London Police Horses | Visiting the Met’s Mounted Branch
You’ve probably noticed London’s police horses out and about, maybe you’ve seen them at the Guard Change or another large public event.
I was invited behind the scenes to visit two London stables, Bow and Great Scotland Yard, to learn a bit more about them and their role for the city.
How do they select a police horse?
The horses are sourced from a wide pool. Sometimes the Metropolitan Police put out an advert and sometimes they’re contacted direct.
There’s no particular breed they favour, it’s more about temperament and how they’ll handle crowds, traffic and loud noises.
The exception to this is for Royal and State funerals where they ensure black horses act as pointer (lead the procession from the very front). Oliver – referred to as the War Horse – was pointer for the Queen’s funeral.
All horses go through a 3 month training course at Imber Court in Thames Ditton. After that they might be sent out on patrol if they’re ready but they’re still on a kind of probation for around 18 months.
As for the officers, they don’t necessarily need a riding background. For four weeks they also train at Imber Court.
Whilst talking to officers they were keen to dispel the myth that it’s a ‘lazy’ choice to just sit on the horse. The training is actually highly physical, a continuous cycle of mucking out, grooming, feeding polishing your boots and tack.
They also shared that everyone is thrown off at least once. One officer (who’s worked for the force for 23 years) described how she tore her hamstring – the sound of which was uncannily like a tree branch snapping. Ouch.
Today their main roles include acting as high visibility patrols, not only for safety but also promoting community engagement, escorting the military and royal household in their ceremonial duties across central London and controlling crowd at large events like demonstrations, football matches or concerts.
History of the Met’s Mounted Branch
In the 18th century there wasn’t an organised, London-wide police force. London had an unofficial organisation known as the Bow Street Runners (find out more in my YouTube video here).
It was the Bow Street Runners that first introduced the idea of a mounted element of crime-fighting to combat back against highwaymen. In 1763 they secured government funding for a group of men on horseback to patrol the roads out of the city but this only lasted for 18 months before the money ran out.
The idea only resurfaced again in 1805 when around 60 men were chosen – most selected from cavalry regiments – to protect the roads again.
This time they looked after a much wider area as the metropolis had expanded. It seems they were fairly effective, reducing the threat and cases of highway robberies significantly.
So much so that by 1822 the government decided they didn’t need them any more and they were disbanded. The predictable result being that highwaymen flourished again!
In 1829 we get the Metropolitan Police Act and the foundation of a city-wide force, with horses again starting to play a role in protecting London.
Inside Bow Stables
Bow stables stands behind Bow Road Police Station. The police station is currently closed but remains Grade II listed and once housed East London Suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst.
Set back from Bow Road, on Addington Road, is a 1930s Moderne style block.
Originally the upper floors were self-contained flats for married officers and there’s still a nice homely air with vegetable gardens planted on the roof.
It’s in need of some care and attention but there are some charming original features like the curved walls and skylights.
Bow is also unusual in that they have and on-site farrier. The horseshoes are changed every four weeks.
At full capacity it can house 10 horses and retains an original 1930s solarium for keeping the horses warm after a wash.
It’s immediately clear how much all the officers care about the horses in their charge. It can be dangerous work and I was shown pictures of Urbane who was attacked in Victoria Park by a dog in March 2023.
Of course this can also go both ways, a fully grown horse acting as a daunting prospect amidst a crowded protest.
The officers I spoke to are proud of their roles and say they have ‘the best job in the world’.
They also made the point that through working with horse they’re able to gain a unique connection with people and communities who may mistrust the Met. For example individuals who would never consider chatting with a constable on duty might feel differently about approaching two horses in an urban landscape.
Inside Great Scotland Yard Stables
Right in the heart of Westminster, tucked behind Whitehall is another central location where you can see (and smell!) horses on duty.
The stables stand on the street, Great Scotland Yard, which was an early home of the Metropolitan Police. The Scottish link is a reference to the ambassadorial residence for the Kings of Scotland when visiting London, conveniently close to the Palaces of Whitehall and Westminster.
By the early 1800s the site was in use as a Royal Stable but was bought by the Metropolitan Police in 1874. Today the building and it stands next to the renovated Hyatt Hotel, Great Scotland Yard.
Inside is an open space for up to 21 horses. A ramp twists up to the first floor where the majority of the horses (14) are kept. The reason being the issues of historic flooding.
Another hazard that officers are quick to learn is to listen for the shout of “below” which heralds the arrival of debris From mucking out whizzing down this chute.
I met some of the horses, each with their own personality.
Yoda is, ‘a perfect police horse, bold and brave’ but also ‘a menace’ I was told. Once in his stable he loves nothing more than a good kick of his door, hence the padded door.
We also met Quixote who can normally be found at West Hampstead and would ‘lead into anything’. The names work a bit like car registrations, rolling through the alphabet one at a time. As well as their official names they often have nicknames, Verdun more often goes by Dave whereas Quest is just known as Pest.
In the tack room I was shown the different reins for daily and then ceremonial duties. (Watched over by the suspicious resident cat!)
These included specially designed riot gear for the horses, protecting their faces and eyes.
I also spotted different uniforms for City Police, currently renting space here as their former home on Wood Street is being converted into a hotel.
In total the Mounted Branch comprises of 50 operational horses used by the Metropolitan Police (plus 7 used by the City Police) and around 110 total in training. 117 police officers staff work from the seven London sites, Bow, Hammersmith, West Hampstead, Lewisham, Great Scotland Yard, Hyde Park and Imber Court.
I hope you enjoyed having a look behind the scenes at the Met’s Mounted Branch, why not say hello next time you see some of the horses on patrol.