Horses in Uniform
The unique lives, needs, and challenges of police horses
Minister might have watched “National Velvet” a few too many times. The spirited white-socked chestnut gelding seemed to be identifying with young Elizabeth Taylor’s Thoroughbred costar, The Pie, who was also a spirited white-socked chestnut gelding. In the 1944 classic film The Pie won England’s most famous steeplechase, The Grand National, at Aintree Racecourse, in Liverpool.
Minister, though, wasn’t a racehorse. Even though he was on the Aintree track, tacked and mounted, excited with the energy of the race, he wasn’t on the roster. That’s because he had a different job—Minister was a police horse.
Decked out in official police horse gear, his “uniform” as a member of the Merseyside Police mounted section in Liverpool, Minister served under his rider, Constable Mark Lynch, as patrolling mount during the Grand National. Stationed in front of the infamous Becher’s Brook, Lynch and Minister stood guard while thousands of fans cheered on the start of the race. As the hooves thundered closer to the immense jump in front of them, the 23-year-old police horse broke character. Forgetting, for a brief second, that he was a police horse, Minister seemed to want to join the group of racing Thoroughbreds.
“He pushed his chest out and began to pull and shuffle his front feet as if to tell me, ‘I’m game if you are!’ ” recalls Lynch, nine years later. “He was a total character. What a boy he was.”
That was 2010, shortly before the experienced 17.3-hand Irish Sport Horse retired from his police duties. Quirky, playful, and “cheeky,” said Lynch, Minister was also a consummate professional; he was serious, powerful, and seemingly fearless. He appeared to love his job and was ideally suited—physically and mentally—to its inherent challenges.
Police horses fill a special place in the equestrian world: They’re sport horses, working equids, companion animals, superheroes, and keepers of the peace, all wrapped into one. In this article we’ll look at the unique lives, needs, and challenges of these horses, as well as how they’re selected and trained.
The Look: Big; Robust, Imposing
In a way, police horses represent the police force itself. They’re imposing and impressive—exuding a kind of “you don’t want to mess with me” air. Usually tall (often upward of 17 hands) and big-bodied—many being draft crosses—they evoke a sense of undisputable authority, says Marc Pierard, PhD, lecturer of animal behavior and welfare at Hartpury University, in Gloucester, U.K. Their size also has a practical purpose: It gets their riders high above crowds and traffic for better surveillance, he says.
That size must be coupled with physical robustness capable of dealing with significant musculoskeletal stress over the years, says Pierard. “They need a solid and sustainable musculoskeletal system that’s resistant to the repetitive shock and often quick starts and stops” their job demands, he says.
The Personality: Fun & Gentle
Police horses need to be “naturally energetic, curious, and ready to react at any moment, while not being fearful—and that’s often a hard match to find,” Pierard says. “A fearful horse would be miserable in this field but, in horses, fearfulness and high energy often go hand-in-hand. It’s critical to make this selection from the start, or the (unsuited) horse is likely to face serious welfare issues related to his job.”
Meanwhile, these horses also must fulfill their public relations role with civilians—they’ve got to be calm and easy to approach, even for children. “It’s a high order, getting this personality mix,” Pierard says, adding that improving the relationship with the general public is actually part of the official mission statement of the mounted section of the Federal Police in Belgium (Pierard used to work in that country). “You want a horse who’s 18 hands tall and terrifying as he’s galloping in full battle dress, but who, when he’s just standing there, is actually cute.”
A 19-hand white Boulonnais draft horse named Viking works the 50,000-seat soccer stadium in Lille, France, on game days. While his imposing appearance might dissuade criminals from taking advantage of the crowds, his striking image and gentle disposition make him popular among visitors. “People come up close to see him, take photos with him, and ask us questions,” says Christophe Delhaye, brigadier in the Lille mounted police force. “The horses have really improved our relationship with the public.”
The Gear: Tack, Shields, & More
For daily patrolling police horses might not wear much more tack than typical sport horses, says Delhaye. Frequently, though, horses get called in for crowd control or even riot management and need greater protection.
“Horses are seven times more effective in crowd management than policemen on foot, so they usually get called in when people are getting rowdy,” says Pierard. “But that means they’re getting exposed to risks of projectiles: stones, bottles, whatever hooligans want to throw at them. So they need face shields and body armor in addition to armored leg protection that covers more than usual boots.”
Working on roads requires they have good visibility, he adds. “The horses have several variations of ‘traffic outfits,’ all with reflective materials,” says Pierard. “Flashing lights would be even better, but so far that’s uncommon.”
The Location: Big City Life
One of New York City’s most eye-catching police horses is a Paint-draft cross. Norman was one of 10 horses working the 2019 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, monitoring crowds as workers filled up balloons adjacent to Central Park. Although he’s fairly new to the city’s police department, he was calm and seemingly happy in a scene that would have sent many riding horses into a total frenzy. That might be because he’s a former city carriage horse, says Pamela Corey, DVM, who has practiced equine ambulatory medicine and worked regulatory roles in equine health in New York City’s five boroughs and Long Island for more than 20 years.
“He was quite slow, so he wasn’t a favorite (carriage horse) for the park, but he’s made a perfect mount for a beginner officer,” Corey says. “He’s seen everything in Manhattan already—parades, crowds, traffic, big balloons. Nothing bothers him.”
Police horse life is often synonymous with big city life—but that doesn’t have to mean an unhappy life, says Corey. Mounted units have found that by selecting the right horses and training them properly, the mounted police horses adapt very well to their environments, including lights, noise, bustling streets, and concrete. “They certainly experience a lot of things,” she says.
It’s easy to see they’re well-adapted, she adds, referring to her unit’s horses. “They have nice shiny coats; they’re fit and muscular; they have bright eyes and look alert and relaxed and happy. If they weren’t getting the right care, they’d show it. And they’d probably dump their officer in the street!”
City work includes patrolling streets, parks, and parking lots, running traffic checks, managing crowds, and dealing with riots, our sources say. But it can also include taking one-of-a-kind routes no other mount but a police horse would take. “They walk from Midtown to Times Square,” says Corey. “Sometimes you’ll see them standing there like tourist magnets, with people asking directions and taking pictures. Sometimes they’ll walk from Brooklyn to Upper Queens to manage a baseball game. Other times they’ll patrol the beach at Coney Island.”
However, city life also means that on rare occasions a horse gets loose in the city, she adds. “There’s a protocol for that, blocking off intersections and using police cars to corral them.”
The Home Turf: Police Stables
Housing and managing police horses usually ends up as a compromise, optimizing the horses’ welfare in the context of their work, our sources say.
“If they have to be in the city, they’ve either got to live in the city or get transported in every working day,” Pierard says. While they might have more turnout space outside a city, the related trailer transport could add unnecessary stress.
Extreme weather and heavy traffic in a city could make transport even more difficult for the horses, making an inner-city stable preferable in many cases, says Corey. “But honestly, suburban stables don’t have sufficient outdoor exercise space either,” she says. “In both urban and suburban cases, though, the horses are exercised daily by training or walking around outdoors, and this contributes well to the horses’ welfare needs.”
New York Police Department (NYPD) Mounted Unit horses get turned out in a large paddock at the Bronx stable, she says. The Midtown stable in the Mercedes House skyscraper has an indoor turnout area, which is ideal for bad weather. “They get the horses out to run around even during blizzards,” Corey says.
The Lille mounted unit rents stalls for its horses in an urban equestrian center shared with civilian riders. “It’s a 15-minute walk to the stadium and a 10-minute walk to a park where we like to open them up and let them trot and canter, so it’s a good compromise compared to trailering them in every day,” Delhaye says.
Diamant du Jardin, a 7-year-old draft cross, got hit by a criminal’s Mercedes in Fontainebleau, France, last October. The driver, panicking during a routine traffic stop because of his police record, rammed into Diamant, who ended up “sort of sitting on the hood.” The collision lacerated his stifle, requiring seven staples and two weeks’ stall rest—but that didn’t stop the gelding from galloping after his perpetrator immediately after getting hit. “He’s tough—and brave,” said commissioner and equestrian unit director Samuel Ruault.
A month later a distracted driver in Central Park accidently hit NYPD’s Otis. Fortunately, the horse was uninjured, the department reported.
Such scenarios don’t always end well. Eight-year-old Belgian cross Brigadier, of the Toronto Police Department, was euthanized several years ago after a driver deliberately struck him and fled the scene.
These events are, thankfully, rare, says Pierard. Police horses also risk suffering injuries caused by weapons or projectiles, but such cases are even less frequent, especially thanks to good protective gear and correct evaluation of when not to deploy the horses.
Wear and Tear
A far more common risk in police horses is wear and tear on their bones, joints, and soft tissues due to working on hard surfaces, our sources say. “Most of them get retired for orthopedic reasons, usually because of chronic arthritis by about age 16,” says Pierard. “Slippery surfaces and cobblestones make it worse by increasing the risk of injury or even falls.”
The job’s inherent risks, such as quick turns and sudden acceleration, add to the injury risk, says Corey. “These make for more acute soft tissue emergency issues,” she says.
Technical advances in equipment and the horses’ environment could help solve the problem, but it’s difficult to get the right mix, they say. While slippery metal shoes are far from ideal, increasing traction using studs or rubber surfaces could create other kinds of tissue damage by getting the horse “stuck,” especially when turning, causing twisting injuries. “It’s like football players getting stuck with their cleats and injuring their knees,” says Pierard.
If riders and caretakers know and understand these risks, says Corey, it leads to better care and injury prevention. “These are valuable horses, and their assigned vets are going to be monitoring for any signs of problems and treating aggressively—joint injections, supplements—anyone showing any early signs of arthritis,” she explains.
Still, given their primary activity at work, the hard surfaces don’t pose as great a threat to these horses they could. “The fact that police horses work mostly at a walk is good because the forces on the hooves and other limb structures are lower at walk compared with the faster gaits,” says Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVSMR, McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University (MSU) and president of Sport Horse Science, in Mason, Michigan. “This tends to spare them—to a certain extent but not completely—from the development of concussive injuries.”
Colic and Other Illnesses
The No. 1 illness affecting police horses is colic, “but that’s true for any horse population,” says Corey.
Like any other horse, police horses are also at risk for infectious disease, Corey adds. Their close stabling puts them at greater risk of getting sick once an infectious agent is in the barn. However, their “pretty small population” means there’s rigorous biosecurity: The horses rarely come into contact with nonpolice horses, and newcomers to the barn stay quarantined until deemed safe. For vector-borne diseases such as West Nile virus, most departments ensure their horses stay up-to-date on their vaccines.
Unique in their appearance, work, personalities, and relationships with humans, police horses are special kinds of heroes that deserve special consideration, say our sources. “Police horses are the only ‘tool’ in the police service that can be a physical barrier one minute and the next minute they’re breaking them down,” Lynch says, “and winning the hearts of the community they serve in the process.”
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