We spoke to Constable Aaron Wilson, who has been with Greater Manchester Police for 18 years and the Tactical Mounted Unit (TMU) for 12 years. Constable Wilson had never ridden a horse before joining the TMU but when he saw a group of officers riding past one day, he said it looked like the best job in the world.
Shortly after he attended an open day where he asked the officers there if he needed to know how to ride a horse before joining. The answer was not at all – the TMU puts all new recruits through a 16-week training course and teach you how to ride, even if you’ve never sat on a horse before. We asked him some questions to find out what it’s like being a TMU officer.
Did you find you were a natural at horse riding from the beginning?
“Not at all actually! In my first week in training, I got on the horse, the horse cantered off and I jumped off because I didn’t know what it was doing! It took me about 3 weeks to get used to sitting on a horse and I even rang my sergeant back in Middleton at one point to say I can’t do this, but he pushed me to keep trying and reminded me the course was 16 weeks long and I was only 3 weeks in.
“Then one day I was riding round in a circle, and I was almost at the point of giving up and I just relaxed, and it was like the penny dropped. I got into a rhythm and suddenly I got it – I was riding! As cliche as it sounds, I had to learn to trust the horse and the horse had to trust me.”
Do you get your own horse in the TMU?
“Yes you get allocated a horse and you make a bond with that horse. You learn what the horse likes, and it learns what you’re like, and you’ll also learn each other’s boundaries in terms of how disciplined you are and what your horse can cope with. Then when it comes to going into situations of disorder, you’ll know how much your horse can take and far it’ll go and eventually you’ll make a really good partnership.”
What’s the role of the TMU?
“Our main job is dealing with disorder and crowd control. This could be from big scale fights to managing lines of people going into a concert, and we have tactics to help deal with that. We can help hold back thousands of people by putting a line on. Our horses can do the job of hundreds of foot officers when it comes to managing disorder and I’d say one horse could do the job of at least 10-foot officers.
“As well as the practical side though, our unit is great for engaging positively with the community – because everyone wants to speak to us! I know they don’t actually want to speak to me, they want to say hello to my horse!
“It’s also great for gathering intelligence because we’ll have conversations with people who perhaps wouldn’t normally speak to a foot officer. People feel they can be more candid with us and on a ground level with us – so to speak! The massive positive reaction you get from the public is something you really start to love about the job because you become a member of the community that people like to see.”
Why do you think the TMU is so important?
“When you get big scenes of public disorder – like at the football matches – the TMU keeps the wheel on a lot of the time. When things start to go wrong, we are the last resort. We’re high up so we have the vantage point of being able to see what’s going on and if the foot officers are struggling to control the crowd, that’s when we come in to restore order. That’s a moment of great pride for us because we’ve come in as a last resort when things are starting to go wrong, and we’ve deal with it and brought everything back to normal.”
You and your horse received awards for bravery after policing the MUFC-v-Liverpool Fixture at Old Trafford. What was that like?
“I had to work with the other officers to prevent clashes between the fans as the exited the stadium. We were moving the crowds back towards the coaches when some of the fans started throwing fireworks and smoke bombs at me and my horse.
“Nobody wants to be in that situation. Officers were being pulled into the crowd and I had to work alongside 11 other mounted officers to clear some space and keep the fans away from each other. We were dealing with masses of disorder that day and it is scary but it’s my job and, in that situation, if we the mounted officers don’t do it, no one else will.”
Has Chief Constable Stephen Watson supported the TMU?
“He’s been brilliant – he’s come in and immediately taken the Unit under his wing and brought in 6 new horses this year alone. He’s done that to help the Unit grow. And not a moment too soon either. When I joined 12 years ago there were 35 of us and we’re currently only 16.
“Cutbacks over the years have reduced our numbers but what some people don’t realise is horses are herd animals. The more horses we have, the more confident the horses themselves become, because they work together. Two horses controlling a crowd is nowhere near as effective as a having a large group of horses. With more officers and horses in the TMU, we can only do a better job.”
How do you look after the horses?
“We listen to the horses and will only use them for as long as they want to do this job. We get some horses who join for a bit and then decide that it’s not for them and if that happens, we don’t force it. We’re animal lovers at the end of the day, so looking after the horse’s welfare is one of the most important considerations for this Unit – it’s about reading the horses and knowing how they’re feeling. We don’t use blinkers on the horses for that reason, because we don’t want to give them a false sense of security. Our horses are obviously exposed to dangerous situations and we want to know if they can handle that or not.
“We learn to read the horses and if we sense that they’re getting stressed, they might go on an action plan. This means they’ll be taken out of action and given some time to see if we can fix the issue – if we can’t, the horse will get retired off. When our horses get retired off, that just means they’ll be sent to a horses trust and allowed to run free in a field and eat grass. And for me all of our horses deserve that after having worked so hard for us.”