Off Duty

Off Duty: a sanctuary for Toronto’s police horses

Patti and Tony Page of Meaford, Ontario, are one of the busiest retired couple around.  Patti Page,  not to be confused with the singer, is a former Sergeant  and Co-ordinator for Security with the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.).  Tony, originally from England, was an officer with the Metro Toronto Police Force.  

In the late 1970s, the city-dwelling couple invested in a piece of property in Meaford, near Owen Sound, Ontario. The years passed by and, keeping to their plan, the Pages built their retirement home and moved north near the ski hills they love.  Unfortunately they soon found their home swallowed up by a sub-division.  The much sought after “country living” was rapidly disappearing.  By 1996, Patti was ready to tackle life on a farm.  Tony, leaving with his mother for England, was non-committal.  While on vacation, he received a call from Patti.  She had found the perfect farm and had to make an offer immediately.  A deal was struck and, when Tony returned to Canada, he found himself the owner of a handsome piece of property with a derelict house and barn.

For the next eight months, with the help of experts, the couple threw themselves into gutting the house.  They lived in just 2 rooms while the rest of the home was made liveable.  Once the house renovations were complete, it was time to tackle the old barn.  It would be a huge job.  Part of the roof was coming in and the floor was covered in over 2’ of old manure (under which lay beautiful old brickwork).   Still, Tony was undaunted as he had a goal: he wanted to buy a horse.

Tony Page had always wanted to ride, but life in the Merchant Navy and later in Toronto meant putting the plan on hold.  Wisely, he began taking riding lessons.  As his skills improved, he set about looking for a suitable hack.  On a whim, he phoned a friend with the Mounted Unit of the Metro Toronto Police. 

The Metro Toronto Police created its Mounted Unit in 1886 for the sole purpose of crowd control.  The Toronto Street Railway Strike happened in the Unit’s inaugural year and is the first documented disturbance where a Mounted Unit was used for crowd control.  For the next one hundred years, the Mounted Unit patrolled the streets of Toronto.  However, as times changed, so did the need for the Unit.  The numbers in the unit decreased and, in the early 1990s there was even talk of disbanding.  However, in spite of technological advancements, the Mounted Unit has proven again and again to be the most successful way of maintaining control over large numbers of people.   There remains a demand for the Mounted Unit today and their existence is safe.

The friend with the unit agreed that a retired police horse would be ideal.  However, there was a waiting list.  Knowing how much work still needed to be done on the barn, Tony happily added his name to the list.  By the time a horse would be ready, he would be too.

Surprisingly, within weeks, Tony received a phone call from the Mounted Unit.  They had a big gelding that might suit his purpose.  The gelding was a 9-year old, ¾ Clydesdale, ¼ Hackney named Dragoon.  Although an excellent police horse, Dragoon was very dominant and could be aggressive towards his equine partners on patrol.   This type of behavior is unacceptable in a police horse, thus a new home was needed.  The horse had a lot of character but was easy to handle.

An experienced friend tried out Dragoon at the home of the Metro Mounted Unit, the Horse Palace at the Canadian National Exhibition (C.N.E.) grounds.  She agreed that he was perfect.  Dragoon moved north, boarding out for a few months until the Pages’ barn was ready.  Since then Tony and Dragoon have developed a strong bond and are a well-matched pair.

While Tony was busy with the farm and Dragoon, Patti got busy starting a new business.  Patti Page’s Tea Room was an instant success.  The décor is beautiful and a selection of photos of various Royals whom Patti worked with on their Canadians tours decorate the entry.    If you want a delicious lunch accompanied by lively tales about the Royals, Patti Page’s is a must!

Retired life was busy but good for the Pages.  That’s when another phone call came from Metro. 
They had a thirteen year old gelding who was very ill with heaves.  The horse desperately needed to get a break from the city and have somewhere to recuperate.   The question: would the Pages take in the horse as a temporary boarder?  Without hesitation, they agreed and, in December of 1997, Stormy arrived.  

Stormy was beautifully trained and he had a big heart.  He stayed with the Pages for five months, during which they learned more about equine husbandry then they ever could have imagined.  Recovered from his bad bout with heaves, Stormy returned to the force in the spring.  By August 1998, his heaves were back full-force.  Stormy was moved to Meaford once again and stayed with the Pages for almost a year.   An exceptional police horse, Stormy returned to the force once his heaves abated.  Then, in 2000, during the Queen’s Park riots in Toronto, Stormy was stabbed. 

One-thousand anti-poverty protesters were marching on Queen’s Park.  What was originally a peaceful demonstration escalated into a violent one.  Rocks were thrown at police and the police horses were struck with wooden planks and other objects.  Even a Molotov cocktail was thrown in amongst the horses.  It took an hour to restore control.  In that time, twenty-nine officers and eight horses were injured, one being Stormy. 

After the Queen’s Park riot, Stormy was retired from the Force and the Pages bought him outright.  If anything good can come out of a riot it was the changing of an important piece of legislation.  Since Stormy’s stabbing and the attack on the other horses in the Mounted Unit in 2000, any person found guilty of attacking a police horse will be charged as if they had attacked a policeman.  The horses of the Mounted Unit are considered official members of the police force, 100%.

Dragoon and Stormy were just the start for the Pages.  Since their arrivals, the farm in Meaford has become a haven for Metro horses needing recuperation from injuries or just a break from pounding the pavement.   The Mounted Unit rotate their horses so that each gets some time away from the city.  Obviously, injured or ill horses take priority.  Some of the Pages “guests” included Trooper who had an injury to his ear, Major who had pierced the sole of his foot, gentle 18hh Regent who had to duck to get in the barn, and handsome Lincoln, named after The Hon. Lincoln Alexander, a 17hh, intelligent, elegant, black gelding.  All were welcome.  No one was ever turned away.

The Pages find great joy in offering a sanctuary to these hardworking horses.  As soon as the horses arrive, their shoes are removed and they are turned out in a private paddock to settle in.

“There’s nothing like watching a horse the first time we turn him out.  Some of them have never seen a big field before.  They gallop around, tails up, snorting, carrying on, rolling, and then start all over again.  It’s the greatest thing to see.” says Tony, who takes on the bulk of the work with the horses.

After four or five days at the farm, the new horse is integrated with the permanent residents.  Dragoon is the boss.  Then there’s Stormy, Red (a non-Metro boarder), and little 27 year old Gypsy (another non-Metro resident).  There’s also Abby.

Abby, a percheron/thoroughbred cross, is a twin.  She and her brother, Charlie, were offered on loan to the Metro Unit.  While Charlie excelled at the training and tests, Abby was of a more cautious nature and didn’t exercise the “blind faith” needed in a police horse.  Abby ended up showing lightly on the Trillium circuit in Ontario before moving to the Pages’.  Charlie became quite famous in the Toronto Sun newspaper’s “Horse With No Name” contest.  He was renamed Sunshine Boy and became an exemplary police horse.

Tony also enjoys driving Stormy at the local fairs and parades.   He was surprised how easily Stormy took to driving and gave himself a mental pat-on-the-back.  Later he found out it wasn’t his skill at all but rather the fact that Stormy had pulled a landau for state and royal visits on many occasions.

The Pages take in 3 to 4 horses a year from the Metro Mounted Unit, enjoying the new faces and learning more about horses then they ever could have imagined.  The pace of their so-called retired life might seem too hectic for some but for this dynamic couple, it’s just right.  

To learn more, read The Mounted Squad: an illustrated history of the Toronto Mounted Police 1886-2000 by Bill Wardle.

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