March of the Mounties | Sunday Observer

March of the Mounties

Horses in mounted formation
Horses in mounted formation

Columns of horses marching in formation, are a spectacular sight we witness on Independence Day. How do these majestic animals and their robust riders prepare for the parade? Within the busy area of Mihindu Mawatha, Colombo 12, amidst the noise of traffic and the sweltering heat is a serene oasis, hidden from public view.

It is a refreshing sanctuary which I visit often to find solace with many four legged friends - thoroughbred horses from the Netherlands and Australia. The stables of the Police Mounted Division are a living legend, and this unit is one of the oldest in the entire Police service. Horses were initially got down as official transport for senior officers almost 150 years ago.

The entire division was busy, as they prepared for their first practice days prior to the main Independence Day State Parade. Horses were reassigned to the Colombo stables from the regional stables at Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. The animals had travelled in air conditioned trucks for almost six hours, to reach Colombo city. Temporary stalls are allocated to the visiting horses. The clatter of heavy hooves and snorting fills the air. Keeping a check on all this parade readiness is Officer- in- Charge, Inspector G. Kumarasiri, who has served here for 30 years. He explained, “As you know, the next few days are going to be very busy for us as we have a great deal of preparation to do. We must ensure that our horses are in peak physical condition, as well as look into the riding drill and protocols of our Officers and Constables. We have been associated with the Independence Day Parade for decades; the Mounted Division takes pride in this ceremonial escort duty”.

Marching in formation

Every horse and rider has a predetermined formation on the day of the spectacular State parade. The mounted troop is divided into two marching formations. The first is the VVIP Troop consisting 15 riders, commanded by the OIC who will escort the Presidential convoy, making two flanks on either side. The horses are matched in height to form a smart ceremonial visual. The horses maintain a light canter in keeping with the moving convoy.

This mounted troop is followed by the second formation of 20 horses under the command of an SGO (a police officer holding the service rank of SP or ASP). All officers will ride with their swords drawn, while sergeants and constables carry a wooden lance with a pennant. Getting the horses to march in formation is different from their daily traffic control duties. Horses and riders practise daily, at times with the police band playing some tunes - to get the animals used to the loud blasts from instruments like the trombone and the trumpet. In addition to the assigned horses a few ‘reserve’ horses are also taken on standby duty, in case a horse gets ill or agitated.

Parade rehearsals

I was at the stables by 5 am. Most of the Pettah area was strangely silent. The horse keepers checked their animals and began feeding them, first with water. Horses need to digest food slowly as they can’t vomit (which may cause a condition called equine colic). I witnessed their high energy breakfast of chaff, barley and oats- guaranteed to generate horsepower! Each horse lovingly nuzzled its keeper showing signs of affection.

The water tanks were filled and it’s bathing time. Most horses moved forward to their bath, a few were not that keen! Buckets of fresh water splashed on these magnificent animals. A refreshing sight, as the water bounced off from their valiant manes. A brown cat sat without expression on a log and observed the proceedings.

The riders begin their day’s work with an inspection of each horse, looking for any signs of bruising that may have occurred at night, as the animals lay asleep on mounds of saw dust. As the radiant rays of the sunbeams dance across the green paddock the horses are toweled. The ‘visiting’ horses are a bit unsettled in their temporary home. A black horse, curious about my presence came forward, from her stall. I gave her a head rub and the animal nuzzled her powerful neck against my hands.

The strong muscular energy of a horse is a force to be reckoned with. Once the animal is dry, the keeper checks each leg and applies wax on each hoof, using a brush. The tranquil morning charm is enhanced by the chirping of birds. Riding is not for the faint hearted.

Marching with decorum

When the horses are ready, they are led in a line sporting their polished leather saddles. The equestrians were attired in their regal uniforms- black riding boots, black pantaloon (riding pants), white tunic with gold braided lanyards and sturdy British pith hats covered with blue velvet. The helmet sports a silver badge. As they stood in line the duty officer gave the first command, “Stand your horses” - followed by “Adjust your stirrup iron”. This ensures the rider’s saddle is safe and ready for mounting. Again the senatorial voice thundered around the grounds, “Prepare to mount - now mount”.

In beautiful precision and within seconds the riders are on horseback. The silver sword of the officer, Sub Inspector Wimalasena, glistened in the morning sunlight, highlighting his position in the column. The horses trotted and cantered in formation. After going through their paces it’s time for a rest and a drink of water. Inspector Kumarasiri released the next command, “Prepare to dismount- dismount”. Again the team displayed total teamwork and came to a silent halt, holding their long line. The closing remark is given, “Make much of your horses”- a British term of appreciation.

The horses are led to water and rewarded with a few fresh carrots. Inspector Kumarasiri adds, “This is a dry run. During the next few days we will leave in the morning to Galle Face Center Road, and practice our formation. We realize people, especially children, enjoy watching us. The horse and rider becomes one unit. The horse can stand still for 30 minutes. We always take enough food and water, as we feed them in between the parade - before we re-escort the leaving VVIPs”.

I came across the most senior horse that had taken part in ceremonial parades for 18 years, a splendid chestnut coloured gelding named Werson from the Kandy police stables. This amiable horse is venerated by all the staff. For the 54 horses and Mounties of the Police Mounted Division the February 4th parade would be a grand affair that brings them together. The Division is at present commanded by SSP Damyathna Wijesiri. The horses and riders continue to enrich and maintain a long ceremonial tradition.