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Law Enforcement

 This article first appeared in a previous edition of Equestrian Life. To see what is in the current issue, click here.

Law enforcement

Mounted police patrols can be seen in every Australian state, but they have undergone major adaptations in order to earn their keep within modern, cost-effective law enforcement. One of the hardest jobs they face is finding the right horses for the job.

By Jane O’Connor
Photography supplied by NSW police, Vic police, Henry Dallal

The call may come in that there’s an out of control crowd in Perth’s nightclub district on a Friday night. Bottles and bricks are being thrown. The horses and riders are already out and about. They may have to attend four or five similar incidents across the night - loaded and floated from location to location - and repeat it again on the Saturday night. They can then be required to switch to temperatures in the 40s, covering large areas in a search for a lost prospector or following the racing calendar from Perth to Broome. It is a tough job that calls for ‘assertive’ riders - who are also very experienced operational police officers - and very special horses.

In Melbourne, a series of sexual assaults along a suburban creek sees a call to the mounted unit. The horses can get into the area and are a highly visible presence. A protest that has turned violent makes the headline news as the mounted unit brings it back under control. Riding the city’s inner city streets from 7pm to 3am on Friday and Saturday nights as part of Victoria Police’s ‘Safe Streets’ programme is a regular weekly shift. In NSW, under the command of Australia’s first woman to head a mounted unit - and the world’s oldest - the same sharp policing requirements play out. But, there is also an internationally recognised, strong ceremonial tradition to uphold because of that history. These officers may have to ride in front of the Queen at Windsor Castle on royal invitation as well as navigating inner Sydney’s meaner streets or  patrolling regional events.

In South Australia, the big, grey horses are a public drawcard, but they too have pulled back on ceremonial duties to become an integral part of street policing and crowd control.

But, if you look a little closer you may notice there is a broader selection of breeds under police saddle and the majority of riders are women. But, because you can ride and fancy the being in uniform, there is no easy start to this job. Each rider has to have done the same hard yards as any police recruit. The drive has to be for a police career first and rider second. Even after graduation, experience on general operational duties must be successfully completed before the chance arises to apply to a mounted unit. Even then, another set of tests has to be passed and if all the boxes are ticked, it can take years before a vacancy comes up. And, the officers who command these units are having an increasingly tough time finding the very specific and special horses that can make the grade through training. Each state approaches this differently. Many horses are offered in some states. Networks and word of mouth also help. But, the units constantly scour the country to find the right potential mounts. The initial assessment process becomes a tricky ‘try-before-you-buy’ exercise. Very few are chosen.

There is an old saying that one police officer on a horse is worth 10 on foot and today’s mounted units are in the business of constantly proving that. Where once it was the volume of riders that could be deployed, today it is quality and very sharp training that makes them versatile in a range of situations. The modern mounted officer is armed with as much technology and weaponry as a patrol car and has the same powers to issue infringement notices or effect an arrest.

But, the most difficult aspect is that quest for special horses. The days when mounted units bred their own are long gone. It was expensive and long lead times became inefficient. The one thing all the state units seek in a horse is the right temperament, they must be big (16HH or higher), trainable, sound, placid and ‘bomb proof’ enough to deal with a range of situations, but bold enough too under certain circumstances. That’s where it ends. Colour preferences vary between states. Some prefer ‘green’ horses and riders so they train for longevity, others look for levels of experience. Among the ranks you can find some successful ex-racehorses, eventers and good quality Dressage horses. There are also draughts and draught crosses, with the odd standout Waler, Appaloosa or other breed that has turned out to be the ideal police horse, no matter what its breed. In some states, hours in the saddle and riding conditions can be as tough as it gets, so endurance ability becomes paramount. 

Police stables are still in central city locations, with a great deal of history attached to them. They also have spelling farms near the cities. Added to the necessary budget are the stablehands and grooms, who are also mainly serving police officers.

Today’s approach still has to be cognisant of the factors that applied when they were first set up in colonial days. NSW, as the burgeoning colony saw Governors particularly proud of their mounted ‘guards’. The type of territory that needed covering , particularly in remoter locations, called for some hard riding and the ability to take care of the all-important means of transport. In South Australia, for example, what were known as Police Troopers, were considered the elite and that state ran both horses and up until the 1950s, camels. In outback areas from South Australia to Queensland and the Northern Territory, it was often the police riders who had to explore previously uncharted parts of the country. In the west, what was and still remains the largest mounted police jurisdiction in the world, can see horses floated over three days whereas once they had to be ridden for weeks through seering hot terrain, or across the remote Kimberley to reach an outback location.

Law enforcement

Kirsten McFadden rides at Windsor Castle.

The First Woman Commander – NSW

Australia’s first woman commander of a mounted branch is Inspector Kirsten McFadden of the NSW Police. Her role and the group she leads enjoys high level recognition on a global scale, aside from the daily patrol and operational police work.
Being dubbed the world’s oldest attracts attention, so Kirsten has that additional tradition and ceremonial skill to uphold. The unit was formed by Govenor Brisbane on 7 September, 1825. London’s Metropolitan Mounted Police were formed in 1828 and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1863. The current location at Redfern was taken up in 1907. The unit has performed at the Royal Easter Show since 1895.

But, while pomp, ceremony and musical drill rides for show crowds is  a great spotlight for the unit, it has to earn its keep with daily practical policing. When its 36 riders arrive for work on an average day they may be required to ride up to five horses. Or, they may be loading them onto the trucks and floats to carry out some tough crowd control duties, be an important part of a search operation. or as a visible presence at major sporting fixtures. The unit travels extensively around the state. Kirsten gets a lot of ‘wow, you get paid to ride and train horses for a living’ comments. While she agrees her job is ‘fabulous’, this superficial view belies what it takes to wear the police uniform on horseback.

There is no shortage of candidates. But, in NSW riding ability alone won’t get you there. The first priority is to complete police training at the training college in Goulburn. Then it’s assignment to a local area command for three years before being eligible to transfer to the mounted unit if a vacancy occurs.

That application requires a separate set of tests. “We are not after specific riding skills,” Kirsten says. “Having heart and courage is just as important.” There are physical fitness requirements, passing the medical and a written test before the riding test. The latter - covering a walk, trot and canter, plus exercises such as dragging a dummy and jumping are all done bareback. Full instruction in the care of horses and saddlery, riding skills, equitation and lance drill follow acceptance. All mounted officers must learn the drill that is an annual Royal Show feature. Rostering arrangements and staff availability means you ride the horse allocated on a given day. 

Kirsten’s entry to the unit came after she did two work experience stints while still at school.  The work experience route is still used as a recruiting tool. But, you don’t become an Inspector sitting on a horse. Kirsten cut her riding teeth through pony club, playing Polocrosse and Show Jumping near Dubbo. After moving to Sydney, she kept up her riding and decided to join the police. After initial training, Kirsten spent three years with the mounted unit, but to gain promotions she moved into other branches of policing, to go through the ranks from Seargeant to Inspector. She was then able to return to the mounted unit. Just over five years ago, what she describes as ‘the job that never comes up’, became vacant to lead the unit. “There were all male candidates, but I threw my hat into the ring and got it,” she says.


Law enforcement


The unit is 75 per cent female and has nine grooms. “It adds up to a diverse range of rider women,” she says. The gender mix is the opposite to what applies in the rest of the force. The female orientation calls for more flexible rostering and family-friendly approaches. 
The NSW unit is based in the heart of Redfern. Traditionally, the NSW horses must be bay, black or brown and a minimum 16HH. They use a variety of breeds, including Warmbloods, draught horses and Clydesdale crosses. Historically, geldings are preferred, but there are three mares now in the ranks. They are aged from three to eight. Each horse undergoes a three month trial. The unit may trial 10 horses just to get one good one. The checklist includes height, colour, age, temperament and soundness. It can take up to two years for a new mount to complete all facets of its training. Some are donated. Word of mouth also turns up some suitable candidates. “We get a lot of calls from people saying they have one that might suit.” But, if a suitable Thoroughbred is found, for example, it then goes to the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Programme for assessment first. “A lot don’t work out. They are on trial, so we don’t buy horses outright at that point,” Kirsten says. Those that don’t make the grade or retire are rehomed, with some sold.

The ceremonial side in NSW has included escorting the Olympic flag up George Street for the Sydney Olympics or as part of the opening ceremony to a special invitation to show their skills for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012. The invitation to perform at Windsor Castle was considered a particular honour, with 16 riders involved. Because of quarantine requirements, their regular mounts stayed home and the riders performed on the Royal household’s cavalry horses. They’d had some previous practice at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2005 and 2010.


Law enforcement, photo supplied by VIC Police

Crowd control training by Victoria Police.


The Way of The West

On the other side of the continent, a very different mounted policing picture has emerged. Seven years ago, the Western Australia Police Force’s command preferred a totally operational unit that would have to earn its stripes at the sharp end of policing. Its only ceremonial exception is to take part in Anzac Day events.

Senior Sergeant Glen Potter spent most of his force time as a detective, but is also a seasoned Rodeo rider. He now presides over what he describes as ‘the closest thing to a cavalry we have left’. “It was worth saving, so I took it on. But, if it hadn’t made the move to what it is today it would have died,” he says.

This unit has one of the toughest selection processes in the country and is 60 per cent male. The riders have to be super fit, they will carry out extremely demanding hours of training and on-duty riding, are mostly senior constables aged over 35 and will undergo 16 weeks of training before they go out on the road. This is not a job for life, such are the physical demands. The riders are offered a five year tenure.

The 29 horses are draught crosses, with one Waler. They need the endurance to cover the largest mounted jurisdiction in the world. Much of their work is full-on, front line policing in Perth’s main problem areas. “On Friday and Saturday nights they are tacked and loaded and will do roving patrols of suburban areas where alcohol-fuelled incidents are common. They can do up to five areas in a night.  This is core business. It is not uncommon to have bottles and bricks being thrown,” Glen says. They are also riding high visibility patrols in areas where street prostitution has become a problem. They will work in pairs or as a troop up to 16 abreast, depending on the job. The unit also spends five weeks on the road, following the racing season through the Kimberley and on to Broome. Demand for their services across the state is high. Feuds in Indigenous communities also sees the mounted unit arrive in regional areas. “The only times they’re not out working daily is when it’s over 40 degrees or there is lightning,” Glen says. “We’re extremely proud of the fact that we’ve reversed the unit from being disbanded to being a critical police resource.

The unit sources most of its horses from a cattle station in NSW because they are extremely hardy. Most of them are taken ‘green’. “We want draught working lines in them and it’s hard to find them locally,” Glen says. The horses are also kept barefoot, unless they need to be shod for therapeutic reasons. An issue with equine back problems has seen the unit buy specially designed cross-breed saddles after Glen did a study tour in the UK and had their designs adapted. Not only does it give rider comfort for long hours in the saddle, but coupled with the barefoot approach on hard surfaces, it has eased the problem.

He describes the rider training as ‘assertive’. Trainers hold Equestrian Australia Level 1 qualifications and are all police officers. The horses are ‘heavily desensitised’ to all distractions. Training sessions can include a game of ‘Mongolian Polo’ and even cattle drafting. Each officer is allocated a specific horse, but this can change depending on rosters. The horses are only stabled at night at a complex in Marylands and a 16 hectare farm 20 minutes from Perth is their spelling ground. Any horses that don’t make the grade are sold by tender.

“We are modern police riders. They have PDA’s on board, tasers and all the technology you would find on four wheels,” he says.


Law enforcement

Senior Constable Rachel Dunkinson on Appaloosa, Cooper and Sergeant Jayne Hanson with Willow during smoke training.


Training the Victorian way

A well bred Thoroughbred with track experience or a big, bold Appaloosa might look the part, but try riding it down inner Melbourne’s frenetic St Kilda Road with bustling trams, high construction activity and noisy traffic.

Getting a new recruit to the point of tackling a lap of this major road  requires quite an assessment and training journey. The Victoria Police mounted unit is first and foremost an operational crew and have worked out of a huge stable complex just off St Kilda Road since 1912.

Acting Senior Sergeant Amanda Crowley says that since the mounted unit’s breeding programme was stopped, there is a constant and active search for ‘a very special sort of horse’. They take Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods and Clydesdale crosses, but are using some other breeds that, as individual horses, make the grade. They need to be aged between six and 10, mares or geldings and a minimum of 16HH.

The dilemma is the need to be able to assess a new horse for a period of time before it is accepted. If such a horse can be even partly pre-qualified then this saves an enormous amount of time and resources. “We don’t have the time to take them off the track or to take on completely new horses,” Amanda says. They need to have been assessed by either a post-racing Thoroughbred programme or been out and ridden through adult riding or pony club and can easily handle being floated, shod or led. “They have to have had a bit of experience and by the age of six been exposed to a range of different things.” And, there is a tendency for potential sellers to assume that since this is government-funded they can somehow inflate prices. But, the unit’s leaders are well versed in the buying and selling game and besides, they have a budget to stick to. Horses are bought very much on merit. One might turn out to be ‘a diamond’ and worth bargaining for, but that is rare. First they have a trial period to pass. Over three months, an initial test needs a lot of boxes ticked before they go on to be  subjected to a wider range of stimuli. Trainer, Leading Senior Constable Michelle Turner, like Amanda, is a long time rider. The breed for police horses, she says, is no longer vital, but it has become more about the right temperament and trainability.

The unit currently has a lot of young horses for its 28 personnel, with the need to bring some more through to fill the demand. Once a trainer has assessed all of the soundness issues and a horse’s reactions, if it shows promise at that point it will be put into a trial phase. This begins with a thorough assessment of disposition and a course of how they react to ‘nuisance’ objects. These can range from umbrellas being opened suddenly, to different, unfamiliar surfaces, a drum being beaten, material being flapped around their faces or walking through a perceived barrier. Some may pass all of that, but fail to overcome being people shy. This is a crucial process that has to be passed before they go out for their first St Kilda Rd trip or onto learning how to deal with smoke bombs being let off, or even a dummy dangled ahead who may want to disrupt horse or rider. An older, experienced mount and rider will accompany the novice riding the busy road closest to the traffic. “Trams in Melbourne are a big issue for us. Some horses won’t ever have seen white line markings. There is also a lot of noisy construction in the area. A good horse won’t know it’s going on,” Michelle says. After a fortnight, they can tell if a horse definitely won’t make it. The chosen ones will have training ramped up to include fronting up to a school fence with a lot of screaming children who want to pat them. They have even been known to bring the Victoria Police Pipe Band into training sessions. But, even after three months, some still won’t make the grade.

Persistence and consistency are the keys to training and it is all done with positive reinforcement. Even if a horse passes all the tests with flying colours, they can develop issues later and need ‘retuning’.

Like the other units, riders must be fully trained police officers first and then apply to join the mounted unit. That can take a few years. The duties require sharp police skills. A media storm erupted in Victoria recently after a city union protest turned violent. Footage of a protestor punching one of the police horses caused widespread condemnation. However, Amanda says this is rare. “We are more likely to hear protestors say ‘get the rider’ not the horses’,” she says. The Safe Streets programme in central Melbourne also uses the unit and they ride two up from 7pm to 3am Friday and Saturday nights, including through the more volatile nightclub areas. They will also get a call from a suburban police district to provide a high profile presence when needed. And yes, it is also a very effective public PR machine. Not only on Anzac Day, but a group of loitering street kids will opt for the chance to pat a gentle equine giant rather than abuse its uniformed rider.


Law enforcement


Going Grey - South Australia

In South Australia, the Mounted Unit is a familiar sight with its big grey horses. But, finding them is a tall order because the unit’s operations manager, Senior Sergeant Damian Eichner, takes a different approach. The greys hark back to World War I. All the darker horses were sent overseas with the Light Horsemen because they were less visible. The police on the other hand wanted the most visible horses for work on roads. By the 1920s, there were 250 horses in police service, as well as 50 camels in more remote locations.

Today, the 40 greys are housed in loose boxes at the Thebarton Police Barracks - their home since 1917 - and they undergo years of training. Because of the need for quick response times, Damian says there is a move away from Thoroughbreds because of the amount of time to work them down before they can head out on duty. “Deployment times have become very important,” he says.

Among the ranks are a limited number of Thoroughbreds, with Warmbloods, Shires and Percherons.  Unit members are allocated up to four horses to work.  The unit has also switched from already broken horses to sourcing ones that are completely green. “We’d rather teach them our way rather than have them already taught one set of tricks.” Taking them as two year olds, there is then a two year training period before they go onto the streets. “We don’t want a racehorse or a jumper,” he says. “But, it’s a tall order to find a bulletproof, healthy, big, grey, unbroken two year old with the right temperament.”

With this approach, Damian says they still have horses in service at 23 years of age. “We spend the time to build the horse.” Out of the 40 horses, 10 are trained for public order. “We have very much become an operational police section, not the ‘police pony club’,” he says. Recruiting is done from within the force and the unit is currently 40 per cent male to 60 per cent female. It is a city-based unit with horses no longer used as country patrols. If any of the horses don’t make the police grade they are sold at auction as police assets. Unsound horses are generally taken by ex-members or are gifted to someone prepared to take them as unrideable ‘paddock pals’ for the rest of their lives. And, the unit is open to offers from anyone who thinks they may have the right type of horse. “If people want us to look at what they have we can do so. We can only say no if it doesn’t suit,” Damian says.




Issue 43

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