London has many hidden places and the police horse stables are a prime example, nestling cheek by jowl with other anonymous buildings down a side street near to Northumberland Avenue. The horses are housed 'upstairs', confidently negotiating the ramps that bring them onto the streets for their varied duties.
The Metropolitan Mounted Police
It isn't every day one gets to visit the stables of London's Mounted Police Division.
A Fine Day Out
A while ago, we happened to meet a serving officer with the mounted police. Given our mutual interest in all things equine, he kindly arranged for a small group of us to visit the stables. We were six, aged between six and sixty, all equally enthusiastic at the prospect of rubbing noses with some fine horses.
History of Mounted Police in London
In 1900 the Earl of Lonsdale MP, offered his coach house to the police to provide convenient stabling for their horses. The site was suitably near to both Westminster, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.
This whole area of London was once part of Whitehall Palace. Across the concourse of what is now Trafalgar Square, stood the royal mews where one now finds the National Portrait Gallery.
By 1758, the Bow Street Horse Patrol was founded, their remit to patrol the turnpike roads and to be on the look out for highwaymen. Their founder was the blind Sir John Fielding, brother of the writer Henry Fielding.
A Need for Mounted Police
The need for a civilian police force was never more vividly underlined than on August 16 1819, when a meeting to champion Parliamentary Reform took place at St Peter's Field, Manchester..Such was the strength of feeling that upwards of 50,00 people turned up to hear the speakers..
In the expectation of trouble, 600 Hussars, 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry, 120 members of the Royal Horse Artillery and about 400 Special Constables from Manchester were present. Panicking, the authorities decided to arrest the speakers and the crowd closed ranks to prevent them The Yeomanry therefore drew their sabres and sliced their way through the crowd. In the resulting mayhem, 11 people died and another 400, a quarter of them women, were injured.
The use of the military to attack its own citizens caused such outrage that a civilian force was eventually established.
At the time of our visit, 24 of the 28 stalls for the horses were in use. In terms of breed, most of the horses were Irish Draft crosses, standing at least 16 hands and the majority of them were geldings. Anyone who owns a mare will recognize the equine equivalent of PMT which explains the preference for males. Thoroughbreds tend to be lightweight, swift and highly strung, not a suitable combination for police work.
An ideal police horse arrives at about three years old and preferably un-backed. He will then undergo six months' initial training Their duties are partly ceremonial such as on the Queen's birthday celebrations, partly crowd monitoring as at some football matches. A visit from the President of Ghana was due shortly and a police escort would be in attendance.
Among the horses currently in their stalls, were Trident who had recently been ridden by the Duke of Kent at the Queen's Birthday ceremony and Gawain a 7 year-old grey. Alamain also grey and aged twelve, had been wounded at a football match suffering a severed artery. Only swift action by a vet saved his life. We also had the pleasure of meeting Windsor, a large black cob with a Roman nose. Up to 30 horses routinely attend football matches.
It goes without saying that the horse must have a calm temperament having to face noise and sometimes aggression..At contentious events such as demonstrations, both horse and rider may be issued with body armour.
There is no shortage of recruits to enter the mounted police service.Most officers are posted from among the existing police force. It is a requirement that before entering the mounted section, one has served as a regular policeman. Unsurprisingly, half the successful candidates are women. The entries are always over subscribed and on average, of every new post there are at least 15 applicants.
Horse tack is of course kept in tip top condition. Bridles double as head collars and a pelham bit is used on most horses. The saddle is sprung while the chest piece is for decoration only bearing the symbol of the 'Met' Each horse has a feeding regime mostly of quiet mix and chaff accompanied by haylage. Some have sugar beet and garlic. Bute is sometimes used for pain relief. .
After reaching basic proficiency, each new recruit is issued with a name and number, the initial of each name indicating the year of arrival. Those who do not make the grade are sold at Reading horse sales. Retirement depends on the health of the horse but is usually in the late teens or early twenties.
A nomal working shift is about 4 hours but when policing events such as football matches, the horse may be away from his stable for as much as 12 hours. At the end of the day it is up to the rider to see him comfortably settled and his tack ready for the next shift.
The police employ their own vets and farriers and daily there is a mounted presence at the changing of the guard.
Only the lucky few get this high profile job but along with it goes good policing, good horsemanship and being prepared for an occasional rough ride,.