The popular police horse that just keeps defying the odds
Anyone who has copped a hip and shoulder from a 650kg police horse is unlikely to ever forget the experience.
In my case, it was June 13, 1973, when the anger of hundreds of striking workers at the Ford factory in Broadmeadows finally reached boiling point.
The six-hour battle that day - the culmination of a four week strike over the treatment of migrant workers - was later described as "one of the most explosive and militant disputes in the history of the Australian union movement".
Stones and rocks were thrown and fire hoses sprayed through broken windows into offices. Strikers pushed over a 30-metre section of brick wall and used the bricks to smash windows in the factory.
Picketers stopped a fruit and vegetable truck at a factory gate and hurled oranges, tomatoes and carrots at police called in by Ford. The big police contingent included mounted police, which led to horse manure also being used as ammunition by strikers.
It also led to a classic piece of Victoria Police folklore.
S.I. (Mick) Miller - assistant commissioner for operations and later chief commissioner - was in charge of the police response at Broadmeadows.
Whether it was the escalation of violence or the horse manure patties, Miller gave the order to disperse the picketers by riding the horses into them. When asked at a news conference the next day if he regretted using the horses, he replied: "No, not at all. I would have used elephants if I'd had any, and called it Operation Hannibal".
Horses have been used by police in Victoria since 1836, and by the early 1900s there were 211 Mounted Stations throughout the state. As motor cars replaced horses their numbers dwindled and the last Mounted Station, at Buninyong, was closed in 1965.
The oldest, longest serving and most popular horse at the Victoria Police Mounted Branch is Randwick, a 16.2hh grey home-bred, who will be 23 years old next month. His mother was also a police horse and two younger half sisters and a half brother are still working with him at the Mounted Branch.
Police horses are generally retired at the age of 20, but in exceptional circumstances are allowed to keep working if they are fit, healthy and still happy in the service. Provided Randwick passes his biannual physical checks, he will be retired on his 25th birthday.
His partner, Sgt Amanda Crowley, says the horse "just keeps on defying the odds".
"He's been a first issue horse in the past for many of the members here, as he's so reliable he could probably go out and do the job on his own, sans rider."
Sgt Crowley has trained or ridden 15 horses during her career of almost 30 years at the mounted branch. She's been paired with Randwick for the past five years.
"He is incredibly brave and will go forward into an angry crowd as the leader. He has been at all the big protests, such as the G20, Reclaim Australia and last year's four-day IMARC conference.
"He can be quite feisty when he goes out at night and acts like a much younger horse, especially if there's doof doof music playing. I can't quite work out if he hates it or he's just showing off as he passes."
Randwick, the 650kg Warmblood, has escorted the Queen, the Governor-General and countless fallen members at police funerals, leading the funeral party through the guard of honour.
Once bred by the force, police horses are now bought from the public or donated. Only one in 8-10 makes the grade as a troop horse after being assessed during a 90-day trial.
The minimum height for recruits is 16.2 hands. Horses can be any breed or colour, but must be between 5-12 years old, sound, calm, trainable, brave and obedient.
Sgt Crowley says their training is "really all about desensitising them and teaching them to do things that don't come naturally".
"There's a lot of work done to acclimatise them to noise and people pushing against them, and that's why we need to use very large horses," she says.
Flags, flares, banner poles and loud music are among the other things they are trained to ignore in simulated confrontational situations such as protests.
Just how well trained the horses are could be seen at last weekend's anti-lockdown rally, where they were kicked and hit with flagpoles but barely flinched.
Sgt Crowley says riders of the 25 horses at the mounted branch are predominantly female and have learned their skills at pony clubs.
"We used to attract men who had learned to ride horses while growing up on farms. They had ridden horses to muster cattle and help out on the farm, whereas now they use a motor bike."
Originally published as The popular police horse that just keeps defying the odds