Feature: The long mane of the law

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THESE gentle giants must learn to walk through fire, control crowds and hold their nerve in the midst of a riot.

It’s a big ask, but thanks to a five-star lifestyle and a lot of trust, it’s a job they seem to thrive on.

PC Tony Preece with his horse Pilot at the Northumbria Police stables in Ponteland.

PC Tony Preece with his horse Pilot at the Northumbria Police stables in Ponteland.

There are eight horses at the unit, based at a yard in Ponteland, and they are a regular sight at the Stadium of Light on a match day and around Sunderland City Centre.

Sergeant Andy Cross has been in charge for nearly five years and knows his four-legged team inside out.

The horses are all hand-picked for the job - and need certain qualities.

He said: “We’re looking for the right temperament, the right character, big feet and strong bones.

“They’re plodding on concrete for four hours a day.

We’re not looking for a docile animal but a bold, forward-going animal we can train to our system.

“We need a horse that won’t panic when a bus comes up behind him.

“They need to be confident and able to walk through the middle of Sunderland with buses flying past, road works and loads going on. A horse’s natural instincts are going to tell him he doesn’t want to be there but we have to train that out of them.”

As we are given the grand tour of the spotless stables Sgt Cross tells us about their different quirks and habits.

First up there’s Provost, a 17.3hh chestnut who’s “an absolute gentleman - more human than horse.”

Sgt Cross says he’s classed as one of the ‘bold’ horses on the yard, and acts as a rock for horses like Phlint, an elegant grey gelding: “He’s got a lovely sweet nature and wouldn’t say boo to a goose so at football matches he needs to be pared with one of the braver horses.”

Pedro, stablename Jake, is a real character who arrived 18 months ago, says Sgt Cross, “When he first came we would sometimes spot him having a power nap surrounded by thousands of football fans at the Stadium of Light. If you take your leg off he just stops. He’s got a cheeky nature and if anyone has any sweets he’ll badger them.”

Peroni, known as Benji, is the smallest horse - but makes up for his stature with a big personality.

Sgt Cross said, “He’s the smallest horse we have but he’s got a big cheeky streak. He’s more like a pony than a horse.

“They come here and get the best treatment and become confident animals.

“He’s become more difficult as he’s become more confident and learned what he can get away with. Given that he’s been in a field most of his life before here he’s still a star. He’s a bit sharper than the others. You’ve got to have your wits about you when you ride him.”

Groom Catherine Pearson says Phabian, nickname Connor, is her favourite.

She said: “If you leave a broom near his stable door he picks it up in his mouth and starts sweeping the yard. Everyone loves him and he looks exactly like War Horse.”

Stable manager Mark Jackson and a team of four dedicated grooms make sure the horses are cared for to the highest standards. They are groomed every day, the yard is swept four times a day and the saddles and bridles are kept immaculate.

Sgt Cross said: “Our grooms are brilliant. If we need to go and offer support to another force down the country or it’s Derby Day they’ll be here at 4am in the morning to get everything ready.”

Sgt Cross’s favourite is Pendragon, or Arthur as he’s known. He reckons the 15-years-old is something special.

He said: “I’ve been riding him for the past 18 months and he’s a mind reader. When something happens he knows exactly what I want him to do. If there’s ever any disorder at the Stadium he just knows how to handle it.

“He knows how to move the crowd and he’s totally unfazed by it.

“He took part in the Durham Parade and went along with the entire Royal Marines Band marching up behind him.

He loves a good canter and a gallop too. It was one of the coldest days of my life recently and we’d been patrolling Battle Hill and we were frozen to the bone. I took him for a canter on a stretch of grass just to warm up and he loved it.”

There are eight mounted officers and some are totally new to horseriding before they start the job.

Sgt Cross said: “We’ve got a police method of training officers to ride that means we can take someone who’s never ridden and get them out patrolling the city centre on a bold horse in a short time.”

For him, the best part of the job is the affect the horses have on people.

He said: “My favourite part of the job is going out and patrolling and being a proper police officer on horse back. It’s absolutely fabulous. The visibility they give us is unbelievable. They’re people magnets. We’ve got some great officers here and when they’re out on the horses talking to people there’s nothing better.”

When the horses have finished their working life they enjoy a leisurely retirement.

Pern, a 17hh chestnut gelding, recently hung up his bridle after more than 15 years service to live at the Horse Trust in Buckinghamshire.

Sgt Cross said: “When Pern went out on patrol his eyes would ping and he’d come alive. He loved it. There were tears when he went to retire.”

Twitter @AlisonGouldy

POLICE HORSE FACTS

All the horses at Northumbria Mounted Police have names beginning with the letter ‘P’.

Each horse works an average of 800 hours a year.

The horses need new shoes every two to four weeks.

The collective age of the Northumbria police horses is 128 years.

It can take between 30 and 90 hours to get a horse ready to do a police patrol, depending on his nature.