Westernaires Perform in Regina, Saskatchewan
“The Best Precision Mounted Drill Riders AT SPEED, Anywhere”. It started with these two words: “at speed”. This was the nuanced difference between the reputations of the "Musical Ride" performed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (affectionately called “Mounties”) and the "Firelight" drill performed by the Varsity Big Red Team of the Westernaires.
Since their inception, the precise Mounties have performed their Musical Ride drill at a remarkably uniform trot, while Westernaires Varsity Red Team have performed their Firelight drill at a nimble gallop / run. This slight differentiation -– “at speed” -- was enough to pique the interest of certain Canadians, and for them to reach out to Westernaires Director, Glen Keller, Jr., to invite the Westernaires to Regina, Saskatchewan's famed Regina Horse Show in 1986. Westernaires was happy to accept the warm invitation from neighbors to the North.
According to Keller (a retired attorney and former judge), this trip was “probably the most over-lawyered” one that Westernaires had ever contemplated. The logistics of getting kids (without their parents) and their horses across an international border were complicated. Local and state brand and health inspectors had to be satisfied; so did the U.S. regulators, then so did the Canadian regulators. Keller described it as an “interesting challenge”.
Despite the legalities, Lady Luck was working in Westernaires’ favor:
- A rare circumstance: only eight Varsity Red Team riders had graduated at National Western Stock Show in January of 1986. In normal years, at least a dozen of the Varsity's turning team riders graduate at Stock Show, leaving the following turning team freshly promoted and still in "learning mode". Instead, Red Team was largely still intact and ready to perform in March.
- The Westernaires Red Arena had just burned down, and it was the only practice space for Red Team during Colorado's cold and sometimes snowy winter months. However, the winter of 1985-1986 was unusually mild, and this allowed Red Team to use the outdoor Rodeo Arena at Jefferson County Fairgrounds for the practices to that would prepare them for this show.
- The long-haul horse trailers that Westernaires used were ill-equipped for such a long distance. In fact, the last time Westernaires had made a trip to Canada (in 1970, to the Calgary Stampede) a number of horses were ill from travel fatigue. However, there happened to be a large trailer on the Fort Westernaire premises (not owned by Westernaires) that was instead leftover equipment. It had been used during the production of one of the numerous movies in which the Westernaires Cavalry team had appeared. This Ward Trucking brand, straight-deck hauler had sat on the path leading up to the Westernaires Upper Arena for a number of years. Keller conferred with Earl McCloskey (Westernaires volunteer: mechanic, driver, and all-around great guy) about the ownership of trailer and, wanting to clean up the Fort, Keller instructed Earl to either get someone to retrieve it or to scrap it. When Earl McCloskey contacted the trailer’s owner to inquire about its future, the owner said that Westernaires could keep it, but only under one condition: that Westernaires take one more just like it. These hauling trailers, after some retooling, proved to be well-ventilated and ideal for the Regina trip.
Once all the legalities and logistics were ironed out, the Westernaires were en route to Canada. They ended up stopping in Billings, Montana that first night. While searching for a place to eat, they encountered a diner called “Elmer’s Place” – tremendously fitting, as Westernaires was founded by Elmer Wyland. The teams slept inside the armory that evening. Director Glen Keller remembered that he slept under the muzzle of an artillery tank.
Upon arrival in Regina, the team was hosted in the barracks of the RCMP Academy Depot Division, which provides training to the RCMP cadets in training. Most of the Mounties were away at their Ottawa headquarters at the time of the Westernaires visit. However, Liz Keller was lucky enough to find a Mountie, and successfully talked him out of his RCMP collar pin. She wears it on her Red Team sweater to this day.
The Varsity Red Team riders were introduced to a number of Canadian dignitaries, including the Right Honourable Jeanne Sauvé, Governor General of Canada. The Westernaires performances were well received: fans were impressed by not only the speed and precision of Westernaires’ drill riding, but also by the versatility of the riders. Specialty acts, including trick riding and liberty riding, were also featured at the shows.
While the trip to Regina was relatively issue-free, the trip home was not so straightforward. Upon reaching the Canada / U.S. border, border agents ( who were likely unaccustomed to seeing dozens of teenagers and their horses crossing the border) decided to be a bit difficult. They required that Westernaires unload every horse off of the horse vans. Satisfied after their inspection, the horses were expeditiously reloaded. The border agents were reportedly “amazed" at the organization and ease by which the Westernaires loaded their horses onto the semis.
The convoy needed to stop for the night on their way back home. “We were looking for a place to stop, and ended up in Sheridan, Wyoming,” says Keller. Westernaires alumni David and Debbie Metzler were former residents of Sheridan and were instrumental in arranging for lodging, food, and accommodations for all. The riders were pleased with the gracious welcome they received in Sheridan.
As the team approached home, an official Colorado State Patrol escort led them into the Fairgrounds with fanfare. Awaiting the team’s return were hundreds of other Westernaires. The convoy pulled straight into the Rodeo Arena for a warm welcome. “The horses unloaded off of the trailers and were bright-eyed and healthy”, Keller recalls, and a few took the opportunity to roll in the arena. The new straight-deck trailers were a big success, as was the entire voyage.