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“As I knelt beside her and took her head on my lap she quieted right down. I stayed with her until she passed away at 3 p.m. She died peacefully and I knew that I had lost the best friend I ever had. I loved that old gal and she loved me.”
Bill Wardle, himself a mounted police officer for almost 20 years, captured Frazer’s account of the moment in his 2002 book The Mounted Squad, An Illustrated History of The Toronto Mounted Police 1886-2000.
The maned members of the unit, which turns 130 next year, have long been revered by citizens as well. (Miscreants on the wrong end of a baton two metres up or fleeing felons outpaced by flying hooves, however, could be forgiven for not sharing that view.)
In 1886, the year of the mounted unit’s inception, Chief of Police Frank Draper summed up their value after a mob protesting the use of scab labour turned violent during the Toronto Street Railway Strike.
“From that point on, (the unit’s) future was secure,” Wardle wrote.
But labour unrest and rowdy crowds clinched their need.
The Toronto Daily Star described their actions during another riot in 1902: “Out came their blacksnake whips and they rode into the crowds, slashing as fast as their arms would move. The effect was the crowd swept back like the turning of a tide.”
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw 18 of the city’s best police horses travel overseas for the Canadian artillery’s use. Like the troops, the animals endured horrific conditions in the muck and misery of the front lines. Only one survived, never to return to Canada.
On the city’s mean streets some years later, a horse named Mayflower galloped to a bloody scene as a knife-wielding assailant fatally stabbed an 11-year-old girl on Elizabeth Street before slashing four others.
Equine intervention prevented further tragedy as Mayflower and her partner, Const. Charles Whitford, captured the suspect, according to a Star story about the 1927 event. One witness described the “rearing steed” and arrest of the “demented” man as something out of a movie.
When the four-legged crime fighters spring into action, it’s a testament to their training, which has changed little over the years. “No whips are cracked, no voices raised, over these horses,” the paper reported in 1937.
But duty is not always as kind.
Whether quelling mayhem at riots or drug-fuelled rock concerts, horses have come under fire from bricks, eggs, paint, ball bearings thrown under their feet and even tulip bulbs dug up by rowdies during a 1970 protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
In June 2000, eight horses and nine officers were injured when anti-poverty protesters at Queen’s Park hurled rocks and smoke bombs. More pacifistic but no less crazed were the masses of Beatles fans reined in during the group’s three visits to Toronto in the mid-1960s.
Encounters with vehicles have proven more deadly. When a beloved Belgian cross named Brigadier died after being struck in a deliberate hit and run in 2006, more than 1,000 mourners turned out for his hero’s send-off.
Over the years, the unit has been beefed up or downsized depending on social and economic conditions. Ranging from a handful to more than 60 steeds, the squad has been housed in all corners of the city including Casa Loma, Toronto Zoo and Sunnybrook Stables.
While law enforcers maintain nothing controls a crowd better than four long legs and a tail, consultants on a cost-cutting mission in 1982 wanted to reduce horsepower by two-thirds, spurring the newspaper to set up an opinion hotline.
“Star telephone lines were flooded yesterday as hundreds of callers urged the chief to trim his budget anywhere else, but not from the 75-man, 55-horse unit that costs $ 3 million a year,” read the followup story. “Save our horses, at all costs, was the nearly unanimous verdict.”
At the same time, news editor Simon Wickens revealed a secret: as a young boy he’d ridden off-duty police horses in Balfour Park. “I don’t mean a policeman walked the horse a few steps while I sat in the saddle, but that a good half-dozen policemen who will go unnamed . . . let me take their mounts and ride them around the ravine bottom,” Wickens wrote in a personal reminiscence.
Thanks to the public outcry, horse sense prevailed and the police board backed down on the proposed cuts.
Today, 27 equines, most of which have come from Mennonite farms north of Toronto, are kept at the Horse Palace on the grounds of Exhibition Place, riding herd on the hordes in times of chaos but also serving as ambassadors for the city. If you’re lucky, you might snag one of their “trading cards,” which officers have been handing out during public appearances since 2004.