After declining three offers to become a stable hand at the RCMP's Musical Ride centre, John Phillips finally agreed to give the position a try — he loved horses after all.
"They were keen on my abilities as a farm boy — we worked hard," says Phillips, who grew up riding Western horses on a farm just east of Ottawa. "I wanted to learn more about training horses, so I met with Sgt. Fred Rasmussen and eventually he convinced me to take the job."
Now, forty years later, the Musical Ride farm manager and expert breeder is coming to the end of his career, with plans to retire on Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017.
"Who would've thought when I started here mucking out stalls that I would end up the breeding manager?" he says.
Phillips is responsible for breeding the horses for the Musical Ride, and oversees the running of the Pakenham, Ont.-based farm — plowing and rotating hay crops to feed the horses, buying equipment and supplies and organizing the farm workers.
"I try to run the farm as if it was my own. That's the only way to do it," says Phillips, who has done the job for 16 years. "It's a 24-7 commitment."
He has also upgraded the RCMP's horse breeding program, increasing the success rate of artificial inseminations from 50 to 90 per cent — a rate he is very proud of.
"Over the last 30 years, the quality of horses has become far superior to what we used to have," says S/M Marc Godue, riding master for the Musical Ride. "A great deal of that credit can be attributed to John."
Godue met Phillips shortly after he joined the RCMP in 1986. Godue was trying out for the Musical Ride, and Phillips, a stable hand at the time, was assigned to teach him.
Godue says Phillips' natural flare and work ethic are what have made him so successful.
"I still look to John for horse advice," says Godue. "He's one of my mentors in a lot of ways."
When the job of farm manager came up, Phillips jumped at the chance. The RCMP enrolled him in Colorado State University's equine program, where he became well-versed in the intricacies of genetics, breeding and artificial insemination. Over the years, he's taken courses in Alberta and Texas to keep his skills up to date.
"He's forgotten more about horses than I'll ever know," says Godue. "There will be a void when he retires."
On the job
Phillips has handled hundreds of horses during his four decades with the RCMP. The Pakenham farm alone currently has 85 horses in its stables.
He says one of the best parts is that life on a farm is always changing, with unexpected things happening every day.
Phillips recalls one day when he spotted a mare in labour. As he began guiding the pregnant horse to the birthing stall, he realized the foal's front legs, head and neck were already out.
"We never got halfway there and the foal ended up in my arms!" he says. "I didn't want it to hit the ground."
To sustain the breeding program, Phillips often travels across Canada and to Europe to find the best horses. On a recent trip to England, Phillips met Queen Elizabeth, and was asked to breed a horse for her as a gift from Canada and the RCMP.
"That has to be the highlight of my career," he says.
Phillips starts the average day at 5:30 a.m., when he goes to the farm to make sure things are running smoothly. During breeding season, he often stays well past midnight tending to mares. When there's time after work, he rides his own horses or teaches riding lessons, and still participates in equestrian competitions across North America.
"I'm very fortunate in that I did something I loved for my whole career. There are a lot of people who can't say that, and it's hard for them to get out of bed in the morning," says Phillips. "For me, it's never hard."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 1, 2016).