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Taking his Plcae

Taking his place, an article published in Equi Ads magazine December 2007, about Thorne the Police Horse.


Today has “potential”, potential for trouble that is. We are working a busy match at Sheffield United football ground; the rival fans are spoiling for a fight. Our training will be put to the test, I have prepared as well as I can, Thorne is “worked up” this week and I have even lunged him this morning so he is in a settled frame of mind.


Thorne and I are deployed with a more experienced horse at Bramhall Lane, The main entrance to the ground, watching the arrival of fans, monitoring the local pubs, controlling the queues and seeing to everyone’s safety. There are four other pairs of horses in the area, all working as a team. Ten horses in total at the ground.


The kick off time is three o’clock, it is now just after two, my radio kicks into life; in my earpiece I hear that there is a hostile group of “away fans” trawling the city centre looking for trouble. They have been found by a patrolling public order van, and when the people in the van have tried to stop them the crowd have turned on the Officers, the voices are loud and urgent.


Six of the horses are released to go and help with the disorder; Thorne and I are one of those resources. We start a quick trot towards the trouble, as we get going the situation becomes more urgent, the crowd are attacking the foot Officers, they need assistance. We all move to canter, the clattering hooves on the tarmac echoing off the tall buildings at the side. Three in front, three behind, including Thorne. He is surprised, finding it difficult to canter downhill on tarmac, vision partially obscured by a plastic visor, a horse each side of him.


We get to the roundabout at the bottom of the hill, we must turn left. The other horses are more experienced; they slow and shorten their stride or break to trot to negotiate the slippery corner. I ask Thorne for his attention, he is obedient and slows but does not understand yet the dangers of tarmac corners, we go round like “Scooby Doo”, all slipping legs and sparks flying. And off again, all six cantering up the dual carriageway. Thorne, very excited now, lowers his head and canters in a rocking horse style, Ye Ha, this is a new and good game! I contain him, we are here for a job, must keep a lid on it. Another corner, again Thorne is obedient, slows some but has not got the hang of shortening for the corners. When he speeds up again, he again starts like “Scooby Doo”, legs running but going nowhere, just like a cartoon. You have to laugh or cry in this situation. Laughing is better! A few more corners and Thorne is getting it, realising that there is something about these corners that he had better pay attention to. At each one he starts to slow himself, rebalance, and think. Perfect, although he is VERY excited at the new game!


On arrival at the crowd we see what the fuss is about. There are around 40 very aggressive fans, Police vans and cars parked up with Officers attempting to contain the crowd, batons drawn, shouting from behind lowered visors. Police Dogs bark and snarl to keep the crowd at bay. On the horses we are protected, raised above the fists and kicks, so we move in to take the pressure off the Police Foot Officers. People will not usually attack the horses; they are too scared that the horse will kick back! The shouting and aggression is immense, Thorne, already excited by the run to the scene is “high”, but controllable. In fact when it comes to moving the crowd his adrenaline is a bonus as he is so light footed and able to complete dressage type movements that we could only dream about in a more sedate setting.


Once they are contained we can escort the fans down towards the ground. I choose the rear of the escort as here we can take a step back if necessary, and Thorne is SO full of adrenaline, he is on such fingertip control I am finding it hard to ride a straight line, every movement I make he responds with a sideways sway!  Here at the back we keep the crowd together, as they are violent we have right to make contact, we push and shove to keep them in a group that we can control. We have practiced for this, Thorne remembers his training and gets his visored face in there and has a shove.


Once at the ground Thorne is not ready to stand in an enclosed space with the crowd, he is quivering with adrenaline so I stand him off to one side to observe and settle. As soon as we are there, however a small fight breaks out between four fans right in front of us. The rest of the crowd turn to look, if we do not get in and stop it now then others will join in, there will be a mass brawl. Quickly, as an instinctive move, as soon as I see it I ride Thorne right in there, between the fighting people. He hesitates, fists are already flying, the crowd is roaring. My determination carries him in, he really MUST go, if we lose it now then there will be one big disorder happening. Thorne gets in there, makes his 18hh presence known, the fight is stopped almost as soon as it starts. I try to grab the main combatants, but they pull back, get sucked back into the crowd out of sight.


The fight has carried us into the busier area, we are surrounded by innocent people and Thorne’s training pays off. He is “high” on the action but does as requested and stands in the midst of the noise and bustle. I am his calm, still and breathing evenly, subconsciously telling him “its OK Thorne, we know about crowds”. Our partners stand still beside us, companionship and an example of what is required. Thorne holds his ground until the crowd subsides and we are “stood down” for a break.


During the match we have a walk around to dissipate the “adrenaline soup” in his system and then we have a break back at the horsebox. Thorne has a drink and a hay net, we have an ice cream from the petrol station, that was hot work in our protective armour and helmets.  


I could do with phase three starting in a more orderly fashion so Thorne can remember what football is usually about, but this does not happen. As soon as we are mounted we hear over the radios that the disorderly group is leaving the ground early, they look as if they are massing together to create more disorder, we are to get there as soon as we can. With barely time to tighten girths we are out in the street, once again in canter together to reach, surround and contain the crowd. A surprise to Thorne and not what I would have wanted, but we have a job to do and will have to cope with whatever happens.


The crowd are angry that their ploy of leaving early to give the Police the slip has not worked; corralled on the pavement they are violent and chanting. Chanting is a funny thing, when a group of fans starts chanting it is as if they take on the persona of one large body, like the courage and rage of all are added together. And this group is undergoing this transformation, where people will do things as a group that they would never consider doing on their own.


The Senior Officers decide to escort this group to the station as they came by train. As it is still early, if we do this now we will avoid conflict with the “home” fans who are still inside. We set off along the street, and soon realise that as the crowd have no opposing fans to fight, they will turn their attention on us. We keep them in a tight group, horses front, back and sides, with foot Officers in “Riot Gear” surrounding and containing the group.


Thorne and I start at the back, on the right hand side. Some of the crowd are attempting to “slow time” us to string the group out so they can break free. Again Thorne gets in and moves them; I think he is starting to understand this role. Suddenly the crowd starts to chant a number, I recognise the number as the identification number on the helmet of one of the foot Officers on the right hand side of the escort. They chant his number and I decide to move closer to him as protection. The chanting suddenly erupts into roars and shouts, a large group of the crowd move to grab hold of this Officer to drag him into the crowd. No time to waste, I throw Thorne forwards and cut off most of the crowd so the Officer will not disappear out of our reach, I feel thumps on my legs, see people pulling at Thorne’s bridle, faces twisted in rage. Again batons are out, the Police trying to make space and to get the remaining men off the Officer.


The moment subsides; again it is like the sea sucking a wave back, the main ringleaders hidden in the crowd. In this fashion we get to the station, anger and rising and falling tensions, occasional attempts to break free or isolate an Officer. At the station the crowd is taken to a holding area, more foot Officers arrive to escort them onto the train.


Once it is quiet, outside the station, Thorne needs a moment. He stands head high, still, but it is an unnatural stillness. Usually I walk him to dissipate the adrenaline, but in moments of VERY high tension it feels as if their legs are held to the ground by huge electro magnets, and if you ask them to move the movement will be as if an elastic band has broken and you will get more movement than you bargain for. So we have a moment, Thorne has done well and I give him the time to process what has happened. I wait until Thorne’s head starts to lower and his feet free up, he rests a back leg. Good, ready for patrol again, hopefully now the opposing fans are gone it will be a formality, back to the horse box and home for tea.


The training of a Police horse never stops, we constantly monitor how they react to what they experience. Over the next week I will have Thorne back to a town centre to remind him that most crowds mean a nice fuss and Polos, then hopefully to another quiet match so he can see that the world has not gone mad. I have a good feeling about today though, matches like this happen only a few times a year, and on this first one he did well.







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