To a horse, a police officer is not just a loyal comrade. We describe this and other aspects of the Russian mounted police service.
It is -13С (8.6F) outside. An elderly woman with an umbrella is walking in a small garden square, looking down at the ground. She lifts her head and sees a young woman in police uniform leading a gray horse.
"You can stroke it, it won't bite," Elena Agarkova, a senior police sergeant and cavalrywoman of the first section of the first platoon of the first company of the first cavalry battalion (yes, these are the ranks in the mounted police!), says with a radiant smile. "Oh, come on, I'm scared of it," the woman replies, but her hand is already reaching out to stroke the horse's muzzle.
According to Elena, when she is out on her patrols, elderly people, families with children and foreign tourists are happy to see a horse and ask if they can stroke it or pose for a photograph.
How to join the mounted police
The First Operational Regiment (Mounted Police), in which Elena and her horse Diktator [Dictator] serve, was set up by the Ministry of Internal Affairs over 40 years ago, in 1980. Its job is to ensure order at large public events - rallies, big concerts and festivals, soccer matches, etc.
Around 250 horses serve in the regiment. They are selected from Russia's best stud farms. One of the horses, Zolotoy Luch [Golden Ray], was a present from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018.
Usually, three- or four-year-olds of both genders with well-developed spines are selected for the regiment. Horses born in a single year are given names starting with the same letter of the alphabet: Kuryer [Courier], Kovboy [Cowboy] and so on.
It takes several months to train a horse for police duties - specially-qualified staff teach the horses to carry a saddle, to jump over obstacles, not to be afraid of crowds in the street or ambient noise and so forth.
The training of mounted officers takes from nine to 12 months. For men, it is compulsory to have served in the army. Initially, aspiring mounted officers undergo medical and psychological checks. Doctors decide how long their training with horses should take - it's usually either three or six months, says Yelena Agarkova. But that is just the beginning.
At first, the trainee mounted officers are taught how to ride a horse, how to saddle a horse, how to fit studs on it (i.e. how to put special anti-slip studs on its horseshoes) and develop a relationship with it. The training involves horses of different temperaments, ranging from the most impetuous to the calmest, so that novices can learn to get on with horses of all types.
At the same time, not everyone passes this internship successfully.
"Every trainee is allocated a horse that they have to look after and clean, among other things. There have been incidents of trainees refusing to clean up after their horse, claiming: 'It's not my job, I'm not going to clean up,' and leaving on their own account. And one girl had an allergy to horsehair, so we couldn't take her on and she joined an unmounted battalion," says Police Major Vyacheslav Frantsuzov, deputy company commander in the special regiment.
The mounted police trainees then go on to a training center where they undergo operational, legal and military studies. At the end, they take an exam and enter service.
A day in the life of a mounted police officer
It's Elena's fourth year in the mounted police. She went to police college, having taken up equestrianism at a young age along with her twin sister, who also works in the regiment.
"We came on a tour here and everything seemed to fall into place. It was a way of combining our educational background and favorite pastime. It was a no-brainer," Elena recalls.
Her husband, Mikhail Agarkov, works alongside her. He is a senior police sergeant and a cavalryman of the second section of the second platoon of the first company of the first battalion (those cavalry titles!). He wanted a career in law enforcement or the army from a young age.
"Before joining the army, I was also interested in equestrianism and I ended up combining the two things. I don't like working at a desk - I can't see myself in an office," says Mikhail Agarkov.
In the photograph, they are with two mares - Printsessa [Princess] (black) and Skazka [Fairy Tale] (gray), but, at work, they are usually on "their" horses - Elena on Diktator and Mikhail on Yerevan.
"Diktator needs to have constant contact with people. He's very sociable and hyper-nimble and can't stand still. If you're passing by and don't stroke him, he starts to pin back his ears," is how Elena tenderly describes her horse.
Mikhail uses a single word to characterize Yerevan - "lazy"! They joke between themselves that all horses resemble their masters and are even supposed to adopt whatever mood they are in. That is why it is so important to come to work in a positive frame of mind and to treat them to tidbits.
On a typical winter's day, the members of the mounted police start their shift at 08:45 in the morning. They come to the regiment, attend a briefing where they are given their orders for the day and, if relevant, they are warned to be on the lookout for any criminals.
They prepare their horse and pick up all the essential equipment they will need - handcuffs, two-way radio, batons, electronic database tablet and police forms. The horses are loaded onto a special vehicle, a horse box with space for six horses, and they head for work - usually in the woods or in a parkland. At the end of their shift, they return to the regiment, file their daily report and go home.
When they are on duty at public events - concerts, demonstrations or soccer matches - the start of their shift is pushed to a later time. Sometimes members of the mounted police operate at such events on foot, without their horses.
How to avoid freezing on horseback
The mounted police work in temperatures as low as -25C (-13F). Starting from -10C (14F), they operate in shifts - while some are on duty for a couple of hours, others stay warm in a personnel vehicle.
"We put on long johns, thermal underwear, fleece sweaters and even heated insoles and gloves. We put special warm blankets on the horses, but they are constantly moving around while we are seated, so they don't feel the cold as we do. Balaclavas also help to protect our faces from frost and wind chill," Elena says, describing the main operational "life hacks" used when working in freezing conditions.
Press Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia in Moscow
The Agarkovs spend all their free time with horses, as well - they practise their riding skills and take part in show jumping competitions held both among members of the regiment and with equestrian clubs.
"Sometimes it's hard to stand for six hours in our body armor - it's physically difficult; sometimes there's frost; and sometimes it's stressful when there's some kind of protest going on. But the best thing is that we don't just push pieces of paper around: We're continually involved in events of some kind, developing our equestrian skills, and we treat the horses as members of the family," Elena Agarkova says in conclusion.