Sidling up to Clyde is best done carefully, given that he weighs about a tonne, has hooves the size of dinner plates and feels as solid as the barn door to which he is temporarily tied.
But the big Clydesdale – 18 hands, or about 1.8 metres, tall – is calm, standing quietly and muzzling proffered treats as Jan McKim wrestles a saddle onto his broad back.
Ms. McKim, a Langley, B.C.-based horse trainer, and her partner, Tim Keith, agreed to provide Clyde a home when the Vancouver Police Department put him on permanent furlough this past November. The couple, who together run Lone Tree Arabians, got to know the horse as a boarder – VPD horses get occasional breaks, colloquially referred to as “going to the spa” – and said they’d be willing to take him when the department was ready to let him go. Clyde’s easygoing temperament sealed the deal.
“We just fell in love with him,” Ms. McKim says.
Once essential to urban policing, horses have over the past century have largely been replaced by car, bike or foot patrols. But cities around the world – including Vancouver, Toronto, Hamilton, Halifax and Calgary in Canada – still have mounted units, using them for police duties and as four-legged community ambassadors.
Clyde excelled at both. As a police horse, he was involved in crowd control for the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2011 Stanley Cup riots, when the mounted squad helped disperse crowds amid smoke and chaos.
As a community liaison, Clyde was a star, submitting to countless pats and photos as he patrolled Stanley Park or waded in the surf at Second Beach.
Now 16, Clyde became part of the VPD at 4 and served 12 years. His training included exposure to loud noises and distractions, including umbrellas, skateboards and fireworks.
After gaining a reputation as unflappable, he was frequently paired with new horses – a buddy system designed to make green horses feel as at ease as steady Clyde – and with novice riders.
“Any time I was on Clyde, I felt grateful for him,” says VPD mounted unit spokeswoman Sergeant Susan Sharp, who joined the unit as a reserve rider in 2008. “He just always took care of me. Especially when I was learning.”
Home base for the VPD’s mounted unit is Stanley Park, a 400-hectare park crisscrossed by trails suitable for horseback patrols.
Currently, the VPD’s mounted unit has seven horses and six officers. Horses are selected based on their size (16 hands minimum) and temperament, and include breeds such as Clydesdales, Percherons and standardbreds.
There is no solid research as to whether mounted units provide value for money. The benefits provided by mounted units – including intangibles such as goodwill – tend to keep them off the chopping block in budget discussions, says Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association and former president of the Vancouver Police Union.
“Initially, the reaction from a local politician, or a politician at any level, might be, ‘Well, let’s look at cutting your mounted unit’ – but if you get into what they actually do, it becomes clear that may not be the best place to look,” Mr. Stamatakis says.
Former Toronto mayor John Sewell disagrees, calling mounted units a unnecessary luxury.
“There’s no question those horses are gorgeous and we love seeing them – but at the end of the day, this is not a good way of spending public money,” says Mr. Sewell, a co-ordinator with the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition.
Sgt. Sharp maintains the VPD’s mounted unit is indispensable for its role in crowd control, crime prevention and public relations.
Rob Gordon, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology, says mounted units can be effective in “soft” crowds, such as those at some sporting events, but can be liabilities in “hard” crowds when horses are at risk of getting shot, stabbed or otherwise attacked, he says. “They are potentially targets for those who want to harm them, or harm the officers who are mounted on them,” he says.
On balance, though, he thinks mounted units can be an ecologically sound choice (if they replace gas-powered vehicles on some patrols), improve public relations and provide effective crowd control by offering presence and bulk that officers on foot or bike don’t have.
Clyde, meanwhile, is focused on fresh grass and getting to know his new neighbours, both horse and human.
Clydesdales can live 20 years or longer and Ms. McKim and Mr. Keith are prepared for the long haul, which includes spending on farriers, food and vet bills.
Mr. Keith says he knew Clyde would fit in. “He was really laid back, really quiet," he recalls of their first meeting. "It’s like meeting someone and they’re really grounded. He’s just an old soul.”