T he idea of mounted forces comes from way back during early wars when the only fast and reliable methods of transportation were domesticated horses. The first formally named unit resembling today’s ones was the London’s Bow Street Horse Patrol, recorded in 1758. Later on, during the 1800s and 1850s more such units were formed in countries like Ireland, Australia, India, and more. The first city in the U.S. to create a special department for mounted officers in the year 1871 was New York City, and, in 1873, the States’ northern neighbor Canada creates a similar department, which will later be known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. From the 50s all the way to the 70s, Boston shows the best results when integrating mounted officers in parks, public events, riots, and even crisis situations.
Nowadays, there aren’t as many horses present in the police force as there once were. NYPD’s unit remains the largest, with approximately 50 animals on duty, requiring as much as 8 million dollars during a year to maintain proper functionality. Chicago and Boston are close runner-ups, their units having over 30 steeds each. The reason why their numbers are falling is the current ongoing movement to defund the police, following Black Lives Matter protests and surfacing cases of police brutality. Defunding usually hits the mounted units first, as the activities of training, riding initiation, and maintenance work aren’t exactly cheap, and what happens to the horses that are discharged is that they are usually either sent to other stations or farms, sold or auctioned, donated for therapy work, or they are returned to the people who chose to donate them in the first place.
What is the point of police horses?
Now that we’ve established a very short history of how these units came to be, we’ll continue by discussing the point of police horses. Why they are used, the benefits, and also the drawbacks.
For many, seeing a patrolling officer on a horse is not an extremely common occurrence, but even for those who do see them often, the encounter is something that tends to stay with them for a couple of days. Horses are, after all, magnificent creatures, both on account of their physique and pleasant demeanor. It is said that one mounted officer’s work equals that of 10 on-ground officers. The average number of hours in a shift is of 10 hours, and the main situations engaged in are:
- Crowd Control: Riding allows for more flexibility than cars or motorcycles, and the animal can either act as a barrier to contain a crowd, or they can be maneuvered through to reach problematic groups. To allow easy control and comfort for both the horse and the officer, departments invest in qualitative horse saddles that allow more movement during situations that require quick-thinking.
- Rescue Missions: Horses are especially helpful during rescue missions in remote areas, as the added visibility thanks to the extra height and the ability to enter thick flora can come quite handy for the officers, and there’s also the stamina that’s higher than that of a human. All those aspects combined result in wider coverage, fewer resources used (patrol cars, officers), and less time spent finding the missing person.
- Barrier Breakers: During peaceful events or normal patrolling duty, mounted units often report a higher number of citizens willing to interact with them, even if only to ask to pet the horse. (Always ask for permission before petting a police horse.) This way, some of the invisible barriers can be broken more easily, resulting in a higher chance of collecting new information.
- Other: Activities can also include the patrolling of recreational spaces, engaging in ceremonial performances, or acts of service (such as happy birthday wishes to certain citizens).
Although the College of Policing has said the following: “research in public order situations has shown that horses have a pacifying effect on crowds and officers can better monitor crowds from their vantage point. Horses have been shown to disperse crowds and reassure residents and may bring a swifter end to public disorder”, there are also some downsides when employing equines in the force. The officer, the citizens, and the animal’s well-being can be at risk with improper handling. A simple example could be that when mounted officers engage in kettling to deal with unruly crowds certain participants could distress (smoke bombs, objects being thrown, hitting) the animal in such a way that it might cause panic, others could get trampled, the officer could get thrown off, and the horse might even hurt itself. In this type of situation, proper equipment such as a horse riding helmet is a must for the handler. Another downside that is exclusive to the animal is that injuries could mean the end of a horse’s life, seeing as a break in a leg bone cannot heal and euthanasia is the only humane approach.
What kind of horses do police use?
The main ways of getting a new horse into a department are either relying on public donations or buying the animal. But, regardless of the means of acquiring, the breeds chosen are typically drafts, draft mixes, combinations (e.g. half thoroughbred and half draft), or various working breeds. The age varies as well, from 2 years old up to even 15, since other aspects like its temperament and future main attributes are taken into consideration.
To give specific names, these are 5 of the most commonly used breeds:
- The Belgium: 17 hands high | stout build | calm, with a good work ethic
- The Percheron: 16-17 hands high | highly muscular build | a calm demeanor, and receptive during training
- The Hanoverian: 15-17 hands high | athletic build | bold and with plenty of charm, it can adapt to any environment
- The Thoroughbred: 16 hands high | lean build | a more challenging type, but fiery and able to develop many skills
- The Dutch Warmblood: 15-16 hands high | muscular build | quick to act and steady on its feet, good for activities requiring precision work
Are police horses specially trained?
Horses, like any other animal integrated into society for a certain kind of work (think seeing-eye dogs, therapy pets, and so on), are heavily trained beforehand, and so are their future officer handlers, to ensure that no accidents happen because either of the two isn’t ready for upcoming tasks. A great part of the training of these animals implies desensitizing them and getting them used to both the common and uncommon situations that they might take part in during patrols. Some ease into desensitizing by mingling their steeds with cattle. Then, as they get comfortable and learn that they can herd the cattle, they advance to dealing with humans. People of all ages, groups, talking, yelling, screaming children, and parents with strollers are used during training, and after they get accustomed to the common noises coming from people, the horses can be taught how to walk through crowds while simultaneously making sure to not step on anyone. After the human part is taken care of, then come the more intense noises and lights (traffic, construction, firecrackers, guns, music), and even objects such as bikes, cars, trucks, etc. For those that might be assigned to remote locations or the countryside, walking through mist, water, smoke, jumping, and galloping might also be included in their training program.
These lessons can be delivered either in specialized academies or in the precinct’s stables (if there are any) by accredited trainers. Even after entire months of training, mounted officers don’t start directly in challenging environments, but instead, they are assigned to recreational areas or ceremonial practices to ease into the job.
Are police horses well taken care of?
With everything about the job being a bit clearer now, you’re probably wondering what the treatment looks like inside this department and what happens when they’re off duty. To underline what we mentioned before, these animals are very important tools in this line of work and a good amount of money goes into keeping them healthy, comfortable, well-fed, well-groomed, and exercised accordingly. Part of what keeps the animals comfortable includes the uniform worn by their handler, so besides head and body-protecting gear mounting officers also have to wear horse riding boots that won’t hurt the horse when they’re nudged with the heel the way regular, heavy police uniform shoes might. More often than not, if a steed is assigned to only one officer, attachment starts to develop (although this isn’t advised) and that results in a higher guarantee that the horse is being taken care of, both by the staff tasked with maintenance and the respective officer (this is the case in Texas, where officers themselves trim their horses’ hooves, as their unit is the only one to keep the animals shoe-free).
When off duty, the animals can spend their time in different ways, depending on what the department can provide. For example, the LAPD has a facility especially designated to their horses, where they have stables, an arena, and many other amenities. For those living in the countryside, taking the steed home is also a common practice, just as one would with a police dog. The activities during free days can include training, exercising, getting groomed, or simply relaxing.
To wrap it up
No one can give a specific time for when mounted units will cease to exist, but one thing is for certain. Seeing a policeman doing the usual rounds on an elegant horse leaves a bigger impact on a city’s inhabitants than seeing a police car or motorcycle driving by.