We were lucky enough to visit the team at Greater Manchester Mounted Police Unit and had the pleasure of meeting the fantastic horses there. Trainers PC Aimee Butterworth and Police Staff Trainer Paul Hodgkinson shared with us some “behind-the-scenes secrets” about police horses – how they are trained, their everyday routines and some top advice around what makes the perfect police horse.
What makes a good police horse and what qualities do you look for?
They have to be nice and calm, and must listen to and respect the rider. They need to be over 16hh as we have tall and small riders and they all need to be able to see over crowds when mounted.
What breeds make the best police horses?
We generally go for Irish Draught types as they have to carry not only the weight of the rider but all the equipment the horse and riders have to wear, too. Over the last couple of years though, we have looked at other breeds including cobs. We prefer geldings to mares and in fact we only have two mares on the Unit.
How old are new police horses and where do you find them?
It depends on the horse but we prefer them at around age 7. Some horses are donated to us for various reasons such as the owner can’t afford to keep them or they have medical issues that prevent them riding. Often when they retire they go back to their owners.
How do you assess new horses?
Ideally we get our new horses on 6 weeks trial. We have police officers and civilian trainers who will take them on the road, in the school with some flags and noise all to see how they react. If they pass all that then we will have them vetted.
How many make the grade?
We are keeping more recently, but the main thing we find is that many fail the vetting – we do take a view with what we can manage as to whether we decide to overrule the vetting advice – for example we have a horse with a paralysed oesophagus who can’t do fast work –but that’s not a problem for the work we need them to do, so we decided to buy him.
What is the initial training like for a new police horse?
They tend to stay with the civilian trainers for around 6 months on average, and they then go onto working with a mounted officer to football matches and low level events all aimed at getting their confidence up.
How long does it take to train a police horse?
It depends on the horse but it can take about 18 months to fully train a horse ready for active work. It’s really important not to overface them as they have a very good memory for things that scare them.
What are the biggest training challenges?
One of the hardest things is getting the horse to stand still for long periods of time – in the civilian world horses do not tend to do this when mounted and that can be a challenge. The other big challenge is staying completely focused on the rider and his or her commands.
How do you match a horse to an officer?
We work on personalities – we read the personality of the horse and match it with that of the officer. Because of the cutbacks we can’t afford for a partnership to go wrong – we have to get it right first time.
Do you rename horses when they come to the Mounted Unit?
Yes – all ours are named after characters from Dickens’ novels such as Copperfield and Hexam.
How do you overcome the horse’s natural flight tendency to make them brave enough to deal with the most dangerous of situations?
We call it desensitization. We start in the indoor school introducing them to anything they might come across when dealing with public order situations. It’s a safe environment for both horse and rider. We have speakers to make loud music, and noises of people road digging, a smoke machine, a drum – we try to replicate everything they might experience in the real world in the school environment first. Everything is done gradually.
We work off a repetition programme and also use their herding instinct – so we put new horses with those that have already done the training. The main thing for us is not to scare them – we keep everything low level and slowly, slowly build it up. That way the flight tendency is not alerted in them.
We tend to work in pairs as this is most effective for crowd control but it’s also important that the horse can work on its own, and we train them to go out on their own as well as with a partner horse.
Once trained, what kind of work do they do?
Football matches, demonstrations, community work. We work all over Manchester in a large geographic area wherever the force needs us to go – if there is a spate of burglaries in a given area then we will go and patrol it. We can go where officers on foot can’t.
What is their daily management routine?
They are bedded on a type of shavings and get skipped out every two hours during the day and fully rebedded each morning.
If they have been on patrol or at a match and they have done really well, we give them a “cup of tea” which is actually just a bucket of warm water which they really enjoy. They are allowed mints and food treats but not in the stables as this promotes bad behaviour.
They are shod every four weeks and all horses get road studs as standard.
They all have their own individual bit. All horses used to be in the universal bit, but we’ve moved away from that now. For the football matches we have visors to protect their eyes, and boots to protect the front of their legs in case anything is thrown at them – we sometimes go on quite slippery surfaces too, so this gives them extra protection in case they come down.
There are 4 horseboxes and each carry six horses each. All horses are travelled with a haynet to keep them calm and a full tummy for long days out at events helps with temperaments.
If we do really long days such as 5 or 6 hours at a football match, we might try and take them to a quiet back street and get off their backs for a while. Officers in cars will come and meet us and bring water and haynets.
Do they ever get turned out?
In the summer we try to get them out into paddocks as much as possible, and because they do work really hard for us, we give them a 2 week holiday rotated throughout the summer months. In the winter, we use an outdoor and indoor arena where they are turned loose for a buck and a roll. They are quite routine animals – after an hour or so they have had enough and are ready to come back in.
You must have experienced some very scary situations
Yes, but to be honest, I feel very safe up there. One mounted police officer can manage what 8 unmounted foot officers can do!