It’s a normal week day, people going about their business on the busy Bow Road in East London. Suddenly, out of the hustle and bustle of noisy vehicles you hear the familiar clip clop of a horse’s shoes. (pictured left : Studio Portrait of PH Willow, one of the newest recruits to the branch).
Weird? Not at all. In fact, horses have been patrolling here for years!
The Mounted Branch is the oldest section of the Metropolitan police, having been formed in 1760, some sixty-nine years prior to the formation of the Metropolitan Police. Originally formed as the ‘Bow Road Horse Patrol’ to police the turnpikes, approaching London.
Today (2020) there are currently 5 operational stables dotted around London. Great Scotland Yard, Lewisham, Hyde Park, Bow Road and West Hampstead (with a new Stable due to open in Hammersmith later this year), out of which around 86 horses and their riders go on patrols daily.
People often ask, “What do we still need horses for? I mean, it’s not like you can come into my living room with one”. If you ask any of the officers whose privilege it is to work with these amazing horses, they will all tell you, horses are BRILLIANT when working with people. Primarily aimed at policing large gatherings of people, in order and disorder, horses have a fantastic ability to manipulate large crowds, and by doing so, prevent injuries. It’s not about being scary. Most people respect the horses and prefer not to see them getting hurt. As a nation of animal lovers, most will be inclined to listen to instructions from the rider-officer and thereby avoid the need to use force.
This is an amazing opportunity for community engagement as well as for intelligence gathering.
Most Londoners would have encountered police horses either at Sporting events (the Mounted Branch polices many Football matches across London as well as in other counties) or at Ceremonials surrounding Buckingham Palace. You will always see Police horses escorting the Queen’s Guards during the various Changing of the Guards ceremonies and state occasions. They are not there for pageantry purposes. The officers are there to provide protection to both the marching guards and to the watching public. Observing the dense crowds, looking for criminals who are there to steal, or worse, hurt someone.
When the sovereign takes part, mounted officers would join the escort and protect Her Majesty if the need arises.
The high vantage point allows the officers to look over the crowds, see far back and identify if there are any threats, anyone hurt or unwell, or even lost.
All these activities mean the horses have to be special. They have to want to do the job and be willing to follow their rider encouragement, and sometimes, downright demands, to go head first into volatile situations.
This is a massive ask from a prey animal whose natural instinct is flight as opposed to fight.
So, where do you find these special fantastic creatures? Police horses are specially selected and sometimes bought abroad.
Every potential police horse arrives at the Met mounted training facility at Imber Court, Surrey, where it would undergo an assessment by the training staff. Potentially suitable horses are then assigned a trainer who works with the horse daily. Firstly inside the school and then gradually out on to the local streets. Throughout the training process the horse is put through more demanding tests and nuisances, working alongside other horses and most importantly, standing still!
Once a horse is deemed ready to move out to a stable, it is assigned an officer suitably trained at the required level to progress the training of a young horse. This is where the horse is tested in real life policing. As an officer you never know what you might come across, and your mount has to be there with you. It is the responsibility of the intermediate officer to plan ahead to develop the Remount (a horse in training) to produce a fully operational Mounted Branch horse. The process from start to finish would normally take 2 years.
Like us, horses are all different to each other. One horse might be happy to enter a dense rowdy crowd with no issue, but on seeing a plastic bag floating in the wind on a quiet day, respond as if death is imminent. Some horses are relaxed and lazy, some ‘full of beans’. It is down to the officer to consider all elements and manage the daily duty, according to operational requirements, taking the horse’s ability into account, and all the while carrying out their duty as a police officer.
The Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch employs police staff to assist with stable duties, primarily in the larger stables, and especially at the Great Scotland Yard stable. Officers there cover the majority of the ceremonial duties and as such are bound by a strict schedule! The Queen’s guards cannot be delayed in carrying out their duties.
Every day starts with checking that no injuries or ailments occurred over night. Then the horses are fed, each horse according to their specific nutritious requirement, then prescribed medication and workload.
This is a quiet time for the horses, during which the officers receive their daily briefing. Then the whole stable bursts into action. The stables are all mucked out, cleaned and checked, mangers washed and forage provided, again, according to each horse’s specific needs.
It is then that every officer turns to groom their assigned horse, again a good time to find any lumps, bumps and other issues that could be missed at a glance. The horses are groomed top to bottom, nothing is missed. After all, they represent the Police Service, and in turn the country and queen in the eyes of the world. Millions of tourists watch the Changing of the Guards Ceremonies each year and interact with mounted officers regularly. The horses are turned out to the highest standard, horse and riding kit alike. More so when taking part in state occasions, such as State visits, State Opening of Parliament, Trooping the Colour (Her Majesty the Queen’s Birthday), Royal weddings, births and alike. Officers take pride, and prepare and shine leather and metals to a mirror finish.
During the COVID-19 pandemic you’ll encounter them patrolling many open spaces and parks providing much needed reassurance and direction, as well as enforcement as a last resort, helping to keep people safe.
At the other end of the policing spectrum, horses must be ready at a moment’s notice to head into some of the worst disorder encountered by police officers, be it on the streets of London or in open spaces. Mounted officers were some of the first to deploy when the 2011 London riots occurred, riding through fire, debris and hostile crowds. Riders and horses were awarded commendations for their bravery and resilience. Covering many events like the Notting Hill Carnival where large costumes and noise levels might turn any other horse running, often breaking up crowds, preventing crushing injuries and saving lives.
And when all is done, these magnificent creatures return to their humble stables, to their warm beds, as if nothing has happened; ready for another day with their human counterparts.
Words and images by Tom Nochi, @tomandtalephotography www.tomandtale.com