People We Love
Sergeant Daniel Harris of Merseyside Police’s Mounted Section
Sometimes the challenge isn’t about struggling to the top of the hill, it’s about staying on top when you’re there.
Sergeant Daniel Harris of Merseyside Police’s Mounted Section could be forgiven for taking his eye of the road safety ball. Collisions and near misses involving horses in Merseyside are incredibly rare (surprising for a region which, in the sergeant’s words, has ‘tons of horses’). Mounted officers are in incredibly high demand, called upon for everything from crowd control to formal escort, but Sergeant Harris is far from complacent about road safety.
It’s surreal visiting the stables at Mather Avenue Police Station to meet him. Whenever they can, the mounted section welcome visitors to make an appointment and see them, and doing so feels like a real treat. Everything from the mud spattered yard to the gleaming tack room has that wonderful horse smell, and it feels like a rural haven tucked into the city’s suburbs. As I’d brought chocolates for the officers, I felt it was only right to bring the horses something too, so I take a few bags of carrots.
We sit and talk in the small office that the officers share – there are eight of them – and I ask him if the mounted section really have a role in road safety.
‘Some days it’s football, some days it’s operations, weeks of action. You’ll see us all over Merseyside. We’re dealing with enforcing road traffic legislation – careless driving, mobile phones. We’ve got saddle bags, we do OSCOS [an ‘officer seen conditional offer’ – a fine in other words]. Some people don’t really like it when they get stopped by someone on a horse… we’re just the same as any other bobby.’
I can’t image what it must be like to get given a ticket for being on your phone by an officer on horseback – it’s not something you’d be likely to forget.
I ask him about equine RTCs in Merseyside – how they get their data – how do they know what needs doing?
‘The BHS (British Horse Foundation) have got a reporting system. They give us the statistics. It shows near misses as well as actual accidents. They highlight sites as high risk. The Wirral and Formby were highlighted areas, so we said right, okay, let’s take two horses, go out in hi-vis without the police logo, just look like two normal people riding horses. We had the radio on and a police car back down the road… and basically if anyone came past us too close or too fast we just radioed through to say ‘just coming up to you now, Citron Saxo or whatever, going really fast no effort to slow down.’ They’d pull them in having identified a spot that was safe for them to stop. It’s not about persecuting people it’s about the education. It wasn’t about ticketing people for careless driving, it was just about purely, stop them, two minute educational chat: did you know that you should slow down to 15 miles an hour, did you know you should leave 2 meters like for a cyclist? And 99.5% were receptive… We’re not just saying to the public that horse riders are amazing, drivers are all rubbish because actually the BHS actually do a road users code of conduct for horse riders as well – we’re trying to educate them as well.’
On the one hand, I can imagine people being positive – horses are beautiful – who wouldn’t want to stop and see horses (educational talk and all)? Then I try to imagine myself being stopped if I was running late for work and in a bad mood. Would I really see this bit of education as necessary? I ask him why ‘close passes’ are an issue.
‘You’ve got two independently thinking minds to do one thing. If you imagine driving a car, if you turn the wheel right you’re going to go right. If you’ve got a horse, an independently thinking animal that’s big (ours are about 700 kilos) you can ask it to go right, but if it sees something down the road or down the lane it doesn’t like it’s going to be resistant and react in a number of different ways. It can react by rearing up, by spinning, it can jump up and down. There is a big risk. We had one that bolted, ran out of the park… and jumped onto a car bonnet then took off down the road.’
I suppose when a 700 kilo horse has got a problem on the road, everyone else on the road has a problem, too. There are actually significant risks. You need well trained horses, riders and drivers working together.
‘There’s no age limit either’ he adds ‘so technically you could have a 4 year old riding down a dual carriageway with a 70 mile an hour speed limit. You could have a kid on the road on a horse, and a bus goes past thinking it’s fine because it drove past a police horse back down the road and that was fine, and the kid’s pony isn’t as exposed… most horses aren’t as desensitised as ours.’
The consequences don’t bear thinking about. But Sargent Harris does think about them. He understands that the horse riding community often see the mounted officers as role models, and so is always thinking of ways Merseyside’s mounted section can influence the public in positive ways.
‘People look at us and say ‘they’re wearing hi-vis sheets, okay, I need to get a hi-vis sheet.’
He pulls out his phone and shows me images of a row of horses – their tails entwined with ropes of flashing lights. It’s such an obvious idea – yet Merseyside would be the first force in the country to adopt them. I love that, the oldest mounted section in the country using the newest tech. Perhaps that’s how you stay on top of the hill, as it were – by doing small things all the time so you don’t slip and have to start climbing back up. In the case of Merseyside Police’s mounted section, those small things – education, engagement and exemplar behaviours are keeping riders and drivers alike safe across the region. I’m impressed.
Merseyide’s safety aside, however, I’m not 100% happy with the visit. I don’t get to feed a single carrot to a single horse (and can’t think of a professional reason to ask). I’ll be keeping an eye out for Sergeant Harris’s next road safety initiative so that I can make an excuse to come back and try my luck next time.