“They’re not totally bombproof. One of them is afraid of butterflies.”
Constable Richard Vanstone is talking about one of the horses in the Vancouver Police Mounted Unit. “Riots, he’s totally fine with,” he smiles, “As long as it’s not a riot of butterflies.”
This is not a conversation I ever would have imagined having with a policeman.
We’re standing in the heart of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, home of the Vancouver Mounted Police Unit. Tall evergreen trees hide any view of the nearby skyscrapers. At first glance, it seems similar to any other barn. Three horses doze in the sun in one corner of the outdoor ring. A massive black dog, Nora, is splayed out in the entrance, forcing everyone to step over her while they go about various chores.
The barn is airy and composed of double box stalls. “Each horse is considered a police officer, so they’re just as important as human constables.” Richard says. Clydesdales, Percherons and draft crosses make up most of the equine officers, chosen almost entirely for temperament. “The sign of a good police horse is not whether or not they get scared, it’s how they deal with that fright.” Richard states. Prospective horses come in for a thirty-to-sixty day trial, in which they are evaluated based on how they handle the desensitizing training. They are incrementally exposed to all mannerisms of tarps, balloons and umbrellas. There are odd things that the horses need to get used to as well, such as walking along a street with an underground train rumbling below their feet, and even strolling through fire.
As we walked around the barn, I was introduced to Duke, an Appaloosa Clydesdale cross. I recognized him immediately – not from patrolling the park, but from the 2011 Stanley Cup Riots. My friends and I had left early, suspecting there would be trouble once the game ended. We had gotten a few blocks away from the crowd when we heard screaming and windows smashing. I turned around to see smoke rising from where we had been standing moments before. It looked like an apocalypse. A small group of mounted officers was walking purposefully towards the chaos. I stopped in my tracks, totally astounded at how calmly the horses (including one huge speckled draft – Duke) were plodding towards everything traditionally considered “spooky.”
Almost seven years later, Duke is snuffling my face while Richard tells me about how the horses are placed after retirement. “We have to be careful about who ends up with them,” he says, “Police horses are known for being totally unflappable, and we don’t want anyone taking advantage of that.” There are huge advantages to being able to patrol on horseback, especially monitoring the extensive trail system in the 1000 acre park. The situations the officers deal with are variable and impossible to predict – missing children, intoxication and thefts, to name a few. But the largest part of the job of a mounted unit officer is engaging with the public. “A lot of the time people want to know about the horses but not necessarily the riders – that’s okay!” Richard laughs.
The mounted unit is considered to be a specialty unit, in which “regular” officers can apply for a five-year term. Some, like Richard, who competed in the hunter and jumpers before becoming a policeman, came to the unit with previous experience. Others learn from scratch. Each officer is paired with one horse based on their abilities and the horse’s personality. They share the same four days on, three days off schedule, and will generally patrol for five hours on their working days. “We’ll break that ride up into two, so we’ll ride for a few hours, grab a coffee, get off their backs, and give them a time out.” Richard says. Aside from coffee breaks, the horses also get group turnout, massage and chiropractic treatments.
Mounted police units will always occupy an important niche in cities worldwide, although they are quite rare. “There are hundreds, not thousands of us in the world.” Richard points out. Aside from being able to patrol where vehicles can’t go – like beaches and big crowds – the horses are an important conduit for relating to the public. “Without public support, we can’t police,” Richard emphasizes, “You go to other countries that are dangerous and have issues – they don’t police, they rule. Whereas in Canada, you’re working for the people and with the people. So to be able to talk to a police officer and gain insight or ask questions or provide feedback about what’s going on in your community – that’s policing.”
The comment mounted police officers receive most from the public? “I didn’t think that police officers were this nice.”