Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
POLICE horses have become a common feature on Bulawayo’s roads as police conduct patrols to enforce lockdown regulations.
The horses are usually an attraction during national events such as official opening of Parliament, Independence Day and Heroes’ Day celebrations, drawing huge crowds through their displays on such occasions.
During the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF), the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) exhibition stand is undoubtedly a crowd puller, as people, especially children, jostle to catch a ride on horseback.
Despite people’s fascination with police horses, what really happens behind the scenes in terms of their day-to-day upkeep and training remains a mystery to the generality of the public.
Chronicle visited the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) Bulawayo Provincial Mounted Unit stables to have an insight into how the training of horses is conducted, their behaviour and traits.
The ZRP has 20 horses in Bulawayo and the oldest one is called Regimental Horse (RH) Zanzibar. Although its exact age is not known, it is believed to be nearly 30, with 23 years of service in the police force and now due for retirement.
The youngest is one year old and it is yet to be named. There is another one named after one of the country’s heroines of the First Chimurenga/Umvukela, Gogo Nehanda. However, she is in foal (pregnant) hence she is currently not active and therefore spared from policing duties.
All the horses at the stable have names and force numbers. The naming of the horses is done in an alphabetical order and the ZRP Commandant Depot at the Police General Headquarters in Harare is the one in charge of the naming process.
Some of the notable names of the horses at the ZRP mounted unit in Bulawayo are Fundani, Juluka, Juru, Kariba and Peter. Each time, a filly or foal is born, they are given names from a pool of names.
When a horse is born, it is called a filly foal if it is female and a male uncastrated under four years is called a colt. However, after four years when that colt remains uncastrated it becomes a stallion. If it is castrated after four years it is a gelding.
At ZRP Bulawayo Mounted Unit, there are six mares, 13 geldings and a colt.
The acting officer in charge of ZRP Bulawayo mounted unit, Assistant Inspector Onias Sibanda said horses are restless animals hence it is important whenever training them to ensure that they are not violent.
A horse gets its initial training at birth but the proper police training begins at the age of four and the exercise lasts for at least three months after which they begin police duties.
“Our horses get the force number after four years during which they will start the initial police horse training for three months before they are engaged in conducting police duties. At four years, it would have received basic horse training,” said Asst Insp Sibanda.
He said the horse is trained the moment it is born so that it doesn’t become wild and that stage is called initial handling.
“The key thing in training the horse is that we don’t want it to be violent because it is a fractious animal. We do community socialisation with these horses where we will be doing pony rides in schools,” he said.
Asst Insp Sibanda said a horse has three instincts, which define how it behaves in a challenging situation: flight, fight and freeze.
“The first instinct it has upon sensing danger is flight, which simply means running away and if running away fails it will fight and if that fails it will freeze and allow whatever is bound to happen to happen because it would be helpless. This usually happens in public order environment because the adrenalin of the rider is the one that will determine his horse to attack or not to attack,” he said.
Horses can also be used to provide support and information to stressed persons.
“A horse synchronises with the mood of its rider. If you are angry or stressed, that mood is also reflected on your horse and the way it behaves during that particular movement. Horse riding engages all muscles especially in children,” said Asst Insp Sibanda.
“If a child is having difficulties in walking, take him or her for a horse ride, they will start walking simply because of that link with a horse.”
Asst Insp Sibanda said they have three types of horse breeds in Bulawayo: the Arabian breed, which is highly brave and intelligent and the Warm Blood, a breed of tall horses and they are deemed to be highly courageous.
The third breed is the Anglo-Arab horses, which are also highly intelligent. RH Bit is rated as the most intelligent horse in the province and among some of its capabilities, it can open and close gates.
Asst Insp Sibanda said they are now in the process of finalising the process of retiring RH Zanzibar.
“The retirement process is currently underway and there will be a suitability board of officers and they will need a veterinary doctors’ report stating the reasons such as its health condition, its capability in terms of performing police duties and its presentability in the public eye and we then write a report,” he said.
The board will then come up with a final report based on the farrier report. A farrier is a person who does the nailing of horse shoes.
“Whenever a police officer is going out for public order duties when his or her adrenaline levels rise, the horse moves with its head high and automatically the adrenaline of the rider will make the horse curious and this is why whenever you panic while riding horse you are bound to fall,” said Asst Insp Sibanda.
He said in terms of feeding them, unlike ordinary horses which are given horse ration, police horses are fed with veld hay, which provides roughage and high activity horse meal, which is rich in protein.
“High activity horse meal is expensive because it is rich in protein. Any other horse use horse ration, which has no protein because they are not active horses unlike ours. That is why you find that our horses are muscular,” said Asst Insp Sibanda.
Each horse gets one bale of hay weighing about 15kg per day and 6kg of horse meal. Horse shoes last for three weeks and each shoe costs US$20.
Asst Insp Sibanda said bullies are also found in horses, particularly when a new horse comes into the stable, it is subjected to torture by bullies.
“Horses don’t like direct eye contact and they have a special language that they understand and if you don’t communicate well with them you are bound to have challenges especially during the training period,” he said.
Police horses don’t engage in races but they can do all other sporting activities. An average horse speed is 80km per hour.
Asst Insp Sibanda said horses are an economic all-terrain mode of transport for police officers as they are able to access areas which are impossible for foot patrols.
He said during situations such as riots, the instruction of the rider is the one that will determine how the horse approaches the crowd.
“For instance, if I get onto the horseback and direct it to move in a challenging environment, I don’t have to force it, but have to negotiate with it and that is when we can approach the rioters or mob,” said Asst Insp Sibanda. — @mashnets