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Officer Bill MacPherson and Tecumseh navigate through a barrier during obstacle training.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Staff Sergeant James Patterson of the Toronto Police's mounted unit is in a horse stall, brushing wood chips out of Viscount's tail. There are no chips in Viscount's mane, it's been buzzed short. "Military-style, so no one can grab and pull," according to Staff Sgt. Patterson.

A trainer approaches and asks if Viscount has time for a full breakfast.

"Sure, better feed him. Or else he'll be angry," Staff Sgt. Patterson says.

I encourage a heaping portion and wait for Viscount to be saddled for my lesson.

Few people want to be on top of an angry 700-kilogram animal. Fewer still want to be underneath one, which is what makes Viscount, and his cohort of 28 at the Horse Palace in Exhibition Place, so good at crowd control.

Staff Sgt. Patterson cinches a leather cavalry saddle onto Viscount and leads us into the training ring. It's a grubby oval of dirt in a dark hall of empty stalls, but a place Staff Sgt. Patterson hopes will offer a bright future now that four of his officers have become nationally certified instructors.

After the unit's annual coaching budget of $3,000 was cut by 15 per cent last year, they decided to bring more training in-house. Acting Staff Superintendent Elizabeth Byrnes, the unit commander for Operational Services, says the mounted unit's 2012 budget was $4.99-million of an overall police budget of $933.8-million. But with the city asking Toronto Police services not to increase spending next year, that means the unit, the largest in Canada, may face scrutiny.

The horses, says Staff Sgt. Patterson, are a bargain. He prefers "big, dumb horses" that won't think too hard about the cement truck passing them. He says the run-of the-mill stock only cost about $3,500 to buy and $7 a day to maintain (not including salaries). Acting Staff Supt. Byrnes says 93 per cent of the budget goes to salaries and benefits for the unit's 34 constables and six sergeants. The unit's commander, William Wardle, says the officers spend up to two hours a shift maintaining the horses, the remainder on mounted patrol, a more visible version of what foot and vehicle-based officers do.

Having the unit's own officers certified by the Ontario Equestrian Federation will improve the in-house training the constables must undergo to operate four hooves safely in melees. Policing duties permitting, officers get two days of training every five weeks.

Training hasn't always been necessary at the 126-year-old unit. In his book The Mounted Squad, Staff Inspector Wardle explains that many early members were cavalry veterans, while civilian recruits tended to be farmboys without connections to the city's working classes, hence less sympathy for labour protesters.

A 1902 Toronto Star article gives this account of the mounted unit's role in the Street Railway strike: "Out came their blacksnake whips and they rode into the crowds, slashing as fast as their arms would move. The effect was the crowd swept back like the turning of a tide."

When I ask Staff Sgt. Patterson about whips, he shows me a long riding crop, the only extra gear a rider is allowed. He says he never uses one. "Can you imagine how it would look just to be holding this?" he asks. "We always assume we are being videoed," something he says can make the job of controlling a crowd harder (though some might argue "gentler" would be a better word).

"It's more difficult now. There were no constraints then. … Now, we are more cognizant of the right to gather. And there is more oversight. If there is an injury, the SIU investigates and you will be held accountable. The paperwork involved when a horse accidentally steps on someone is bad enough."

Viscount doesn't seem like the type to accidentally step on a toe, standing stock still during saddle adjustments.

My slightest calf clench gets him loping forward, massive muscles moving underneath the saddle, and another has him at a trot.

"They love to run. And to chase," says Staff Sgt. Patterson, who describes a chase in the entertainment district during which he ended up half under his horse when it slipped.

It's outside the nightclubs that the horses see the most action. There are six or eight horses on hoof patrol two to four nights a week around Richmond Street West, helping disperse crowds and break up fights.

"You walk into a situation on foot where fists are flying and you usually get a few yourself," says Staff Sgt. Patterson. "When you move a horse in between them, it stops right away."

He also uses horses to physically pin presumed outlaws against walls until foot officers can collect them.

But in truth, horses excel at getting people to move, not stay still.

Staff Sgt. Patterson demonstrates a technique called the sidepass. He mounts Viscount, turns him sideways and moves toward me, telling me I have to clear the area. We see eye-to-stirrup and I move. He does it again and I try to stand still. Viscount acts like I'm nothing to him, which helps me believe he has stepped on my toe by accident. I move again.

When not at a riot, outside a club or primping their rides, officers do patrols – but that wasn't always the case. In recent decades, the unit spent more time practicing their musical ride show drills and carting around dignitaries in the landau carriage than policing. The ceremonial work was cut out in the nineties and the unit downsized. The 28 to 30 horses it maintains today are half what it had in 1979.

Staff Sgt. Patterson says it's a lean operation that provides valuable daily policing for the investment, but that the real rationale for the unit is clear when you have 100,000 Tamil supporters heading for the Gardiner. "Even if the crowd is not hostile, there's no telling what can happen."

"Crowd control is why we exist," he says. He estimates one officer in the saddle is worth six to 10 on the ground.

He describes the 2010 G20 summit as "a long six months," but says the preparation was worth it, with no complaints leveled against mounted officers.

Nora Loreto wonders just what the preparation involved. The 28-year-old student and self-described activist was editor of the Ryerson Free press in 2010. She was in Queen's Park – the designated demonstration zone, she points out – when mounted police rode in. She said the officers weren't swinging batons like the old days, but instead rode in circles to corral protesters before riding through the group to disperse it.

"People have a psychological reaction to animals," she says. "They don't know what it's going to do. It created total panic among the protesters. We said, 'We have to disperse.' It's a very intimidating crowd-control technique."

While not disputing that horses are intimidating, Staff Sgt. Patterson prefers to call them effective, and hopes the budget committee will agree.