Like most people, I hate cruelty to animals, but when I heard that there had been an outcry over protesters attacking police horses at the Anti-Capitalism protests recently, I wondered whether those who were so disgusted by it had actually missed a very important point.
Let me be clear. If there was a horse, whether a police horse or any other kind, simply standing by the side of the road, and someone ran up and attacked it, I would be the first to condemn them and to intervene. However, we have to bear in mind that horses are actually used as offensive weapons by the police.
This is not a wild claim, it is something I have seen and experienced myself. Now, you might imagine that this must have been at a violent demonstration or such, because the police surely wouldn’t do such a thing without good cause. Actually, it wasn’t. This was in 2001. My girlfriend of the time had never been to Notting Hill carnival and wanted to go so, knowing that the Sunday tends to be calmer than the Saturday, I took her there on Sunday so that she could ease herself into the experience. She wasn’t very used to big crowds and didn’t feel very comfortable in them so I thought this would make the experience better for her. However, as we walked down the road towards the main parade a mounted police officer started shouting at everyone. None of us could hear what he was saying as his face was covered with a scarf, so we all moved over to one side of the road, away from the officer and his horse. For some reason the officer moved over to that side with us and, as we stepped up onto the pavement to get out of the way the officer turned his horse around and then backed it towards us. We soon ran out of room on the pavement and my girlfriend looked confused at what was going on. She had never experienced anything like it. I pulled her along and encouraged her to keep moving, but she had slowed and just as I took hold of her arm the horse backed right into her, knocking her back. I had to support her by the arm to keep her standing and to pull her out of the way and the whole experience really shook her up. She was a nervous girl at times anyway and the incident ruined the whole day for her.
What you should remember was that this was not a violent demo, or even a particularly rowdy part of the carnival. It was a relaxed Sunday afternoon, on the outskirts of Notting Hill. There was no reason for the officer in question to back his horse into us, he did so for no reason other than that bullyboy tactics are the Met’s modus operandi these days. But my example is the thin end of the wedge. No one was seriously hurt. Let us not forget that similar tactics used at a protest just last year resulted in a woman being killed by a horse. These are big animals and they are being used as weapons by the police in a variety of situations.
Many might say that this does not excuse cruelty to animals, and I’d agree. But we did not consider it cruelty to animals to shoot horses as they charged towards our soldiers during world war one. And the police themselves do not consider it cruelty to animals to put down dogs who have attacked someone. The principle is the same. When an animal is a threat to you, and especially when someone is using it as a weapon, we are entitled to defend ourselves against that weapon.
That said, I should make one more thing clear too: I do not think anyone should ever have to defend themselves against an animal in such situations, because I do not think animals should be used as weapons at all. Using animals as weapons is just as cruel as abusing them yourself, because you are putting them at risk of harm. Horses are not necessary at demonstrations. They are taken there for the same reason they were taken to the front line right up into the twentieth century; because the sight of them is designed to instil fear into the hearts of those you face.
If, like me, you want to end cruelty to police horses focus your anger on the police who are using them as weapons. In fact, there is no need for the police to even have horses in the twenty-first century.