The Vancouver Police Department Mounted Unit has patrolled the 1,000-acre Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, since 1908, 20 years after the park was created in 1888. The six-person unit is on duty from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., seven days a week, 365 days a year. During the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, they had 14 police horses (PH). Some of these horses stayed on with the unit and others retired. There are currently eight four-legged members.

The unit’s purpose is to not only patrol the park itself, but to provide outreach to tourists and residents as well. “Over the course of the years we’ve built up a real rapport with people, particularly in the West End,” said Const. Joanne Hardman. “We’ll go riding, and the people can hear the clip-clop, clip-clop, up 15 to 20 stories high, just because of the way the streets are. We’ll get people waving from way up high, or people will come out. They’ll say, ‘I remember when I was a little girl, and you guys used to come up the road.’”

About the Vancouver Police Department Squad

Over the years, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has settled on what seems like the perfect recipe for a mounted unit horse – a draft cross. They say these horses tend to have the desired temperament of a slower, more placid and friendly police horse, which is a plus when dealing with the public, since Stanley Park is a popular place for locals and tourists to visit. “There was a girl who was confined to an electric wheelchair, and one of the horses would put his head in her lap while she petted him, for like 15 minutes,” said Const. Hardman, of Ike, who is nine. She said they find that one out of every five draft crosses works out for them, compared to one out of 10 with non-drafts. The horses are purchased pre-trained from a facility in Kentucky, which specializes in training horses specifically for policing.

As a civilian, standing next to an 18-hand Clydesdale, the tallest horse on the team, I found yet another reason why these horses work so well for patrolling – their sheer size. The mounted unit is also used in large crowds and in riots. I was able to watch the unit “run lines” – one of their methods for controlling crowds. By having VPD members on foot, with the mounted officers behind them, the police are able to clear streets quite effectively. If someone will not move for an armed officer, they will for a one-ton animal.

About the Vancouver Police Department Horses

The horses are stabled behind the Rose Garden, in Stanley Park’s service yards. While they do not have access to pasture, they are fed four times a day to keep their digestive tracts in good working order. The horses aren’t worked year round though – they get breaks of up to a month at pasture. Depending on health and age, each horse is moved to a grassy field for a consecutive two- to six-week duration, two times a year. The horses, all geldings, are pastured at a South Surrey acreage, where they can mix and mingle with other geldings, mares and foals. Some horses, like Const. Hardman’s mount Duke, don’t appreciate the gesture.

“He loves to work,” said Hardman. “He would have walked into the trailer without a lead if I’d let him,” she said, speaking of trailering 20-year-old Duke back into the park after a break. Duke finally retired to his forever home in June, where he joined his retired PH friend Dalton. Duke was with the VPD for 12 years, and was retired to his original trainer in the unit. Each horse that is retired from the unit has their new home selected based on their individual needs. All of their circumstances are entirely different, just like people. It generally takes one to two years to plan a retirement and select the perfect home.

About the Vancouver Police Department Training

During training, the horses are exposed to CS gas and even walk through fire every year. CS gas is a type of tear gas, and is used in riot situations.

The horses each have their own badges, and are ridden in all-purpose English saddles. The unit generally uses a two-piece snaffle bit on all of the horses. As each horse has an individually shaped mouth, or prefers a different texture or shape, other options – such as a mullen mouth (straight bar), a French link (three piece) or rubber texture can be used. Hackamores and leverage bits are also considered.

The horses are purchased pre-trained, and the unit works with a civilian trainer several times a week. In addition, the unit consistently attends clinics, such as one by horseman Jonathan Field, most recently.

The horses begin working with the unit as early as three, and as late as eight years of age. Their duration with the unit is completely dependent on their health and willingness to do the job. The unit’s goal is to keep happy, healthy horses.

About the Vancouver Police Department Horses’ Health

The VPD Mounted Unit has a regular vet, which comes for vaccinations, teeth floating and acupuncture, as needed. She is available on-call in case of emergency. There is also a back-up clinic in case no one at the regular clinic is available.

They also get regular farrier visits every six weeks, or as needed. The horses are shod with metal shoes (hot shoeing), and have bohrium tips to prevent slipping on the concrete. Some horses also have leather padding under the front shoe for shock absorption.

A saddle fitter comes out every six months to one year to ensure the saddles are fitting well.

Most of the civilian staff has been with the unit for over 10 years, and know the horses well, so they’re able to report changes in behaviour or health and get them looked after right away.