Tall in the saddleAt sundown each evening, the New Baneshwor junction transforms into a melee of people desperate to get home.
At sundown each evening, the New Baneshwor junction transforms into a melee of people desperate to get home. Hundreds of students and office-goers congregate on the sidewalks for vehicles to stop and pick them up, while vehicles that make their way to almost every part of the city and beyond keep an eye out for stragglers. The task of keeping in check the nightly onslaught falls on the officers of the Metropolitan Traffic Police. And each evening the pair of mounted police officers stationed at the crossroad play a crucial role in preventing imminent chaos at the roundabout.
The said officers belong to the Mountain Police division, a special branch of the Metropolitan Traffic Police that was established in 1977 to manage crowds in tight urban spaces and for the past four decades, the Mountain Police force has been integral in traffic management, overseeing peaceful demonstrations, as well as performing ‘Gastis’, during festivals such as Ghode Jatra, Shivaratri, and Phulpati. The name, Mountain Police, apparently refers to the elevated vantage point of mounted police officers.
According to Ramhari Koirala, who has been with the divison for the last 15 years, the main reason for using horses in traffic management is efficiency. “During peak hours, a large number of policemen would have to form a human chain at roadsides just to prevent pedestrians from crossing roads haphazardly. But a pair of Mountain Police could replace ten normal traffic officers at conducting this task,” he explains. The extra mobility, raised vantage point, and the imposing demeanour gained from sitting on a horse, are why, he says, horses are used so frequently by traffic police.
“In a sense, the horses create a psychological barrier for pedestrians. Their presence is meant to discourage people from breaking the law,” Koirala shares. “That being said, our horses are very well-trained and are totally harmless,” he adds.
The Mountain Police today have a total of fifteen trained horses of three different breeds—Native, Thoroughbred, and Arabian. They are looked after by seven groomsmen who are Mountain Police themselves and remain on-call at all hours of the day.
Yuvaraj Shrestha, a groomsman based at the Mountain Police headquarters at the Baggi Khana in Singha Durbar, shares that tending to the horses can be an extremely challenging task. “Physically, the utility of these horses range from racing to carrying heavy loads,” he says, “At the Mountain Police though, they don’t get the ideal amount of physical exercise which makes them lazy and unhealthy. And by their nature, horses are very sensitive and schedule-oriented and we are always on watch to meet this need.”
Officially, the Mountain Police department begins every morning at 4 am when fresh water is poured for the horses. This is followed by a light meal which includes grams and hay. The nutritional value for the meals has been calculated precisely and Shrestha shares that any fluctuation can result in metabolic problems. Then at 6 am, all the horses are taken for a two-hour ride around the city for exercise. Back at the stable, the groomsmen begin clearing out the stables. According to Shrestha, this is a crucial routine as it prevents the spread of disease. Horses are also very sensitive about their sanitation. “I take horses as very wise creatures. Even here, they rarely urinate or defecate on the floor itself.
They do it once we put down a layer of hay,” he shares, “They seem to understand that excreting on the floor could make it slippery and increase chances of them falling and being injured.”
For most of the day, horses mill about in their respective stables while a total of five different rounds of meals that include flaxseed, barley, chhokar, and grass are served. Once it is four in the evening and peak traffic hours begin, the Mountain Police prepare to leave for busy intersections to provide support to other traffic officers. Except for public holidays, this evening peak hour duty is the core responsibility of the Mountain Police department. On most evenings you can find them posted at intersections in New Baneshwor, Bhotahiti, Sundhara, and Kalimati. Occasionally, they are stationed below overhead bridges to prevent jaywalking.
But wherever the Mountain Police are deployed, they are always in a pair and never is alone. Shrestha explains that this done keeping in mind the horses’ emotional nature. “It is not possible to take a single horse out on duty,” he says, “If a horse spots a friend nearby, they are calm and more receptive to our commands. Else, it is very hard to control them.”
Then at about six in the evening, the horses come back to their stables once again. This time, Shrestha and the team thoroughly check for any cuts or injuries. Injured horses are a great loss in terms of money and energy and the healing process is also often time consuming and costly. “If horses break their bones, their death is certain,” said Som Bahadur Bhujel, chief of the Mountain Police department, “It is of course rare, but it is something we have to remain alert about.”
For officers at the department, Bhujel says, the long list of chores throughout the day are performed out of a sense of duty but also from a place of genuine intimacy. This affection is often mutual as horses have a way of recognising their caretakers and riders. They can make sense of frequently used words and phrases and can act accordingly. While horses are very loyal to their riders and caretakers, Bhujel says, they also demand respect. “Horses can be violent and bite or kick. This is why we avoid talking to them in rough tones. Even while cleaning them, we should engage in constant one-sided talk,” he shares. Because it is so important to foster a relationship between rider and horse, it is compulsory for a new officer to spend a year in training, and at least two weeks with a horse before taking it out on duty.
But if once horses were provided to officials as Anchaladhis (Zonal head), Chief District Officers (CDO) and District Superintendents of Police (DSP) in many rural districts of Nepal, today, the utility of horses is limited to use by the Army and the Police. Of these, it is usually those under the Mountain Police that are most frequently seen on the streets. But according to Bhujel, the retention of horses for traffic management is not due to the department’s unwillingness to move with the changing times.
“Despite the advent of new technology, we are still quite dependent on our horses; but this is not about our reluctance to upgrade. Rather, it is an effort to sustain the relationship between our institution and horses—a relationship that dates back to the pioneering years of traffic control in the early fifties,” Bhujel says, “Besides, even if the traffic has increased many hundred folds since their introduction, our horses remain as indispensible as ever, and will remain so for many more years.”