Mounted glory | Sunday Observer

Mounted glory

SSP, Damyantha Wijesri - Director Police Mounted Division
SSP, Damyantha Wijesri - Director Police Mounted Division

As Colombo city continues to be transformed with changing skylines one of the last sights reminiscent of ‘Old Ceylon’ are the mounted policemen. Just around 4.30pm during weekdays the horse mounted cops take position around the busiest intersection in the Fort area. Majestically adorned in brown leather saddles the animals come in shades of chestnut brown, dapple grey, black and white. The policemen make an important contribution to directing traffic. They also play significant role in providing ceremonial state escorts, putting on a splendid display of precision timing and teamwork.

Origins in Ceylon

Horses have been trained and used for centuries due to their endurance and intelligence. They were part of British history even before the medieval period; stables were an important element in every castle. In 1760, Sir John Fielding, a British Magistrate endorsed the setting up of a Mounted Police unit to contain the menace of highway robbers in London, who also fled on horseback! The first British patrol had 8 riders.

The horse riding unit of the Ceylon Police was established in 1921. A visit to the serene stables at the Mounted Division Head Quarters, Pettah is awe inspiring. The incumbent Director of the Division is Senior Superintendent of Police Damyantha Wijesiri. The first building erected by the British in 1920 still stands, with its arched ceilings, where the administrative office functions

In 1956, the section was given priority and one Sub Inspector was recruited along with two sergeants and 22 police constables. Inspector Edward Gray became the first Ceylonese to head the Mounted Section. Horses were initially imported from Australia. The majestic animals serving presently are warm blood horses from the Netherlands who have adapted well to the local weather. The warm blood horse is obtained by breeding cold blood horses (Europe) with hot blood horses (Arabia). Since the 1920s the Police stables extended to operate in the hills of Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Sri Lanka Police College, Kalutara.

Riding Proficiency

It is a proficiency level requirement that all officers on being promoted to the rank of ASP be skilled equestrians. During the visit of Her Majesty the Queen in 1954 the Mounted Division was bestowed the honour of escorting her motorcade. During the visit of a Head of State, the Mounties provide an escort with 24 horses.

At the annual Independence Day parades the horsemen uphold a longstanding tradition by riding in their ceremonial white tunics wearing sturdy pith helmets, carrying a wooden lance.

Working police horses have a life span of 25 to 30 years. Their height is measured by a unit known as ‘hands’- a hand being equal to 4 inches. Larger horses stand at 15-17 hands. The animals require detailed grooming and attention, especially, with regard to their food. As horses cannot vomit, if they develop digestion issues it can cause colic, a condition which can even lead to death. The horses are fed thrice a day at 5 am, 11 am and 6 pm with a balanced mix of imported chaff, oats and barley. After being exercised at the paddock (by riding), they return and wait until their saddles are removed.

The animals then receive a refreshing bath from their keepers. Some of the horses seem to enjoy this indulgence. As they are cleaned and scrubbed, one can see the great affection and bond that the horses share with their keepers. Up next is a period of rest. The horses are sent on rotation for traffic duty in teams of eight riders. When travelling outstation or for a parade, the horses are transported in a long caravan-style vehicle that can accommodate 9 animals in air-conditioned safety. The unique vehicle has a cab with a bed for two officers.

Sustaining a fine tradition

OIC S.J.Kumarasinghe explains that some of the horses are geldings; (horses that have been castrated) which make them have a calmer temperament. The intricate art of gelding is said to originate from the ancient Scythians, an Iranian-Eurasian nomadic people who were very passionate about their horses. The use of the horseshoe, which is nailed or glued into the insensitive toe nail, is credited to the defiant Romans who knew the value of cavalry troops in battle.

One of the young officers I met was Sub Inspector C. Chamitha a native of Ratnapura, who has been riding since 2015. He mentions that it is important that all Mounties remain physically fit and controlling a horse demands loads of energy. Horses like any animal are subject to various moods. At times they would “jib”- stopping and refusing to go. It takes a while for the new horses to get used to the noise of the city’s traffic.

Regular police officers are absorbed in the equestrian section and undergo six months of intense training learning the finer points of horsemanship, including stable management and basic veterinary care.

All Mounties must obtain the certificate of excellence before being endorsed to ride in uniform. Officer in Charge of the Colombo stable, Inspector S.J.Kumarasiri explains “The leather saddles are imported and each horse has its own fitted saddle and bit, as wearing the wrong saddle can cause irritating bruises which will distract the animal, which in turn will disturb the rider”.

The Mounted division has a current operational strength of 57 horses and 80 riders, supplemented by a workforce of dedicated horse-keepers. The horse keeper makes an important contribution in the well being of the animal assigned to him. These disciplined men combine their skills and experience as a motivated team and continue to sustain the glorious history and decorum of the Mounted Division.