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Training the people, article published in Equi Ads magazine February 2007.



Ruth Dickens is a Police Constable, and has been Chief Trainer with the Mounted Section since 1995. She has trained many Police Mounted Officers, including four other trainers in force, and is a National Mounted Police assessor. Her interests include researching and implementing a more facilitative approach to training, and a more “natural” approach to horsemanship. Ruth is also a BHS II, and competes on her own horses to BE Intermediate level, and has had the pleasure of competing at CCI* international three day events.


The South Yorkshire Police Mounted section has sixteen horses ranging from 16.2hh to 18hh, and the same number of riders, all based in Cudworth, Barnsley. The Stables complex houses stables and offices, has an all weather outdoor arena and 10 acres of grazing land. Horses and Officers patrol all of South Yorkshire doing the work of any other Patrol Officer, making arrests, stopping vehicles and dealing with complaints. Officers also work football matches, cover public order such as night patrols in City centres and have ceremonial duties such as parades. The Officers are supported by six grooms who are responsible for horse welfare while on the complex.


Recruits to the section are experienced Police Officers who may never have sat on a horse before. At the end of an intensive sixteen week training course Officers must be ready to take on the care and riding of “their” Police Horse, dealing with any training issues. Although they will be allocated an experienced horse they must be prepared to go straight to work on the streets of South Yorkshire. It is quite common for the course to finish on the Friday and Officers will then work a football match on Saturday.


During their course riders are trained in skills as diverse as stable management, road safety, riding a dressage test, riding a course of show jumps, riding a variety of cross country obstacles such as ditches, banks, logs, and streams. They will have patrolled quiet estate roads, busier shopping parades, main A roads, Roundabouts, dual carriageways, town and city centres. They will be trained in public order manoeuvres, stopping cars safely, directing traffic, and how to write evidence whilst sitting on or holding an inquisitive horse. All in 16 weeks from scratch. To achieve this feat Ruth has developed skills and procedures to “fast track” riders with the minimum of risk.




Ruth Writes:-



Most Police Officers have been trained to think in a very linear, logical way whether taking statements, preparing evidence or making sense of a drunken brawl. The biggest input in physical/ mechanical training they will ever likely have had will be an intensive training course from Driver Training department in how to drive a Police car at high speed. This is also achieved in a very linear manner, with a militaristic, repetitive, numbered feel. A chant used to be learned, although no more, and was memorised by each student:- “The System of car control is a system or drill, each feature of which is considered by the driver at the approach to any hazard ….. Ask most long serving Police Officers, they can remember it still.


But although this is undoubtedly a successful method for learning to control a mechanical vehicle, a horse is a living, breathing animal, with feelings, opinions and observations of its own. And in some ways teaching in a linear way can be almost comical, like doing the Hokey Cokey on horseback, you know Put Your Left Leg Here, Your Right Hand There, etc etc. And when giving riders a list of instructions they will then start to measure their success at following them. And have an internal conversation. I call it their inner critic. You know….. “I didn’t do that well enough, I must do better, I forgot to.., I did this badly….”.And this is the most destructive block to learning, this internal critical dialogue, people speak to themselves in such a destructive, rude way that I don’t think they would take from me or anyone else!


To lose the influence of the destructive critic, much of the early work is done on FEEL. What do you feel? And if the mind can quiet, and input on what the rider is feeling comes through their body, as long as the rider knows to use the outside leg if the horse swings its quarters, and feels for it, they do not NEED a list of instructions to tick off. They will be RIDING.



For riders there are many issues involved with learning to ride. There is the emotional state of riding a very large independent horse. Next is the logical side to riding. There are numerous pieces of information to take in, from how to adjust tack to how to ask for a halt. The next thing we look at is the Mechanics of riding. For example when a horse moves from halt to walk the horse lurches forwards. Often novice riders do not stay on top of this wave of energy, falling behind the movement. Unfortunately our horses take this as a signal to stop again.



 As our horses are not professional riding school horses we take it steady and explain to the riders why it is that the horse is seemingly disobeying. In fact we have a few horse jokers who I believe know exactly what the riders WANT but take delight in doing exactly what the riders ASK FOR or PERMIT!  And you can hardly be annoyed with them for that. But sitting astride a horse that is side passing, reining back, going forwards in a walk to canter transition and back again in a few feet tests the emotional, logical and mechanical responses of a new rider to the full.


Humans seem to have a hard time learning through the domains of emotion, logic and mechanics at the same time so we take time on the lunge to work through the aspects in turn. Lunging also has the benefit that each rider warms up their own horse on the lunge, and here they experience just what a magnificently observant animal they are. Horses are prey animals, their minds are wired differently to us. We look AT things (we are hunters) Horses are observant around everything. On the lunge we have horses that will lunge beautifully if you look at their hips or behind, but if you look to their eye they will turn in, or stop. The horses will observe things that we are doing that WE do not even KNOW we are doing.


This appreciation of observance then carries on to understanding how observant they are when mounted. The problem with the rider “falling behind the wave” of movement is huge to the horse. The legs say go, the weight says stop. Now our horses are pretty obliging and will try to interpret the signals as best as possible, but the ones we teach initial novices on are what I would call ”fail safe” i.e. if they get conflicting signals their inclination is to obey the stop/ slow one, not the faster one! But riders can misunderstand this as the horse being dull or unresponsive, and this needs addressing in the early stages for the good of the horses.


For instance we do not canter until the rider can sit to the trot sufficiently well for the horse to be able to decipher that a canter aid has actually been given. At first the legs may need to be working hard, but quite soon we will do an exercise in imagery and the power of intent,  where the rider is sitting to an economical trot (or even as an exercise from walk). The rider then feels their own energy rise, I usually tell the rider to imagine they are returning to their car where they have left their dog for a few minutes. As they get closer they imagine that they can see the dog chewing something, they pick up their energy as if they were picking up their pace walking. Finally they are suspicious that the dog is chewing their car seat so they break into the next pace. At the same time they do a sharp, big out breath, a big loud sudden expelling of air. This releases the rider’s ribs, and allows the horse to rise. And they are cantering. Try it, works for us! Or maybe we all eat too much garlic and we sting their ears! But riders can see that the kicking is quite unnecessary, canter transitions with no leg aids as opposed to kicking to no effect, all achieved in a few minutes. Magic!


Lunging is also really enjoyable to teach for looking at detective work to rectify problems. For instance the common phrase “heels down”. Well if you say that most people do get their heels down, but they do it by unbending their knee some, and putting their lower leg forwards. That creates bracing in the stirrup, and when a rider is braced they cannot “feel “the horse, or what to do, and they will bounce as a braced body will not follow the movement of the horse. New riders are often tight in the groin area, and because of this the stirrups have to start a little short so the area is not over strained. If it is strained the body will protect itself by drawing the leg up, and the heel will rise. With the stirrup at an appropriate length if the rider thinks about lowering their KNEES, the upper leg will become more vertical and the heel will have no alternative but to lower. Magic!


Another one is where the rider tips in and collapses the inner hip and ribs, a very common problem when learning to canter. If you just tell the rider to “sit straight”, not realising that the problem has occurred because their seat has slipped to the outside of the saddle, the problem could become worse as the rider tries to find their centre, they will make themselves into an S shape in an effort to straighten their ribs as this is where you have told them the problem is.  Its like riders cannot feel where “straight” is, their internal feel is off. The trainer has to see the problem to the root, that the whole seat has moved to the outside, and this is why the rider is tipping to the inside. This is the detective work, seeing the symptom and following it back to find the root of the problem, as if you just “fix” the visible “problem” the rider will have to brace to give the appearance of being correctly aligned, storing problems for the future.


For this problem of tipping in I teach the rider to sit their seats slightly to the inside prior to turns or the transition, to actually sit what feels like on top of the outside thigh, with the inside hip forwards. The inside of the body can now mechanically be a lot straighter, the inside leg stronger, and the rider is far less likely to have their seat thrown to the outside, so they won’t have to tip their upper body to the inside to compensate. A discreet way to achieve this alignment is to turn the shoulders to the outside for a few strides to bring the inner hip forwards.


We have a saying that until you are in control of your own body you can hardly be expected to control the horse, so riders will usually ride on the lunge for the first two weeks, and still several times a week after that. Next is learning control and finding confidence riding large on the school.  Talking is a good indicator of where a rider is. If they can ride and talk then they are ready for more. The technique we are working on has moved into the sub conscious and they are ready for more information to be given to their conscious mind to process. If however you overload their conscious thought process not only can rider not talk, you find that they have forgotten to breathe too! No, really! Sometimes we have had a whole lesson on how to breathe, breathing should be complete, front and back of your ribs, and deep inside you. Just remembering to breathe at all is a start!


By the end of week 4 riders are ready for their first progress test. For a new rider the test would consist of riding on the school in walk, trot and canter, exercises without stirrups in walk and trot, a simple dressage test in walk and trot, and demonstrating jumping position on the flat. There is also a written test on stable management and a tack/ horse/ stable inspection.


Jumping is the next big “hurdle”(!). Our riders will not be expected to tackle a jump until their bodies already know how to do it, and they may have two weeks of “jumping lessons” before they ever see a pole. Starting with more mature riders who may not be fit and supple it is important to gently increase the amount of stretch and strength in their bodies. At first a little walking in jumping position may be all some people can take. Finding balance is the aim in these sessions, and riders will be staying in jumping position in walk, trot and canter.


Then more fun begins as riders also become able to do a “rising canter” and progressing to rise two strides, sit two strides, then rise three strides, sit three strides and so on, able to move their balance and position around the horse at will. Then we have riders cantering around the arena crouching low over the withers, then standing high in the stirrups. What we are effectively doing is training the muscles and sub conscious to recover position and balance so that when the emotional occurrence of actually tackling a jump occurs, and the rider’s logical reasoning shuts down at least the mechanics of staying on board has become automatic. We have developed “muscle memory”.


At this stage if the weather permits Officers will also ride in the fields at the Police Complex. This is great for feeling some freedom and for testing control in a safe environment. We also have hills that riders can practice cantering up (like a take off to a jump over and over again) and down (like a landing from a jump over and over again). Then finally…..the jump, which after all that preparation is usually a bit of an anti climax and very safe.


By the week eight progress test riders are assessed at Walk, trot and canter with and without stirrups, a Prelim Dressage test, and a grid of fences. They also demonstrate “Troop Drill” in which four horses will move as a close section, keeping dressing accurate. This is the basis of our public order training. They also repeat the dreaded Kit/ horse/ stable inspection and the theory test. This theory test will include a section on Riding and Road Safety.


Now riders can progress to riding quiet roads and tracks around the local area. They will still have regular lunge lessons, daily schooling sessions but every other day will ride out too. As they progress we build up to more major roads and start to look at Police Work on horseback. The once familiar act of stopping a vehicle and issuing the driver with a fixed penalty notice for not wearing a seatbelt is suddenly fraught with difficulties as the horse tries to get in on the act.  The schooling sessions become more technical as Police work requires side passing, turns on fore and haunches and rein back just to manoeuvre the animals in a close crowd situation with safety. Officers also learn leg yield, shoulder in and travers.  Some of the schooling session will move to the local open spaces, in our area we have remodelled “pit stacks” which are ideal, sloping surfaces and wide open spaces. We mark out a schooling area with reflective tabards on the floor and set to with our education. This also helps prepare Officers for their high profile riding role, as every dog walker and family with children will stop to watch their progress.


Week 12 test is a dress rehearsal for the final exam. Riders must prove themselves safe and competent in riding at walk, trot and caner in close proximity at “Troop Drill” and as individuals with a high degree of accuracy. They must also demonstrate walk, trot and canter without stirrups. They will ride a Novice Dressage test, and demonstrate their lateral turns and movements. They must also jump a full course of show jumps to 3’ on two different horses. Plus the dreaded kit/ stable/ horse inspection and a further theory exam.


After this the real fun stuff begins with trips in the lorry, travelling to the more major towns and cities. It is a different type of fitness for riding in the school as opposed to now walking for hours “on the beat”. Patrol work involves less energy but a very sore behind! Officers also learn to cover more difficult terrain, banks, ditches etc. Police Horses do not get to do much of this sort of work and the Jekyll and Hyde personalities of the horses can be quite a surprise.


 If possible we will go to a public order training session and experience rapid acceleration and deceleration on tarmac, and working as a team for safety, building on the Troop Drill started in the school. Training with the horses to help them face hazards such as fire is also included. Not forgetting the schooling sessions, although I must admit once the “outside” stuff has started it is hard to get the students to relish the sand pit again!


It may seem funny to others that we teach people to ride then make it so they can’t. For instance for Public order duties we have to wear padding, shin pads, knee pads, thigh pads and rolls, ballistic vests, arm pads, elbow protectors, thick brick proof gloves, flame proof overalls and a heavy helmet which covers your ears, and has a visor. In my gloves I cannot even feel if I am holding the reins or not, let alone ride with feel! My arms do not bend, and everything is in the way. Because of the difficulties we have a session or two on the school as familiarisation, along with fitting the horses with their visors (which restrict vision, especially in the rain), nose plates and chains.


The sessions are always fraught with frustration- “you expect me to ride like THIS?????”  But it is necessary as Officers must be familiar and overcome the difficulties before wearing the stuff “live”. In a few weeks they may be expected to canter a 20 meter circle on tarmac, dodging the tram tracks, whilst using their radio with one hand, holding the reins in the other hand, and directing the crowd with their other hand (!) at least that is how it feels!



Although on a training session this would be impossible to do (you would fall down believe me!), when you do it “live” it works. There is adrenaline, and a sense of purpose and focus. You and the horse are as one. When you want to turn and go “THERE” you don’t think “I’ll put my left leg here, my right hand there….” , you and the horse just turn and GO, as one. And that is what we are aiming at in the training, to have the level of feel, understanding and comfort that you can just BE. Fantastic.



Week 16 is final exam time. One good aspect of the “outside” work is that riders have become more confident in their ability to cope with what the world (and their horses!!)  will throw at them, and even if sometimes their technical skill is no higher that at 12 weeks they are more robust in their abilities. The riders will have developed a rapport with the horse and will be unrecognisable from the vulnerable passenger of the first week.


After the exam…..on to football. The first match is a pivotal point in the career of most Mounted Officers, and although mounted on an experienced horse and in the company of a trainer the newest recruit will be feeling very much on display, seen as a fully experienced Mounted Officer in the eyes of the public.


I am often likened to a mother hen, fussing round after my chicks on a course, but after this point there is a “painful to me” process of weaning myself away! It’s a celebration, a “job well done”, and another rider is fit to protect the people of South Yorkshire.


Ruth Dickens.






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