British photographer Barbara Hind spent two years with the Nottinghamshire Mounted Police in 2002 when eight operational horses, a Sergeant, seven Constables and two civilian grooms were still an active part of the force.
The news, last October, that New Zealand Police were considering the re-introduction of police on horseback in Southland, was a reminder of a distant past when mounted police were an integral part of police forces throughout the world.
Although it is nearly 70 years since the last two police horses were retired in New Zealand, many forces worldwide still see the benefit of their officers on horseback.
In Britain, there are still 13 forces that employ mounted police units and it is 10 years since the last unit was disbanded.
Not surprisingly, horses had been on active duty in UK policing for some time. The first recorded mounted patrols were in 1760, when London roads were plagued by highwaymen and police on horseback seemed an effective way of dealing with the problem of dangerous roads. It proved a success, as by 1805, there were 52 mounted policemen in London, all ex-Cavalrymen, all married and over 35.
The officers were distinguishable by their red waistcoats and became known as the ‘Redbreasts’. They carried a sabre, pistol, truncheon and handcuffs and were certainly a formidable deterrent to would-be criminals.
Nottinghamshire did not see its first horse-borne policeman until 1877 and then they were used as despatch riders, but for the next 135 years, horses became a permanent fixture in policing the County.
The training and care necessary to maintain the Mounted Section were thorough and painstaking for both horse and rider. Horses had to be trained to be well-mannered and obedient in all conditions. A big part of the training was to ensure the horse could cope with sudden noise and unusual sights and sounds. For an animal whose natural defence is to run away, that meant the trainer had to patiently allow the animal to be accustomed to these abnormal situations in its own time. Consequently, the training could take six months before the horse, and its officer, were confident enough to face an unruly public.
During its life as a police horse, it would be shod every four weeks with road studs and non-slip nails, had a visit to the dentist every six months and, of course, was fully clipped every winter.
Surprisingly, most officers who applied to join the Mounted Section were not riders but had considerable experience in the police force. So, while the animals received their training, the newly recruited officers were taught equitation and stable management during a 16-week training period. Even when qualified, officers were regularly re-tested and re-assessed to maintain the high standards required by the Force.
The 21st century mounted policeman has a somewhat different role from his 18th-century predecessor. Being mounted 3 metres off the ground on a 600-700kg animal, between 16 and 18 hands high, makes this unit ideal for crowd control.
But whilst crowd control was a function of the Mounted Police in Nottinghamshire, officers and their horses were often involved in searches for criminals, missing persons, lost property, burglary, and car crime. Evenings could be spent policing rowdy revellers and attempting to deter disorderly conduct.
Regular appearances for the Mounted Unit were at pop concerts, football matches or at functions attracting large numbers of people where rowdy or even violent individuals could cause widespread disruption. But the more enjoyable and slightly more leisurely occasions were the ceremonial events, when Mounted Officers accompanied royalty or VIPs visiting the city.
During the photographic shoot in 2002 the Nottinghamshire horses were preparing for the Golden Jubilee celebrations and the annual Remembrance Day parades.
Yet 10 years later, the Mounted Police Section in Nottinghamshire succumbed to Police budget cuts. In early 2012, the Nottinghamshire Policy Authority was asked to make substantial financial savings of around £42m. The disbandment of the Mounted Unit would realise just 1% of this amount, but the ongoing capital costs of horses and equipment seemed to sway the argument.
The decision was contentious and emotional but, after deployment at the London Olympics, the unit’s 135-year history came to an end in September 2012. A further report went to the Police Authority the following January but all hope of re-instating the Mounted Police in Nottinghamshire was finally quashed. The serving officers were re-assigned to other areas of the Force, the horses retired and sent to other mounted police units in England or to private homes.
The Nottinghamshire Mounted Police became history and are now best remembered in photographs of their riders proudly wearing their ceremonial uniforms in commemorative events although many will remember their part in combating crime and unruly behaviour.
The two years I spent with the Mounted Police resulted in an exhibition and a book of photographs that went behind the scenes, to explore the role of the force in the 21st century. Published in 2003 and now out-of-print, Nottinghamshire Mounted Police was accompanied by commentary taken from video interviews recorded with Sergeant Lesley Taylor, head of the unit, and will hopefully provide a long-lasting memory of the unit.
Barbara Hind worked as a photographer in Mongolia for eight years, giving the opportunity to travel the country on horseback. Her work has been shown at many venues in Britain, including Mongolian Buddhism at National Museums Liverpool, and she has also exhibited in Australia, Canada, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, India, and Germany. Commissions include the Grand National Panel at the Museum of Liverpool Life, and the Buddhist banner for the Multi-faith Centre, University of Derby.
Barbara’s work is held in many international private and national collections. She has published four books of photographs: Nottinghamshire Mounted Police, Touching Lives, a sensitive portrayal of a hospice in India, Sheepy Tales, which captures the essence of rural life in the five villages of “The Sheepy Group” and Going Home: continuity and change in modern Mongolia.