Office of Toronto Police's mounted unit in a black horse

15 things you didn’t know about Toronto’s Mounted Police Unit

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at T.O. officers on horseback and their trusty steeds

A few weeks ago, Jill and Fred were hanging out near the base of the CN Tower when they were approached by a tourist from Scotland. Next came a four-year-old with his parents in tow. “See, when one person comes up, more people come up,” says Jill—who is officially known as Police Constable Jillian Finley-Kellough, of Toronto’s Mounted Police Unit. “We can barely walk down the street without someone stopping us to say, ‘Can I pat your horse’?”

The horse in question would be Fred, whose official title is First Responder. And the answer is pretty much always “yes.”

Finley-Kellough has been an officer with the Toronto Police Service for 17 years, first in a patrol car, then on a bike, now on horseback. But Fred, a friendly, five-year-old black Percheron cross with a white stripe down his nose, has only been with the Unit for just over a year. He’s still in training and it’s Finley-Kellough’s job to guide him, along with the rest of the horses and riders in the Mounted Unit—which is not something she thought she’d be doing when she first joined the force.

“I’d love to say, ‘I’ve always loved horses’ or ‘I grew up with horses,’ but the truth is, I had zero experience with them,” she says. “I was sitting in a scout car one day when a notice came across the police radio that the Mounted Unit was looking for people. I just thought it would be cool to learn to ride a horse.” After a preliminary two-week course to see if she had what it took, followed by three months of intensive training, she was officially in the saddle.

Animated gif of Toronto police officer putting saddle on horse

Training to be in the Mounted Unit is rigorous for horse and rider alike. On a wall in the Unit’s headquarters is a framed photograph of a phalanx of grim-faced officers riding hard towards something any sensible person (or horse) would run away from, and fast: A blazing wall of fire. The photo was taken during a routine training session. “You need to prepare the horses for anything they might encounter on the job,” Finley-Kellough says. That includes umbrellas, hula hoops, sticks, bottles, cans and paper bags (in a controlled environment, of course).

Female Toronto police mounted officer leading black horse out of stall

But the results of that training are revealed when these brave steeds barely flick an ear at the bottles and insults that occasionally fly through the air of the Entertainment District around 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. Crowd control is one of the Mounted Unit’s biggest jobs, Finley-Kellough says. Mounted officers can spot a dustup from blocks away. “Horses are great at breaking up fights as people tend to step back—it would be silly not to,” she says.

Mounted officer jumping a fallen tree on a black horse

Having officers on horseback is also handy during searches for missing people, thanks to their unique vantage point and the fact they can cover a lot of ground. Same goes for break-and-enters. Mounted officers can quickly search backyards and laneways where thieves often hide. Horses even help when it comes to handing out tickets to distracted drivers. “When someone is stopped at a red light and doesn’t even notice that there’s a horse in their window, they can’t really argue that they were paying attention,” Finley-Kellough says.

But, it’s not always about controlling crowds, ferreting out bad guys and ticketing traffic infractions. The horses in the Mounted Unit are called “ambassadors to the community” because they’re an example of community policing—and community building—at its best. “It’s a different way of policing,” Finley-Kellough says. “We’re very approachable. No one’s going to walk up to officers in a vehicle, but when we’re on horseback it’s like an invitation to just come over and say ‘hello.’”

Woman and baby approach a mounted officer and her black horse

15 interesting tidbits about Toronto’s Mounted Police Unit 

Number of horses in the Unit: 25, give or take

Number of officers: Approximately 40

Number of Canadian cities that have a mounted unit: Seven. (St. John’s, Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary, Vancouver)

The horses live at the Ex. The Mounted Unit hangs out in the Horse Palace at the C.N.E.

Officers muck the stalls. “We arrive for our shift, parade for duty, and are assigned to our horses. Then, we muck the stalls, sweep the aisles, groom our horses and head out on patrol,” says Finley-Kellough. The officers are also in charge of feeding, putting fresh bedding down, cleaning tack and trimming their horses’ hooves.

Horses walking through a puddle in High Park

It can take six months or more to train a horse for duty. “Some horses already understand basic commands, while others haven’t even had a saddle on their backs,” Finley-Kellough says.

Officers sometimes fall off. Finley-Kellough has fallen off her steed numerous times. “I think if you don’t fall off, you’re not pushing the envelope enough to see just what your horse can do.”

Female officers in the Mounted Unit now have their own change room. The Unit used to be made up largely of men, but now it’s close to 50/50. “There’s a new change room because of us—our boss had to give up his office to create one.”

It’s all about the horse: The question Finley-Kellough gets asked most often: Can I pat your horse? Followed by, “Your poor horse, he must be so cold!” No one ever asks if Finley-Kellough is cold. “Meanwhile, he’s probably way warmer than I am,” she laughs.

Toronto Police mounted officer handing out horse trading cards

All of the unit’s horses have trading cards! The last series was shot at popular spots in the city, featuring horses and riders at Castle Loma, the Brickworks and the Rogers Centre. On the back of each card are the horses’ stats: age, breed, height. (Bonus fun fact: horses are measured in hands—approximately the width of a human hand, or four inches—from ground to withers. Fred is just over 17 hands, which means he is a lot of horse.)

You could probably name most of the horses in the Unit without knowing it. Each horse is named after something or someone who has had a special connection to the police service in the city. Recent additions include Blue Jay and Russell, named in honour of 52 Division’s Sergeant Ryan Russell, who was killed in the line of duty in 2011.

The horses’ hairdos have significance. Some police horses have a forelock, while others don’t. The reason dates back to cavalry times: A long forelock meant the horse wasn’t trained and, unless you were an experienced rider, you knew to stay off. (Fred is in training, so he still has his forelock.)

The horses are protected. Ever since a horse lost its eye during the Queen’s Park riots in 2010, horses have been equipped with full riot gear, including helmets.

Horses get a  pretty sweet retirement package. Most police horses don’t work past the age of 20 (the equivalent of 60 people years). “We find a nice farm for them where they’ll be let loose to graze,” Finley-Kellough says.