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Stepping up to the plate

Stepping up to the Plate, an Article published in Equi Ads magazine October 2007.
 football4 (2)
It is time for Thorne to commence full duties, no longer working at football as a spare. We have introduced Thorne steadily to the sights and sounds, and now Thorne and I are counted on, the back-up for other officers. 


We firstly take up the role at a quieter match, the difference now being that there is no “escape route” if it is all too much for him. Thorne has been naturally curious and confident, but we will be a step closer to the action from now on. The match pictured was at Rotherham, we started the day with an escort of “Away” fans to the ground. We have about 50 fans, two horses at the back, two at the front, foot Officers taking up the sides. Up until now Thorne has been at the back so we can fall back if it is too much, today we will be at the front.


The escort starts quietly enough, the fans want to go to the ground and are happy that we are escorting them, it is a passive escort. Thorne swings along, he has learned to walk slowly, walk slightly sideways so we can block the people and see what they are doing.  About half way there we come across a group of “home” fans. The fifty fans behind us have been kept close together so we can protect them, but they see the opposition and set up a huge roar and start to sing and shout.


Thorne has been familiarised with shouting and clapping, but the sudden onset takes him by surprise. This almost 18hh horse shrinks to about 16.2 as he crouches low, and tries to turn to see the commotion. My reaction is crucial, with the sudden release of adrenaline Thorne is on “fingertip control” excessively sensitive to any movement or mood in his rider. The reaction of Thorne makes the crowd roar more. It is my job, in this possibly hostile situation, on top of this quivering beast to stay really relaxed, and breathe. “Hey Thorne, no big deal, its just noise, we’ve met that plenty of times”.


If I tense up and jump myself at this moment Thorne will see it as his cue to make good his escape, like “I agree Thorne- RUN!”. If I then snatched at his reins to prevent this he would feel the need to fight me, and need correcting. The whole training ethos has been about consistency and trust. I trust that Thorne will do his best and that he will work the problem out, he trusts that I will help him and give him space to do so. If we get into a fight now then some of that is lost, and he may start to connect stressful situations with “correction”. By staying relaxed Thorne tunes back into me, in my mind I am still walking, he thinks about the situation, and, tentatively at first, goes right back to swinging along at walk, with all the noise and clapping.


We meet some more fans along the way, and each time the fans we are escorting roar at them. By the end of the journey to the ground Thorne is finding it hard to even feign Polite Interest, the doings of these strange humans are interfering with his haynet time after all.


While the match is on, while the football players do their stuff, for the horses it is back to the lorry for a haynet and a drink. With a young horse though I have found that however “good” they have been they may be suffering with an “adrenaline soup” in their system, and I have found that if you then put them straight on the lorry they will stew in this adrenaline soup, and come out to Police after the match in not such a good state. So for this match we trot to the top of a very big hill, then march back down again. Then have the haynet.


The photo shows Thorne after the match. He is deep in the crowd, monitoring and controlling the egress of fans away from the stadium. He is so relaxed that again he is having difficulty in even feigning polite interest and his head is not visible above the people. Thorne has learned that “A Moving Crowd Yields No Polos!” A fine end to the match!


Progress with Thorne is good, but there is one training exercise we have not yet completed, that is necessary before we can effectively Police a busy match. We have to go Public Order training. Thorne’s first time with this was a little fraught.


Thorne has been well brought up by his breeder, and as a big horse has been trained not to knock into people. This Public Order training includes an escort where the people we are escorting are played by Police Officers who are all padded up, and they are not co-operative. They have flags, banners, rattles, whistles, fog horns, they shout, clap and wave flags. We have to escort them, and they will refuse to move.


Thorne is protected by his nose plate and visor, but today he has to learn to get into the crowd and make contact with them. Experienced horses love this, they lower their heads and shove hard, sending people forwards. We go to the back and have an experienced horse to show Thorne the way.


The escort starts well, Thorne is by now only politely interested in the antics of humans, plainly not impressed or scared by noise as someone shouts down his ear with a megaphone. But then the crowd gets less co-operative, and I ask him to move in and touch the people.


Thorne gets upset, he has been taught from birth to be polite to humans, and this goes against the grain. Police Horse “Kendray” beside him shows him what to do; nods his head and moves the people on. Thorne wants to back away.


This is a moment in Thorne’s education where the trust and relationship that we have built up will be tested and hopefully paid back. I have to insist that “YES this is what I want, touch those people” and he does. But he is stressed at the idea, so we go in a bit, lay back a bit, then go in a bit more.


Thorne does as he is asked, but it is not easy for either of us. Although he will go into the crowd, he wants to jog, and twist and turn, as though he is fighting an internal battle. Bravery in a crowd is very important to us, and this is one situation Thorne must learn not to back away from. I do as much as I can, but to be fair this training session has been a hitch in his general progress. Thorne has been so easy to train; I had not anticipated that his polite and easy nature would actually cause a problem at this stage!


Fortunately there is a second training session a couple of weeks later, and this time I prepare better. It is not possible to prepare further around the yard, whatever he has to do at football he is still a big horse and must remain polite and respectful around the yard, there is a time and place for pushing people around! So this time I work him hard the day before, then ride him the two hours to the training ground, arriving an hour before the training session. I also ride him over there alone; I want him focused on me as a leader, not just following another horse.


Thorne is suspicious as soon as we arrive, he remembers the scene of his confusion, but he is soon settled as he has apples from the packed lunches of the foot Officers. So many apples in fact that the ground is sticky with white froth! As the training session starts we again start slowly, and then I ask him to move into the crowd. This time he is much better, gets in there and has a shove or two. Best of all he is VERY interested but not so stressed. And he holds his body straight, and can stand still when I need him to. Success! Especially as this is only the second time we have done this.


There will be more training sessions with this, but it is very labour intensive with 40 Officers and three other horses. For now I am happy that we are ready to be active in the Service of the people of South Yorkshire at a busy match.




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