The story begins in France. And for the lucky few, it ends in France. We’re talking police horses.
It begins in France three centuries ago with the founding of a national mounted police force, the Maréchaussée. Not only did the officers of the Maréchaussée have the distinction of being first in the world, but with their red and blue jackets, gold braid and jaunty tricorn hats, very probably the most dashing.
Deploying horses to uphold law and order was clearly seen as a good idea, because today mounted police forces are to be found in 38 different countries of the world.
But are they really still needed?
In this hi-tech age of body cameras, high speed cars and drones aren’t horses a bit old school? It seems not. Four legs can often outperform four wheels, particularly when it comes to big events with big crowds. They outperform humans too. There’s a well-known saying in the service: It would take 12 officers to do the work of one police horse.
Besides, these magnificent animals make for great PR. Here in the UK police horses are a much loved and reassuring presence at almost every public event, like the Lord Mayor’s Show, the Trooping of the Colour, the Nottinghill Carnival which last weekend attracted a million visitors – and so on. At the 2012 Olympics, the horses played their part to perfection, and continue to do so at festivals and football matches countrywide. These gentle giants are a familiar sight, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, clear testimony to the care and affection lavished on them by their officers.
What happens when their working life comes to an end?
Well, after sometimes as long as 20 years pounding the beat, a fortunate few are now getting to kick back in the sun, contentedly living out their days at Brantôme Police Horse Sanctuary in southwest France – thanks to its founders, Roland and Alison Phillips.
A family affair
You could say Roland was born for this, since he grew up with rescued horses on the small Devon Horse and Pony Sanctuary founded by his parents, Sylvia and Terry. So what could be more natural than in later life, when he (a former Scotland Yard officer) and wife Alison decided to retire to the Dordogne sunshine, they took with them Karen and Kendrick, 2 equine retirees from the Met.
So it began – and now just keeps on growing. At present Brantôme is home to 11 retired police horses. (There are a further 16 in Devon, and a many more fostered out in the UK under the Phillipses’ auspices) Brantôme also provides sanctuary for other horses and ponies, donkeys, dogs, cats, sheep, goats and chickens. Human numbers have grown too: Roland and Alison got much needed assistance in 2012 when they were joined by their daughter Debbie, son-in-law Chris and twin grandchildren Izzy and Chloe. Four generations saving horses!
A warm sunny climate, the beautiful and peaceful Dordogne countryside, and all the loving care a horse could ask for. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And it is, but…
The shameful truth about police horse retirement
There is a hidden darker side to the police horse story. Roland again: “All the Police horses we take on, have been retired through old age, injury or ill health and in most cases would have sadly been destroyed if they hadn’t been re-homed.”
Destroyed? Is that the reward for these “hardworking and fearless animals” after their years of service? The Horse Trust confirms the shocking truth: “Police horses are funded by the taxpayer throughout their working career but the ‘public purse’ empties as the horses face retirement.” Let’s say it again so there can be no doubt, “No provision is made for those that are no longer up to the job, who risk being euthanised if no one offers them a home.” ¹
As far as officialdom is concerned, these horses are thrown on the scrapheap. Their care depends entirely on uncertain charity. Isn’t that a national disgrace?
Fortunately, good people step up. As well as Brantôme and the Horse & Pony Sanctuary in Devon, there is the Horse Trust, and a Lincolnshire sanctuary Bransby Horses, also taking in veteran police equines. But there is no getting away from the fact that these are all charities run by a few dedicated people who believe that these wonderful animals deserve better than to end up in the knacker’s yard.
And giving the animals the 24/7 care they need does not come cheap. The care of the police horses Roland describes as “exceptionally expensive”, and Brantôme, like the other sanctuaries, is completely reliant on donations and visitors. Even with volunteers to groom the horses and muck out, kind donations, events like weddings and concerts, guided tours and English-style cream teas, Brantôme just about breaks even. “It’s very tight.”
And there’s more
As if the lack of official ring-fenced funding for the horses’ retirement were not bad enough, severe emotional and physical problems can be the horses’ legacy from their service life. It’s not all festivals and fun. These horses are on the front line during rowdy demos, fights between rival football fans, and in the thick of terrifying riots.
Take for instance Brantôme’s newest arrival Ranger, a chocolate brown nine-year-old. Ranger has severe arthritis, which Roland believes was triggered when firecrackers were thrown at him outside West Ham’s football ground. On another occasion a demonstrator tried to spook him by directing a laser beam into this beautiful boy’s eyes.
Then there’s Lewis, “a sensitive 15-year-old, badly traumatised by the violence of the urban riots of 2011. On his arrival in France, Lewis shied away from humans, spending his days lying in the back of his stall.” It took time, but the Phillipses’ loving care revived his confidence and restored him to his former sociable self.
“Those horses have been through a very tough time indeed,” Roland said as he lovingly stroked Lewis’s nose.
Neither is it unknown for police horses to meet their deaths in the line of duty. In the USA, Mikey C had a heart attack while on duty with his officer at a busy Chicago beach. Charlotte in Houston was hit by a cement truck. Her officer was taken to hospital with a broken leg, but Charlotte died at the scene. McHammer was the victim of his own officer. McHammer had been on patrol in hot downtown Denver. At the end of the day his officer returned him to his stall and removed his saddle – but forgot to give him water and food. This was not discovered until the following day, 16 hours later. Despite veterinary treatment, a day after that McHammer had to be put down.
“Though not intentional on his part, Officer Teeter’s forgetfulness exposed a live animal to cruel and extreme conditions,” the disciplinary letter said. Teeter was docked one day’s leave and remains a member of the Denver mounted patrol. All of which brings us to the inevitable question:
Ranger, Lewis and the rest – heroes or victims?
The Horse Trust says “… Police horses … have dedicated their lives to protecting communities from violence and unrest in the service of the Mounted Police across the UK.”
But that simply isn’t true, is it? None of them have dedicated their lives to the service of human society. Ranger’s officer had that choice when he signed up, but Ranger didn’t. Like all the others he had no say in the matter.
As with Diesel, the beautiful Belgian Shepherd service dog killed in Paris by a terrorist and posthumously awarded for ‘her bravery’, these horses are simply being used by humans for humans’ benefit, but contrary to their own lives’ best interests. And then dispensed with when for whatever reason, there is no more use to be wrung out of them. How can that ever be right?
Now in France, Ranger, Lewis and their fellow rescued service horses are discovering what life should be like for a horse who is allowed just to be a horse that no-one requires to be useful
If you would like to help the horses at Brantôme, click here
If you would like to help the horses at The Horse Trust, click here
If you would like to help the horses at Bransby, click here
“Saving one horse will not change the world but surely it will change the world for that one horse.”
Mounted police – Wiki
Cover pic, Ranger and Lewis & all sanctuary photos from Brantôme’s website
Retired police horse banner from the Horse Trust