When it was clear that I needed to travel to Germany short notice due to family circumstances, I knew that I wanted to take the opportunity to visit the State Mounted Police North Rhine Westphalia, formerly home and training ground of Klaus Balkenhol, police officer and Olympic gold medalist from my home town Düsseldorf. As I provide rider training for the Mounted Police in Madison, I was interested in learning from the German troop and was looking forward to much inspiration.
My excitement grew when I found out I was welcome to attend a training session of the ‘Landesreiterstaffel’ on Tuesday 3/9. The troop is renting space in a wonderful old equestrian property about a ½ hour drive from Düsseldorf. Two police Sergeants in charge were helpful to show me around and answer all questions I could think of. It soon became clear that this troop faces extreme challenges and horse and rider fitness are of special importance.
Mounted police in Germany face different challenges in comparison to the US officers (at least in Madison) on horse back. In Germany, the average mounted police officer carries a short rubber stick as a weapon. Guns are not always carried and the laws governing the use of such guns are much different from US laws. Crowd control takes on a different dimension where hooliganism and riots are an expected part of large soccer games and political protests. Civilians often come into close contact with horses and riders and riders must therefore wear respective protective gear. Protesters are savvy and come prepared to face the Mounted Police by throwing beach balls at horses or rolling barrels towards horses and riders. On duty, for example when large crowds of disgruntled fans of a losing soccer team must be controlled, burning garbage cans or gasoline fires must be expected.
“Our police horses go through fire and paper walls,” Sergeant Gräfen explained, “we train them to tackle these obstacles by finding one horse that will do it, the others then follow quite easily.” Desensitizing is mostly done while mounted. Of course this is a matter of trust between rider and horse, a basic principle of the classic German cavalry guidelines, which form the basis of today’s FN-guidelines.
He shows materials used to construct obstacles, such as wooden frames with holes for tar torches and wall paper with brick design. A metal barrel filled with rocks, which is rolled towards the horses, is also part of the training equipment. Obstacles courses change during the weekly training sessions, which always incorporate a substantial warm up phase.
The training of horses and riders adheres to the classical German training scale as far as gymnasticizing and obedience is concerned. The riders also have seat lessons on the lunge, when needed and several officers are trained riding instructors. Riding theory and horse anatomy are routinely taught in the bright and friendly training room.
All officers are required to pass the ‘Reiterabzeichen’ (rider’s test required for participation in shows) in bronze. All horses and riders are at least trained to level 2 in dressage and jumping.
The times of Klaus Balkenhol, where police officers were competing in shows in uniform however, are over, according to Gräfen. “We just don’t have the time any more. There is too much work to do,” he says.
The big ‘Karneval’-Parades in Cologne and Düsseldorf are just behind them. This week, they are making plans for a large soccer game in Cologne, where riders and horses are hauled to protect feuding mobs of fans from each other and the general population from both and then off to the annual Kurdish protest event in Düsseldorf the next day, where 40,000 protesters are expected to flood the streets of a city with 500,000 inhabitants.
Not all jobs are so clear cut. When guarding the controversial rail transports of nuclear waste (so called ‘Castor Transporte’), the officers and horses are often on their feet and in the saddle 12-14 hours per day, facing the delicate task of having to remove protesters that are blocking the rails, expressing their concern about the safety of these transports. Gräfen admits: „After these type of deployments, the horses are exhausted and need a few days off in the pasture.“ When asked “How do you keep your horses from developing back and other soundness issues under these extreme conditions?”, Sargeant Gräfen explains readily with one word: “Gymnasticizing. Nothing works without proper daily exercise, especially suppling and relaxing exercises. The horse needs to work through the back and be supple in the poll.”
Equipment is a factor as well. The horses are ridden in Stübben “Country” saddles and Equitex pads. Here and there, the traditional ‘Woilach’, a folded military saddle blanket, is still used. One is moving away from the double bridle now and mostly rides in a snaffle bit.
The psychological effect and resulting effectiveness of mounted police is also an important aspect. “When working neighborhoods and parks, the presence of horses alone can make all the difference. People are more likely to approach an officer on a horse than an officer on foot or in a car,” says Gräfen.
Many things sound familiar to me. In Madison, we don’t have protests with 40,000 participants and football fans do not routinely set garbage cans on fire and try to pull officers off the horse, but we, too, know the value of the mounted police officer in troubled neighborhoods, on less trodden paths in public parks or along the train tracks. Crime prevention, accessibility/friendliness factor and crowd control are the three biggest strengths of mounted units.
Surely we can learn a lot from each other and I hope we’ll keep in touch. A couple of our famous Madison Mounted baseball caps are already on their way to Germany…
And – this is my hope – maybe soccer will grow in popularity in the US, after all? Goooaaal!!!
By the way: There was sooo much more I learned about their training, but it’s just too much to squeeze into this article. Drop me a line, if you are interested or have your own mounted police training experience to share.