It's never been a more trying time to one of our boys (or girls) in blue: the British police are overworked, stressed out and underappreciated, they say. Scarcely a week goes by without a press report outlining coppers' travails; an excess of hours and shortage of police dogs are just two of the most recently-cited gripes. No wonder that a survey published by the Police Superintendents' Association earlier this month revealed that half of senior police officers suffer from anxiety and depression. And this won't be helped by the 8 per cent annual rise in complaints made against the country's police, statistics made public in a report released last week by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
But thankfully there's one group of bobbies enjoying a somewhat more comfortable ride. The Metropolitan Police Force's Mounted Branch has a reasonably lavish annual budget of £11m, with officers working a standard week of 40 hours (or so it claims). With their verdant training facility in leafy Thames Ditton, Surrey, it seems like the best option for your disillusioned police. All very good, but in 2009, the training school's 90th year, is the mounted force still relevant? How can it prove, contrary to popular belief, that it is not just a "pony club" out of touch with modern policing methods?
The police in part value their horses as good PR. "Some people take the view that it is an archaic approach, but the horses often make people co-operative with the minimum amount of force," says Bob Barker, the Mounted Branch's chief inspector. "Their sheer visual presence is invaluable."
That doesn't quash the preconception that life in the saddle is an easier option, however. A tour of the Thames Ditton facility feels more like a family trip to the zoo than an action-filled introduction to policing's front-line (complete with a dusty museum which is only opened, when, say, a member of the Royal Family comes to visit). When I turn up on a sunny Friday morning, the facility seems little different to a conventional urban stable. Office blocks intermingle with the larger, hangar-like buildings that house the horses or permanent specialists who fashion horse-shoes and saddles. Training can be a colourful, almost jaunty affair, with police staff shouting instructions to officers trotting about in various formations. The instructors might sport bearskin helmets and football tops, or kick footballs about while spraying smoke to test the horses' mettle.
There are no special types of horse used in police work; they must just be thoroughbreds and of a sturdy-enough size. But to apply for the Mounted Branch, officers must have been with the conventional force for two years and have passed a "suitability" test; essentially a trial period which puts them in contact with horses to see how they get on. Should they pass this, training can be completed in just 16 weeks, with an annual two-week refresher course to keep them and their steeds on their toes.
Conflict with the public is something of a rarity, they say. While mounted officers were put under extreme pressure last month when trying to contain the large-scale trouble involving hundreds of fans at West Ham's Carling Cup match against Millwall (and were pelted with missiles) the branch's officers say such clashes seldom occur. "In all my years of service I have never used my truncheon to lash out at someone," says Sergeant Steve Dwiar who is based at the Met's stables in King's Cross. "It is just there as a deterrent; it's the same with CS gas, we don't really use it. We are all very experienced officers and we rarely come across anything we haven't seen before."
He says mounted officers might spend much of their time dealing with crowd control at big football games and rock concerts; shepherding the public to and from the Tube. There is also the odd ceremonial event, taking care of crowds at Trooping the Colour and state funerals (the Mounted Branch accompanied both Princess Diana and the Queen Mother's funeral cortèges in 1997 and 2002 respectively). They claim that "their strong visual" presence is often a useful preventative measure. The officers insist their mounts make them a talking point rather than, as one might initially conclude, an intimidating force. It's a far cry from the branch's beginnings back in 1760, when Bow Street magistrate John Fielding first thought of mounted patrols to deal with highwaymen marauding through London.
More recently, mounted police played an instrumental role in containing the Poll Tax Riots of March 1990, when horses famously charged the assembled crowds. "Horses trampled protesters under foot, cars and vans drove at high speed into the packed crowds, while riot police drew blood with indiscriminate use of truncheons," wrote an emotional Peter Taaffe, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, in his 1995 book The Rise of The Militant.
It is such rare incidents that somehow stop the branch from galloping into complete irrelevancy. "An unofficial motto for the Mounted Police should be 'We Endure'," says the official blurb on the Mounted Branch's website. "Over the years, just when the functions of the Mounted Police Officer seem to be redundant, another use seems to pop up."
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