Ask Torontoist: A Horse, of Course
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Ask Torontoist: A Horse, of Course

Ask Torontoist features questions posed by you, and answered by our elite team of specially trained investigative experts (also known as our staff). Send your questions to [email protected].

Reader Chris Edwards writes:

What’s the deal with police horses? In this cash-strapped age, wouldn’t it be cheaper to have a bicycle unit? The costs to feed and shelter horses have to be much higher than a bike [patrol]. Plus, bikes don’t shit all over the place. Speaking of which, is there anyone to call about those road apples that unit leaves all over the place?

Torontoist answers:

It’s certainly true that bicycle patrols are cheaper to staff and maintain, and are better suited for routine patrols of Toronto’s streets in many ways. But the Mounted Unit remains one of the most valuable units Toronto Police Services (TPS) has for crowd control. For instance, the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) will depend heavily on the horses and their riders to help keep the peace during the approaching G20 summit.
“Our primary mandate is crowd management,” says Staff Inspector Bill Wardle, the Mounted Unit’s commander, who spoke with us at this past weekend’s Horse Day at Exhibition Place, where the equine officers are quartered. In addition to protests, parades, and other large gatherings, the Mounted Unit works in the downtown core until 4 a.m., four nights a week, trying to keep revelers in the Entertainment District from hurting themselves or others. By Wardle’s estimation, “A horse is probably worth ten to twenty officers on the ground, when dealing with a crowd. If it wasn’t for the horses, we would have to have so many more officers on the ground; it really does make [our unit] cost efficient.”

Toronto’s Mounted Unit at the ready during the city’s gold medal Olympic hockey celebrations on the night of February 28, 2010. Photo by piper2009, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Looking at the huge stallions and mares used by the Mounted Unit, it’s not hard to imagine how effective they are as a deterrent to violence. An angry rioter (or intoxicated party-goer) might grab the handlebars of a police officer’s bicycle, or shove an officer’s riot shield, but they’re far less likely to take a swing at a horse that is several times larger than they are. (In the rare event that a horse is attacked, such as when police horse Stormy was stabbed during the Queen’s Park Riots in 2000, the charge is the same as assaulting any other police officer.)
Of course, the Mounted Unit’s value for crowd control is much more than just being a visible deterrent. Officers on horseback have an excellent vantage point from which to observe crowd situations and coordinate responses to medical emergencies or outbreaks of violence. When ambulances, streetcars, or other vehicles need to move through a crowd, it’s the Mounted Unit that escorts them through. People move out of the way of a horse.
Wardle is quick to emphasize that the use of police horses helps facilitate safe protests and celebrations, reducing the need for aggressive tactics like tear gas, water cannons, or sound cannons. “A lot of what we do isn’t visible to the majority of the public,” he says, referring to their downtown duties, such as the late night corralling in the Entertainment District (after most Torontonians have gone to bed), or during the Sri Lankan demonstrations last year, “but with the work we do, people get to voice their opinions, or celebrate safely, without property damage or injury.”

Toronto’s equine officers can’t wear diapers on duty (they can’t wear diapers, period), so a little poop is going to happen from time to time. Photo by markosaar, from Torontoist’s Flickr pool.

The operations of the Mounted Unit have actually expanded since 1993, when TPS conducted a survey of crowd control methods used by police forces around the world, including tear gas, water cannons, and dogs. (TPS does not use dogs for crowd control.) The survey concluded that mounted units remain one of the safest methods of crowd control. “It’s been proven time and time again, in England and Germany, in Australia, in large cities all over the world; in fact, there’s a resurgence in the use of horses,” says Wardle.
Secondary duties for the unit include going into at-risk neighborhoods as visible presences and acting as liasons between TPS and the public. For the mounted officers, it’s often the inverse of a riot situation: calm, sober people often love approaching horses. “It really makes inroads into a community. People are a lot more apt to come up to an officer on a horse [as opposed to in a cruiser], to pat the horse, and chat with the officer,” explains Wardle. The unit also participates in ceremonial and public relations events, such as the recent Doors Open Toronto. But while the Mounted Unit’s participation in ceremonial and public relation events is important, the Unit’s horses are definitely not for show; they’re highly trained assets for TPS.
Finally, to address the last part of our reader’s question: “Horses are herbivores, so the manure does not contain bacteria, like the manure from carnivores; it is totally biodegradable,” says Wardle. “It usually breaks down with the first rain or within forty-eight hours; that is, if the manure is not first taken by someone for their garden, or birds who use it in nests.” That might happen with less frequency on Toronto’s busier downtown streets, but regardless, TPS doesn’t have a mounted patrol clean-up crew. Your best bet, if you spot manure on the street that isn’t breaking down, is to call 311, where your complaint will be relayed to Transportation Services, who are responsible for street sweeping and cleaning.