Today Toronto mourns a horse. Royal Sun, a 12-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service's Mounted Unit, is headed to old glue-factory in the sky, following an injury sustained in the line of duty earlier this week. It's sad, in the way that anything dying is sad. (In a statement today, Mayor Ford called Royal Sun's passing a "profound loss.") But given the moderate media frenzy surrounding the death of a horse-the Toronto Sun, who donated Royal Sun in 2000, put the horse on today's cover, calling it (in labored Sun-pun style) their "Mane Man"-a few questions naturally arise.
If, like me, you've ever stepped off one of our city's sidewalks to circumvent a slow-walker or mailbox only to nimbly evade a four-pound hillock of curbside horse droppings, you may well wonder what cops are even doing riding horses. What, exactly is their function, beyond leaving the city flecked with clots of horse-pie?
What are Toronto Police even doing with a Mounted Unit? Isn't the whole idea a bit antiquated? Are locomotive and covered wagon robberies a problem in the downtown core? And second, what's the big deal? Isn't it just a horse?
"Our main mandate is crowd control," Graham Queen, Operational Staff Sergeant of Toronto Police Service's Mounted Unit, says over the phone. "We're very visible, because we're eight feet in the air. People tend to get out of the way when a large animal is involved." Queen notes that mounted units-Toronto Police Services currently has 23 horses in their CNE stables-are regularly deployed in the Entertainment District, especially on weekends, as means of controlling last call swarms.
Beyond crowd control, the mounted units serve a gentler secondary function. "We're often asked to go to schools, churches, or other community events," says Queen. Horses like Royal Sun are ambassadors for Toronto Police Services, also employed for special ceremonial duties-like serving as honour guards to visiting dignitaries, or galloping in line with funeral processions-to the lend a certain air of circumstance.
It's an interesting dynamic. Essentially, the horses (and the mounted unit more generally) have a public relations function, playfully engaging with the community during the day and herding rowdies at night. In this way, cop-topped horses like Royal Sun reveal something of the Janus-face of policing. Like a patrolman's tidy, exactingly to-spec uniform, equine officers provoke feelings of safety and stately menace all at once.
Just look at the TPS press release announcing the death of Royal Sun, in which Constable Patrick Penny describes the animal in slightly incompatible terms. According to Penny, the horse was "big and intimidating," yet also "also the most gentle creature." But Penny is most telling when he calls Royal Sun "an awesome presence," a bit of phrasing that captures what the idea of the police is all about.
Horses are regal. Or so we're told. Horseracing, after all, is "the sport of kings." At the very least, horses are somehow special. There are whole theories of horse-human empathy, which run both ways on the human-equine axis. Some horse trainers have ditched old-fashioned abusive breaking methods in favour of kinder, New Age-ier conditioning methods (commonly, "horse whispering," like in the movie) that stress an almost psychic bond between the animal and its trainer.
Likewise, "equine therapy" has been suggested as a way of increasing a person's empathy with other human people. Perhaps because of the generally symbiotic relationship between humans and horses-you don't just care for one, like a cat, or raise on to slaughter, like a pig or a calf-there is something humane about horses. Unlike the petitioning gaze of a dog, a horse's glassy eyes reflect nothing of our own hubris, and so command a certain a respect. (In his latest film, Beastiare, Quebecois filmmaker Denis Côté bracingly puts the animals at a small zoo at a distant remove from the viewer, giving the sense that the beasts, and especially the horses, are glaring back at viewer, staring down that idea of all humans as caretakers of the animal kingdom that his existed since the Book of Genesis.)
Certainly, there is something special about horses. They occupy a unique, even elevated, position in the zoological hierarchy. Like the police that mount them and ride them around Toronto's Entertainment district to passively intimidate rabble-rousers, horses radiate that commingled aura or security and intimidation. Ditto the very idea of police, who are somehow different than the rest of us civilian jerks putting around the club district or otherwise going about our business, ever watchful of scattered horse crap hazards, "an awesome presence."
So the passing of a big ol' regal presence like Royal Sun is sad for Toronto Police (who will be holding a private funeral ceremony) because of the emotional, empathetic, somehow human connection it's easy to forge with horses. And also because a horse is not just a horse (of course). In all the vigilant awe they so forcefully command just by being around, horses are pretty much the cops of the animal kingdom.