'I've been hit with bottles, cans and bricks, but I love my job' - life as a mounted police officer in South Yorkshire
Their job may sound like a horse lover’s dream, but being a mounted police officer is not for the faint-hearted.
From facing missile attacks by rowdy football fans to joining the front line of the battle against drugs and prostitution in South Yorkshire, it can be a tough life.
That’s if you even make it through the intensive training programme, from which the latest batch of recruits have emerged with injuries ranging from shattered ribs to a broken collar bone.
PC Julie Bradshaw has been a member of South Yorkshire Police’s mounted section for 17 years and is today responsible for training new recruits and sourcing horses, alongside her normal duties as a constable.
“It’s a physical job. If you don’t come in fit to start with, you’ll certainly be fit after a few years in this department,” says the 52-year-old, who has two grown-up daughters.
“It’s not something I expected to do for this long when I first joined, but I enjoy it so much. It’s such a great team of people, and horses, to work with.”
Julie learned to ride at a young age but that’s not the case with everyone on the team. Indeed, of the four people taking part in the latest 16-week training course, not one was an experienced rider when it began.
Despite the demands of the job, it remains a popular one, says Julie, with places rarely coming up and lots of interest when they do.
Mounted police are probably best known for their role in keeping the peace before and after football matches, and Julie describes this as their ‘bread and butter’, but she says there’s much more to the job.
She’s covered events ranging from concerts at Sheffield’s FlyDSA Arena to the 2014 NATO summit in Wales and the 2012 London Olympics, where she said organisers initially didn’t want the horses inside the Olympic village but they proved so popular with crowds that they ended up being there every day.
Then there’s the more day-to-day work, which ranges from searching for missing people to cracking down on drug-dealing, prostitution and shoplifting.
“We do exactly the same as police officers in a car or on foot, but often we can get places cars can’t,” explains Julie.
One of the big advantages of being on horseback is how visible and approachable they are, she adds, which is particularly handy in areas where police are viewed with suspicion.
“There are housing estates in certain areas where people don’t like to be seen talking to a police officer but when you’re on a horse they’ll come up to say hello to the horse and you’ll get chatting and often pick up information you wouldn’t otherwise get,” she says.
They are often the first to know about problems including anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing, she adds, and they have uncovered numerous drug farms.
Mounted police played a key role too in helping to find 16-year-old Pamela Horvathova, who was missing for seven weeks after disappearing from her home in Sheffield shortly before Christmas.
“We got chatting to quite a few people who didn’t want to give names but said they’d definitely seen her,” says Julie.
Mounted officers are also often used to provide public reassurance after a serious crime, to deter shoplifters and pickpockets operating in town centres – especially during the run-up to Christmas, when Julie she says their presence can reduce thefts ‘dramatically’ – and to prevent prostitution at hot spots in Sheffield and Doncaster.
Julie and her colleagues are based at Ring Farm in Cudworth, Barnsley, where they returned last year after a brief exile in Wakefield while it was being refurbished.
The unit has been scaled back dramatically in recent years, with Julie saying the 10 horses, a sergeant, nine constables and three stable hands it consists of today is around half the number it had when she joined in 2002.
It was threatened with closure in 2012 and probably owes its continued existence, at a time when many cash-strapped forces have scrapped their mounted divisions, largely to the number of big football clubs in the area.
Julie and her colleagues aren’t just tasked with keeping the peace at games in South Yorkshire, where the Sheffield derby is reportedly the most expensive match in English football to police. They also help out at games in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds and Sunderland, among other cities.
It can be a hairy experience not just for Julie and her fellow officers, but for their equine companions too.
They have to deal with rival fans charging at each other, letting off flares and rockets and directing missiles at police horses and their riders.
“It can get quite frightening. If they can’t get to the opposing fans they generally turn their aggression towards the police, and because we’re such a visible presence it’s often directed at us,” says Julie.
“I’ve been hit with bottles, cans and bricks, but thankfully I’ve never been injured.”
When the crowd mentality sets in after a match, she adds, even the most normally self-respecting fans can start misbehaving.
“It’s a weird thing because you can get someone causing bother who would never normally act that way in any other situation, and once it’s dealt with they’ll come up with you and have a chat,” she says.
“They’ll get chased away and afterwards they’re like ‘that was great, wasn’t it’.”
Supporters have even been known to try crawling beneath the horses, and once, following a Rotherham-Sheffield United clash, Julie says a fan – who was later brought to justice – grabbed hold of her steed and repeatedly punched him in the face.
Her scariest moment, however, came after a Newcastle-Sunderland derby several years ago.
“We came under fire from a lot of missiles that day, and it was the only time I’ve ever feared for my safety," she says.
Julie, who joined the force in 1992 and spent a decade as a response driver before becoming a mounted officer, enjoys cycling, swimming and surfing in her spare time, and also competes in horse-riding competitions.
Earlier this year, she and her colleague PC Tracey Brown took part in the International Police Championships of the Czech Republic, where – competing in their own time and at their own expense – they were pitted against mounted officers from around the world.
After completing a range of challenges, which included bursting through a wall of barrels, jumping over fire and shooting targets from horseback, Tracey won the ‘best trained police horse’ prize and came third in the show jumping contest.
Each officer in the section is allocated their own horse, with whom Julie says they quickly form a strong bond, and saying goodbye when their trusty steed is retired from the force can be a real emotional wrench.
The horses – who are traditionally named after towns or villages within South Yorkshire – usually range in age from about five to their late teens, though George – also known as Oakwell – who still works part-time, is now 23.
Like the officers, they go through intensive training before hitting the streets, to prepare them for the noise and other disturbances they could face. Visiting schoolchildren are even asked to shout and cheer at the horses to simulate a crowd environment.
There is no such thing as the perfect police horse, according to Julie, with each having its own quirks which the riders quickly get to know.
One is unfazed by almost anything but hates going through puddles, she explains, while another ‘freaks out’ – very specifically – at the sight of a white bag floating in the wind.
When push comes to shove, though, she says they never let her and her colleagues down.
“Horses are flight animals whose instinct is to turn and run if they sense danger, so it takes a lot of training and a really good horse to stand and take the noise and things being thrown at them,” explains Julie.
“But even the horses we're not sure about at first always do their job when trouble flares. I don’t know whether it’s the adrenaline or something else but afterwards you often think ‘I can’t believe they actually did that’.”