Changing the face of the Ride

Cpl. Christine (Mackie) Windover on Kito

Prior to 1980, when you thought of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, you couldn't help but envision a Mountie in Red Serge, in full control of his black Thoroughbred, part of the iconic Musical Ride.

While growing up, Christine (Mackie) Windover always rode and loved horses, but that was before women were even allowed in the RCMP. She never imagined she would have the opportunity to ride one as a member of the Force.

For as long as Windover can remember, all of her spare time and money was spent in stables and on horses. Riding since she was six years old, it was a true passion, but she never dreamed she'd be able to parlay it into a successful career.

"I was a secretary at CBC in Yellowknife when I learned that the RCMP was accepting women as cadets," recalls Windover. "I applied and was in the second troop of women in 1975 – the first thing I did when I got to Depot was find a horse to lease."

This horse enthusiast got a lucky break when she learned that one of her troop mates was engaged to a member on the Ride – which happened to be performing in Regina that summer. "It was not easy, but I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to ride with them during an exercise."

She applied for the Ride in 1978 after she had two years of service under her belt (mandatory requirement), but she received a letter from (then) Commissioner Robert Simmonds, stating that women were not allowed on the Ride because it was "much more physical work than women would be able to do," and because women didn't have the same uniform back then. She would have to wait another two years before the decision was made to allow women on the Ride.

She thought Depot was tough as women were still a new concept and not welcomed by all, but training for the Musical Ride was easily "the most difficult two months of my life."

"One of the most difficult aspects was that back then, neither the men or women were allowed to mount their horses with stirrups – if we couldn't pull ourselves up in the saddle we could not ride," says Windover. "It was hell. Fortunately I had a great partner. He had never ridden horses before, so I gave him some pointers and he gave me a boost… or two."

"I don't believe I was treated any differently than the men," comments this trail blazer. "And it was very, very mentally and physically challenging." Made more so by the lack of appropriate attire. "Breeches and boots hadn't been issued to women before. It took three weeks to get the proper clothes made!"

First two women on the Musical Ride in 1981 – Cpl. Christine (Mackie) Windover on Hazel and Cst. Joan Merk on Honey.

She and Joan Merk were the first two women on the Musical Ride, and leaned heavily on one another. "Everyone was watching, waiting for us to fail, and some of the members didn't speak to us for the whole first year… it was no bowl of cherries," Windover somberly recalls. "But there were lots of good times… I made awesome friends and have wonderful memories."

One of those memories is from 1987, the 100th anniversary of the Musical Ride. There was a big show and reunion at Depot, the RCMP Training Academy in Regina, and there were many retired members surprised to see women on the Ride, let alone leading it. "I just had to keep smiling, but there were lots of old school folks shocked to see me out front," says Windover. "But my mom was there to watch me perform for the first time, which was a true highlight."

Windover went on to become an instructor on the Ride, being promoted to Corporal in 1986 – another first for the Force and not widely accepted. "Training horses was easy, but training people… not so easy. Some had issues with a female as a supervisor." It was almost 30 years ago, and a different era. "I hope I paved the way a little bit, but I was kind of naive back then, and really didn't know we shouldn't be treated certain ways. But, there were some wonderful instructors, just not many women around, so you really had to rely on yourself."

Women have come a long way though, and 15 years ago when the Force was celebrating 25 years of women in the RCMP, this experienced rider drove the carriage as a full escort team of female riders followed. "That was a very special moment for me, driving the carriage at the Sunset Ceremonies, celebrating all the accomplishments of women in the Force."

Fast forward 15 years into her retirement, and she's still living and breathing horses as the co-owner/stable manager of an equestrian centre in Eastern Ontario. Her passion for horses hasn't faded, nor has her respect for the Force. Her message to new recruits: "Lead, don't follow. It will be a more difficult path, but you will be much better off in the long run."

Read the previous In Focus, Female First and Meet Troop 17 features

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