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Mounted troop steeped in history

Covered in dust, reins in one hand and gun in the other, Rob Orser rides a trail worn by hooves of history. It’s a long day away from his career as a commercial banker, dressed in a crisp business shirt and tie.

For the past 16 years, Orser has been a member of the Sam Steele’s Scouts, a troop commemorating the cavalry established in 1885 by Inspector Samuel Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police.

The opportunity to improve horsemanship and firearms skills appealed to the 59-year-old, now retired from his banking job.

“It gave me something else to do with my horse, other than just riding trails in Kananaskis,” said Orser, who lives in Cochrane. “And I liked the idea of being part of history about the opening of Western Canada. And the group’s namesake, Sam Steele, was larger than life.”

The original Steele’s Scouts, comprised of members of the NWMP and Alberta ranchers and cowboys, were part of the Alberta Field Force. Often referred to as the Cowboy or Buckskin Cavalry, it was present during the Northwest Rebellion, and defeated Big Bear’s force at Loon Lake, the last battle ever fought in Canada.

The commemorative troop, chartered in 1977, takes pride in being historically correct with its outfits and drills. Clad in fringed buckskin jackets, yellow-striped breeches and shotgun chaps, and armed with Winchester saddle carbines carried crosswise over the saddle horn, the militia makes for a rugged portrait as its riders move over open sage and through forested landscape.

Picture this: A scouting party slips through the timber as twilight settles in a mountain valley. On the alpine lake, a voyageur canoe emerges from a light mist, like a ghost. On the other shore a band of Indians weaves between the trees. Moments later, they all arrive on the beach. Its memory is enough to bring Orser to tears as he recalls the image, when the historical drama took place in Jasper, at the invitation of then Alberta Premier Ralph Klein.

“Klein was a big fan. He asked us to do this for the (premiers) Unity conference,” said Orser. “It was unbelievable. It was the most powerful moment.”

There have been numerous other such re-enactments over the years.

Today, its riders are the only people allowed to cross the border carrying their guns freely, an action which requires Congressional approval. And for identification, each horse carries an arrowhead brand on the toe of its hoof.

The group can travel up to 30 miles a day, varying between the three military gaits — walk, trot and canter. “That keeps the horses fresh. If you were to walk the horse the whole way, it would tire,” said Orser.

All mounted armies used the three gaits, he noted. “And if you watch old John Wayne movies, you’ll see the troops did the same thing.”

The scouts ride in formation, with the colour, or flag-bearing, party, up front, said Orser, the scout’s colour sergeant. The flags include the British Union Jack, Canada’s official national flag until it adopted the Maple Leaf Flag in 1965.

Each spring, the scouts begin practice drills at Spruce Meadows, their home base. Throughout the summer, they serve as unofficial colour guards at the three major tournaments, and participate in the victory lap following each event. With the crowd clapping to Radetzky’s March, the horses can work into a steaming gallop, said Orser.

“During practice, we play boom boxes and we even have the Radetzky’s March on tape so they get used to it. But when you’re doing two laps in the ring, it can be hard to keep them in a controlled canter.”

For Orser and the other approximate 50 members, there truly is no life like it. For more information on the troop, check their website at www.steelescouts.ca.

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