By Andrea Arnold
In the early afternoon of March 24, 2021, as Turbo, a large black percheron, made his way up the driveway to Chris D’Alessandro’s barn, his brother Merlin whinnied a greeting from where he was tied.
Dunster resident D’Alessandro was excited to have Turbo come home and once again connect with his brother. Born just two days apart in 2003, they have only been apart for short periods of time prior to this last year’s long separation.
On March 23, 2021, 17-year-old Turbo left his life as a Vancouver Police Horse behind and began the trip north, returning home to Dunster where he would be reunited with his brother Merlin. Merlin had also served as a police horse with the Vancouver Police Department, and retired about a year ago.
“I got Turbo when he was not quite 2 years old,” said D’Alessandro. D’Alessandro was so impressed by the young horse that he called the breeder. “I ordered as close to the same model as Turbo as I could get,” he said. “The breeder said he had a colt with the same sire (father) as Turbo, and their mothers were sisters.” A few months later, Merlin joined Turbo and D’Alessandro in California.
D’Alessandro worked with the horses and found them very easy to train. They were used for trail rides outside San Jose, as well as for lessons in basic horsemanship, western riding and elements of dressage. Their easy demeanour meant they were popular and were often the centre of activity at the Wild Oak Horse Ranch in California.
In 2008, D’Alessandro moved back to BC after his father passed, and the following October, Turbo and Merlin joined him. Not long after, D’Alessandro made the choice to board the horses just down the road from his Dunster home, at Reg Marek’s for the next three years, while he worked a job in Nunavut.
“Every time I went to see the boys, they had a look on their faces that said ‘What’s the deal here, Boss?’” he recalls.
These horses thrived on work, people and engagement, and D’Alessandro knew he had to make a decision that would break his heart but was the right thing to do. He told Birgit Stutz from Falling Star Ranch that relocation might be the answer.
Stutz had connections with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) Mounted Unit, and not long after her conversation with D’Alessandro, Stutz learned the VPD was looking for more horses.
That spring of 2011, Vancouver had experienced horrific riots after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup finals. Rioters had held London Drugs staff hostage in their own building in downtown Vancouver, and the VPD Mounted Unit had played a big role in keeping everyone safe. As a gesture of thanks, London Drugs sold t-shirts, and raised money to donate to the department to purchase more horses.
That fall, two VPD Constables arrived to take Turbo and Merlin for a 60-day trial period. D’Alessandro was adamant that either both went or neither went.
A successful VPD Mounted Unit has to meet specific qualifications. The horses must be geldings, at least five years old, 16 hands tall, dark in colour and display a quiet disposition. Both horses passed this first step with ease. But the Department stated that only one in 10 horses that are brought in for their trial basis pass, and having two at once be successful was unheard of. D’Alessandro was sure the boys would pass.
The two were put through exposure to balloons, firecrackers, and obstacles while in the paddock and excelled as they were exposed to Stanley Park and other more crowded areas. Before the 60 days were up, D’Alessandro got a call telling him he’d been right. Both horses had passed. The money donated by London Drugs went to the purchase of the pair.
Turbo and London (Merlin’s new name) served the VPD together until about a year ago.
“Often, these horses only serve 8 years,” said D’Alessandro. “So Merlin came back home at that point.”
After discussion between the VPD and D’Alessandro, the decision was made to keep Turbo to help train the new recruits.
“He was a solid leader,” said Mounted Unit Sergeant Susan Sharp. “He would lead anyone through anything. Literally through fire and water. The others would follow with no hesitation.”
His influence was felt not just by the other horses, but by his human partners also.
“Being the Alpha, he was respected by everyone,” said Sharp. “Horse and human alike.”
Some of the constables Turbo was paired with were new riders, and Turbo was a great teacher, building strong bonds with his partners.
“Turbo allowed us all to grow in our abilities and confidence,” said Sharp.
“Turbo was extraordinarily and ironically named,” she said. He is not a fast horse. In fact, she recalled one rider having to ask “are we cantering?” at one point because he was the slowest horse.
Not only was he the go-to horse in the outfit —reliable and steadfast—he was also the unit mischief maker. He could let himself out of his stall, and then proceed to ‘spring’ the other horses.
“The stable hands would come in, and the horses would be in each others’ stalls, or in the middle socializing,” said Sharp.
In fact, the day before he was set to leave Vancouver, he performed one last Houdini act.
“I was outside the barn with about 20 other people performing a noise assessment before some work was to be done,” said Sharp. “I was trying to be professional, and here comes Turbo. We had him on a diet, and he is extremely food motivated. He had broken out, and comes running past everyone to the grassy patch on the other side and started eating,”
Following Turbo’s retirement and his return to civilian life in Dunster, the VPD Mounted Unit have big horseshoes to fill.
“Turbo will be missed greatly by his four- and two-legged family at the Vancouver Police Mounted Unit, but also by his many admirers in the City of Vancouver,” said Sharp. “Thank you for your service Turbo, we wish you a long and happy retirement.”
Upon arrival at D’Alessandro’s on the 24th, Turbo walked into the middle of the small field, and stood still for a moment. He was soon joined by Merlin and D’Alessandro’s other horse, Magi and they set off into the trees. Moments later the three came running back towards the house, Turbo kicking up snow playfully.
D’Alessandro is thrilled to have both boys home. He is allowing them some time to reconnect with each other, as Turbo remembers what life in the country is like. The hope is that they will live out the remainder of their years together, overlooking mountains, surrounded by trees, and with lots of room to run.