For 13 years, Ellen Downey desperately wanted a retired police horse for her therapeutic riding program for at-risk youth.
After years of inquiring about retiring police horses in Toronto, Ont., and never getting closer to adopting one, Downey was beginning to think her dream would never be realized.
That was until she met RCMP police community relations co-ordinator, Cst. Terry Russel, who heard about the Youthdale Riding Program from a chance encounter with a program volunteer at the Royal Winter Fair, a major horse event.
Russel went to the stables to check out the program for himself and see how the horses were being treated, stabled and managed.
"I thought it was just an incredible facility," Russel says. "This is exactly what we look for, communities that are giving to at-risk youth."
Russel brought all the information back to Sgt. Marc Godue of the Musical Ride and a short while later, Downey's wait was over.
The RCMP offered her not just one, but two retired Musical Ride horses.
Matt and Kracker were welcomed to their new home at Jewel View Stables in March to huge fanfare.
"It's a nice feeling when you go somewhere and they have a welcoming party for the horses," says Godue, who brought the horses to their new home. "Obviously these guys want this and they wanted this bad. Matt and Kracker are going to be very well attended to."
In 2001, Downey started the Youthdale Riding Program at her stables just outside of Toronto. Every year, from September through to July, youth under the care of Youthdale Treatment Centres, take part in 10-week equine therapy sessions.
The troubled teens are matched with a horse and a volunteer and work with a trainer to learn basic horsemanship, including how to groom and tack a horse and ride at both a walk and a trot.
Downey says that kids often don't even realize that working with the horses is therapy.
"The horses have a way of boosting their self-esteem, assisting them with lack of focus and helping them channel their emotions in a positive way," says Downey. "It carries over into other aspects of their lives."
At the end of the program, they have a graduation called the "show off" class, where the teens showcase their new skills.
A second career
Matt and Kracker were ready to work with the youth within a month of their arrival.
"The RCMP horses are trained so incredibly well, but what's important is a really kind of magical disposition and, fortunately for us, these horses have that," says Downey. "They just seem to understand what they need to do."
Downey describes Kracker as a real character who's made an eclectic group of friends, including a donkey and a pony. When he's given a command, his lips flap like he's talking back.
Matt is the rule follower.
"If there's a rule about what you have to do when the music comes on, that's what he does," says Downey. "Matt is much more serious, so when the music came on for one of our games, he was like, 'I'd better march,' even though it was rap. It made us all crack up."
When Russel went to see the horses work with the at-risk youth they were paired with, he was impressed with what he saw — healthy and relaxed horses and happy kids.
"That's the goal when you want to find a new home for RCMP horses that have given their whole life to doing the shows all across Canada and the world," says Russel.
And the horses are having a big impact on the teenagers they're working with.
Kracker's rider told Downey that when she's with Kracker, everything else just goes away. And Matt's rider, who has a hard time expressing himself, is somehow able to communicate perfectly with Matt. After just four weeks, he and Matt were trotting around the arena by themselves.
"It's so amazing what these two horses are doing for these two kids," says Downey. "From the bottom of my heart, to all the people that made it happen, I'm so very grateful."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 4, 2014).