VPD Mounted Unit Trainer, Constable Maria Irving, has been with the VPD for 15 years. In that time, she has gained extensive experience working in multiple Units. Today, Maria finds herself managing the recruitment and training of VPD’s horses, including all nine horse heroes that currently call the VPD Mounted Unit home. We recently caught up with Maria at the VPD stables between training sessions. She talked to us about what they look for when selecting new VPD horses, and perhaps more importantly, what kind of unique training is required for both the new horses and the veteran horses in the herd.
What Units were you in previous to the Mounted Unit?
“When I started with the VPD in 2008, I began as a Constable in General Patrol in District Four. I had a short stint in Public Affairs while pregnant with my first child, and then returned to Patrol in District 2 in the Downtown Eastside. From there, I spent time in Property Crime and Investigations while pregnant with my second child. When I returned from my second maternity leave, I worked in District One before transferring to the Mounted Unit as a Constable six years ago.”
What equestrian experience, if any, did you have prior to joining the Mounted Unit?
“I actually had quite a lot of experience with horses, but that isn’t always the case here in the Unit. Some Constables arrive with no equestrian experience or knowledge, and they learn everything on the job. For me, I grew up in Merritt, BC and was very involved in my family’s ranches from a young age. In fact, I got my baby horse, wild off the range, when I was just nine years old. I named her Sparkles, as most nine-year-olds would, and I was entirely in charge of raising her and training her. Sparkles and I did everything together, including my paper route – I rode her and delivered my papers. She was also my main transportation, so I would ride her to friends’ houses and home again.”
When you weren’t riding and training Sparkles, did you have a chance to spend time with the other horses on the ranch?
“Yes, when I was young I spent a lot of time riding in the range learning from experienced cowboys. I don’t have a lot of formal training, but I’ve successfully ridden or handled at least 100 horses throughout my childhood and teen years.”
You assist the Mounted Unit in selecting new horses when needed. What do you look for in a new horse?
“I always look for horses that are crossed with some sort of draft horse because the draft horse adds the size and temperament we need. We want our horses to be over 16 hands tall and I typically look for a bigger, more robust build. We’d like them to be between 5 – 10 years old, depending on what we need in our herd at that time. All new horses must also pass a medical exam, but the reality is that only one in ten horses will pass their medicals. As for personality, I am looking for a horse that isn’t fearful, but instead displays characteristics of confidence and curiosity. Just like people, horses have very different personalities.”
“What training activities are important as you prepare the horses for events like the Celebration of Light?”
“Any type of event or training needs to start with the foundation, and the foundation is horsemanship and leadership. Then, we habituate the horses the best we can to the specific event we are preparing for. For the Celebration of Light, we expose them to large groups of people as often as possible. We do that by riding into the West End on busier days, and it’s a very gradual process. We want to familiarize them to the area, so we’ll repeatedly ride them down the route that we’ll be taking on a fireworks night.
“We also try to expose them to anything we might see and hear. In this case, that’s lots of crowded people on the beach, volleyball and tennis games, sun umbrellas, dogs, sirens. So we take them to the environment they are most comfortable in, which is their paddock, and we practice doing all those activities with them until it becomes their normal. That means we do indeed bring groups of people into their paddock to play volleyball. We even rode the horses as we tossed a volleyball back and forth to each other.
“We also practice our Troop Drill, which helps us ride in formations. As part of this we also expose the horses to various surfaces underfoot as they are quite sensitive to where they put their feet. When the concrete changes to sand or a rubber matting or some plastic garbage, it can be quite alarming for the horses.”
What was it like participating in the Queen’s Commemoration Service Procession in Victoria last year?
“We received two days notice to bring the horses to Victoria last September to participate in the Queen’s commemoration service procession, which is a good example of why we work on event training year-round. On top of the training they already had, we quickly mobilized and held a crash course to train the horses to be ready for the 21 gun salute they would experience. So we got ERT to come out and deploy flash bangs in their paddock so they could start getting used to the noise.”
Which horse in the barn has the biggest personality?
“PH Nelson is constantly annoying the other horses. He also always finds ways to give himself minor injuries like small cuts. He once threw wooden blocks at his teammates during a training session and another time he flooded his stall because he ate his water tap.”
What do the horses enjoy doing during their leisure time?
“When not working or training, the horses will often be turned out in our large sand paddock. They get to go out there with their favourite friends and we provide them with a variety of toys. They’ll run around and show their personalities more … they’ll even rough-house on occasion.
“We also have vacation time for the horses at least twice a year per horse. We take them to a pasture at a farm in Abbotsford where they get to eat grass and roam and just be horses. We monitor the horses carefully throughout the year and are able to identify which horses are ready for vacation time. We try to get all the horses out there at least two times per year and at least two weeks at a time, depending on the circumstances.”
Have you herd??
The VPD Mounted Unit will debut their very first charitable calendar this fall with all proceeds supporting the Vancouver Police Foundation! This stunning 2024 calendar will feature all horses in the the VPD herd, plus the always-handsome Police Cat Cheddar.
The Vancouver Police Foundation supports programs and initiatives that fall under one of four pillars: Youth Programs, Mental Health & Addictions, Community Outreach & Engagement, and Technology & Special Equipment. You can help build a safer Vancouver by donating to the Vancouver Police Foundation.