You are getting into a very unique situation where the horse, in most cases, will be more experienced than you. Treat your new partner with respect. Together, you will continue to form a bond and trust that only true partners understand.”
The graduates were among 16 recruits who entered the training program 15 weeks ago. Six of the candidates were cut after the first two weeks.
“From that point on, the training intensified as they were caring for their mounts while being constantly evaluated on the grooming aspect and how they ride their horses,” said training Sergeant Kristopher McCarthy. “They were taught how to turn on the four and haunches, which is a skilled movement where you are turning the horse on either its front or back legs. They also learned about lateral movements, which are a leg yield or side passage and did some jumping. The most important part is ensuring the horses are in uniformity. That allows all of the crowd movement to take place fluently and flawlessly. That’s all done through pacing and dressing.
“Most people taking horseback riding lessons will do 42 hours in a year. These guys put in almost 35 hours a week, which means they have accumulated about three to five years’ worth of riding experience by the end of it all.”
McCarthy said the graduating class preparation ranks among the best he has witnessed.
“They grasped the movements and were able to ride their horses correctly between the aids and move them along,” he added. “Because of that, I added two lance movements which is something I haven’t done in previous years.”
The new recruits will spend the next week with coach officers doing general patrol on city streets.