The nuts and bolts of a place like Bow Stables are the same now as they would have been a century ago: hay, horseshoes, saddles, and tea. Mounted police aren’t as widespread as they used to be, but they remain an essential part of the force, and those horses need homes.
The one in Bow, tucked behind old Bow Police Station, is particularly impressive. The stables are housed in a Grade II listed building designed by Gilbert MacKenzie Trench in 1937, a Scottish architect who also designed the police box flown around by Dr Who. All-white and neatly arranged, it’s home to eight horses and twelve officers.
One of them is Police Sergeant Robin Gehring. He has been in mounted division since 2005, though has just finished a year at Scotland Yard. He’s delighted to be out in the world. Everyone at the Bow Stables has been in the force for years. You can’t go straight into the mounted branch; you have to earn it.
There are ten horses at Bow Stables. Two of them are away on holiday when we visit. Like anyone, police horses need a break from time to time. They go to a forest in Epping for a little R&R. ‘Club Tropicana,’ Rob calls it with a laugh.
The horses there are Rebel, Urbane, Rusty, Judge, Quest, Strathmore, and Scrumpy Jack. They are named on an alphabetical basis. Each round of horses being trained has a different letter so you know which batch they’re from. W are currently in training, and the V lot are starting to join the force.
Scrumpy Jack is introduced to us as a ‘cuddle monster’, and he doesn’t disappoint, nuzzling Gehring all the time he’s in the pen. Strathmore is enormous and the gentlest thing you’ve ever seen, shifting his hazelnut mass with the delicacy of someone handling crystal. A lot of the horses are Irish Draught – friendly and unflappable.
Which is just as well, for they are first and foremost police horses. ‘One day they may be at Wembley, the next at a match between Tottenham and Arsenal when it’s all kicking off, then the next strolling round Bow,’ Gehring says. They attend Trooping the Colour every year. Sometimes they’ll be driven as far north as Norwich.
The officers start at 7am and do all the stable work themselves. It’s a seven days a week, 365 days a year job. ‘At Christmas you’ll see a couple around,’ Gehring says, ‘usually with tinsel on their head.’ It’s demanding work, but the officers take it in stride. Before a ride Gehring dips out to change and reappears in riding trousers and boots. ‘You feel a bit like Mr Benn, changing all the time,’ he says.
They are kept well groomed, with tidy cropped haircuts like soldiers in the army. Their tails are kept at a uniform length, roughly the equivalent of the wrist to the elbow. The horses have to look dapper before going out, otherwise, Gehring reasons, why would anyone take them seriously?
Police Constable Lucie Slay brushes the horses down while Gehring changes. She has been in the Met for 23 years. London is too noisy for her nowadays, but she loves the work. The police force has gotten better at supporting those it arrests, she says. ‘They may be wallies when you nick them, but a lot of the time they’re just in a bad place. You want it so by the end it’s been a good thing for everyone.’
Keeping the horses fresh in such a busy line of work takes a lot of work, more than you might realise. When contributing photographer Tom Keeling and I arrived a horse called Quest was having his shoes fitted. Stephen Gowing, a third generation farrier, held a red hot horseshoe against the bottom of one of Quest’s hoofs and was swallowed by a ploom of smoke. As it cleared, Gowing examined the markings on the hoof, shook his head, and disappeared into the forge to make some adjustments.
Shelves and shelves of horseshoes and metal strips waiting to be shaped. There are hundreds of types of horseshoes, each foot requires a custom fit, and horseshoes are changed every three weeks. It takes five years to become a qualified farrier. Gowing has around 100 horses under his care. That’s 400 feet, and each foot needs a custom fit. ‘It’s not like you’re a size six and I’m a size six, you can borrow my trainers,’ Gowing says.
As well as custom shoes the horses have custom saddles. The horses are different shades of huge and you can’t have a general fit. Strathmore is gigantic with a body like a barrel, while Rebel is slight (by the standards of a horse). ‘If you went to a tailor and got a bespoke fit, it might look good on you but silly on me, and vice versa,’ Gehring says.
Mounted branch is the gentle giant of the police force. People feel comfortable approaching them. At football matches some fans go round to all the horses there that day and give each of them a carrot. ‘You can’t quantify community engagement,’ Gehring says. ‘You get young people coming up and saying things they’d never say to a regular copper. I think they’re talking to the horse as much as anyone else.’
The horses like a good graze in Victoria Park, though they prefer Mile End Park because it’s a little wilder. Gehring likes Victoria Park. ‘You see every little corner of East London,’ he says. When you see horses trotting around Bow, they’re likely on a stroll from Bow Stables. Don’t be shy about saying hello, but be warned: some of the horses are real flirts.
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