An Officer And A Horseman
For 50 years, Scotland native and part-time Weirsdale resident John Dalziel’s life has involved horses, from a career as a mounted police officer in London to years of teaching riders around the world. Most recently, he began coaching the local equestrian drill team Paso Espiritu. Ocala Style caught up with him recently at a practice for one of our most fascinating interviews ever.
How did you first become interested in horses?
The part of Scotland where I come from is where they raise Clydesdale horses. It may well have been that. I started when I was 10. I was too small for rugby and cricket and soccer, or football as we call it. There were stables 300 yards from my home, and [the owner] told me I could lead the ponies up and down the beach for the summer with the holiday-makers. So that’s how I started. Six pence a ride for the kids. I got a free lesson in return.
Yours is an illustrious career.
I’ve been blessed. I got into the military at 15. I went to the Army Prince’s College and became an engineer. But after my three years in college, I decided I really didn’t want to be an engineer. My squadron leader transferred me into the cavalry.” Initially when I joined the military, I wanted to work with horses, but the recruiting sergeant said, “There are no horses in the British army anymore.” Well, there were. And I was lucky, and I went into the regiment. It was then called the Royal Horse Guards, now known as the Blues & Royals. I was lucky, I was the shortest in my regiment… I’m five-foot-eight and a half.
How was that lucky?
It was a disadvantage but an advantage because you get the Napoleon Complex. I compensated. I had to work twice as hard. Because I had ridden before, within nine months I was promoted.
Is riding talent something you have naturally?
It’s a natural talent but I worked at it. I did three years on the ceremonial side in London.
You were at the Investiture.
In 1969, I was at the investiture of Prince Charles in London. If you ever see an old movie clip of the investiture of Prince Charles… parade is coming toward you, you’ll see Prince Charles in the carriage, I’m the first trooper on the right-hand side behind the carriage.
Was that as exciting as it sounds?
No. [laughs] It was tiring. We were up at 3 o’clock in the morning to prepare. We had to ride from where were stabled to the parade route. We were all pretty tired.
Did you get to meet Charles?
No. All business.
You were in the military for how long then?
After my first three years in the cavalry, I did seven years partly with my Army regiment but again I was lucky, I became a drill instructor, small arms instructor, jungle warfare instructor, mine warfare instructor. Then after that seven years, I went back to ceremonial and did a further two years. During that time, I took my six-month instructor’s course. I was trained by Captain Ben Jones, who won the gold medal in the Mexican Olympics in 1968. I met a gentleman there also called Charles Harris, who had spent three years at the Spanish riding school in Vienna. My two years ceremonial, during that time I was sent to Windsor to be in charge of the training there. Then after I left the military, I took a year off and then I joined the police. Did two years, which we all have to do, on foot patrol. During that time, we had the Brixton riots, so I spent a lot of that two years in tactical units—about 12 months. Similar to SWAT, without the weapons. If there was a riot or trouble, we were the ones who were sent in to quiet it down.
Did you enjoy that?
Absolutely. I loved my two years on the beat. After that two years, I joined the mounted. Seven years on the streets of London, part of all the riots going on—North Eaton, Westminister Bridge. Got involved in all the ceremonials as well as a police officer. Then they were looking for someone to become an instructor and I applied and became one of two riding instructors, eventually becoming senior riding instructor and national assessor, which meant that I would go around the country assessing other mounted units when the students were passing out to become mounted officers and to make sure the units were keeping up with the standards.
Eventually you come over to the U.S.
Because of injuries received on duty, many injuries, I had to retire. Broke my back in two places, broke both shoulders, cracked my neck in the riots—somebody hit me in the back of my neck with a scaffolding pole—severed my patellar tendon, broke both ankles, broke my fingers. I retired back to my native Scotland and whilst there, I got invited by somebody here to train horses. So I did that for two weeks in Altoona, Florida. Then went back and then in 1998, I got called up into the British military and sent out to Saudi Arabia, working with the Saudi Arabian National Guard to train them and their horses in the use of crowd control. I was in Saudi Arabia for a good bit. Left after my contract was finished, got asked to come back here again, since then I’ve been going back and forth. Since I’ve been in America, I’ve trained over 500 mounted police horses.
Do American and British police officers ride differently?
There’s a vast difference. The mounted police over here are constrained in what they can do because you have a litigious society. You have to be very careful. When you’re training, you have to make sure the officers understand that they have limitations. Horses are still the best crowd control you’ll ever get. Take away your rubber bullets, your gas… if you use horses correctly with back-up from your tactical units, they can’t be beat.
Why is that?
It’s the intimidation factor. When you see 10 horses moving toward you and police officers behind with their shields and you’re asked to move, you do. Not the best shooting platform. You have a problem with shots being fired. Being on a horse is the last place you want to be. You’ll get one shot off, maybe two, and then you’re the biggest target yet. Horses are just another means of conveyance from A to B on your general, day-to-day policing. You can see more, you’re also the approachable face of policing. You stand on the corner in a uniform and you’re going to get people coming up to you, even if it is just to pet the horse. You can get a good rapport with people. In London, we would align ourselves with the officer who was responsible for an area, and we would patrol the area and get to know the people, and you would get good information because people would start to talk to you. “Oh, by the way, I noticed in number 47, people would come in late at night and things would happen.” So you’d pass that information on to the drug squad. You’re the approachable face of the police.
The Time Square bomb incident involved a mounted police officer.
After the phone call, he was the first one to respond. Absolutely.
Tell me about the American riders you’ve come across.
They are great people. They, like most people who work with horses, want to improve themselves. They want to be the best. Most of them you come across are volunteers—your posses, your auxiliaries. So a lot of them put their own time and effort and money into doing some of these courses that we run for them. Every year for the last eight years, I’ve gone to Mobile, Alabama, to train the mounted police for the Mardi Gras there. We have had anywhere from 35 and 65 mount officers from all over the country come for the training. Most of them pay their own way. They learn equitation, crowd control, and for those who pass the daily tests, they get a chance to go into Mobile and patrol the Mardi Gras. Mobile is the original Mardi Gras, stolen by New Orleans. We have, some nights, over half a million people on the route in Mobile. We’ve had a number of incidents where shots have been fired.
It seems like there will always be a need for mounted police.
It’s still relevant even in this day and age. The mounted is seen, especially in the U.K., as the last soft option. After that, if we don’t win the battle, out come the rubber bullets, the water cannons and the gas. To this day in London, the mounted haven’t yet lost. Our guys are better trained than their guys. So it is still viable. Also it’s good for general patrolling. You cannot quantify it sometimes, but in London, you go into an area where there’s been a lot of burglaries with maybe 10 horses during the day, early evening, and patrol the area. The burglary rate will drop by about 70 percent because you are more visible. It’s a shame that the big cities are doing away with their mounted. They don’t realize the value that that unit has. Maybe you can’t quantify it in certain ways, but it’s the image people like to see.
How do you keep these horses calm?
You try never to put the horse in a position where he could kick a member of the public. You would never back a horse into a crowd. If you go into a crowd, it’s always nose first or sideways, moving the crowd with the horse’s shoulder. Never ever back into a crowd. Two reasons: One, the horse can kick and two, you can’t see what’s behind you or what’s happening. So you always want to keep your eye on the crowd.
Is there a certain breed of horse that’s better suited for mounted police work?
Looking from a London perspective, we look at size—not too big, maybe 16-1 to 16-3 hands. You’re looking for an Irish draft cross mostly with the Thoroughbred. So it gives you a little bit of lightness but the steadiness of the Irish draft. We prefer whole colors, in other words no paints, no palominos. We prefer the black, chestnut, bay, or gray. Nothing that would stand out. If I were to ride a palomino down London, it would be very nice when I look in the shop windows at myself but if a riot happened, somebody could say, “Someone hit me. It was the fellow on the bright yellow horse there.” It might not have been you, but they’ll remember the horse. So we stick to the solid colors. The horse also has to be temperamentally suitable. That’s the guiding factor. You train the horses from between six and nine months. Then they go on the streets and do a further 18 months training and assessment. During that time, they’ll go through all the riot training that we put the officers and the horses through. Gradually, that horse is introduced to the soccer matches, the demonstrations. At the end of those 18 months, he becomes a certified police horse.
You live in Weirsdale part of the year, and you have horses there?
Five horses. We have one Paso Fino, one 21-year-old Tennessee Walker who has won the Altoona Trailrider’s trail riding competition five times and just recently won the Marion and Lake County Obstacle Challenge two weeks ago, a warmblood—a Holsteiner crossed with a Quarter Horse—a spotted saddle horse, and we have a five-year-old Morgan stallion. I ride all of them except for the Morgan stallion. We’ve just been given him.
Is he a problem horse?
No, the lady who owned him was not very well. She’s very ill. She needed to move the horse off of her property, got my number from somebody and asked if I could find a home for him. Everything was okay until I asked her what breed he was and she said, “It’s a Morgan.” And I said, “I’ll be around there within the hour.” Expecting to see a hat rack of a horse. He’s stunning. One of the best-looking horses I’ve ever seen in my life. His name is Celtic Law. He hadn’t dealt with him in two and a half years. Took me 10 days to catch him, three days to get a halter on him, took me two days to get him onto a trailer, but now he’ll come to you. I’ve actually been on his back, bridle, saddle, and no problems at all. Loves people. He’s awesome.
Do you have an opinion on all the horse experts in the industry?
Every one of them has something to bring to the table. I like to watch them and I like to listen. One thing I have noticed, since I’ve been coming here, there has been a change from the way horses are trained here. They’ve gone away from the old cowboy, rope ‘em and throw ‘em, to let’s do it this way. So English and Western riding have started to come together. There’s a lot of good in the Western riding and a lot of good from the English riding. I’m personally fascinated by any form of equitation with horses—whether it’s dressage or reining, which I equate to be the same, whether it’s show jumping or obstacle courses. All these disciplines are good, and I like to listen to a lot of these trainers, experts. They all have something to bring to the table, whether or not I agree with everything they say. I tell my students, “With the exception of cruelty, there are no right ways and no wrong ways. There are only different ways.” So what will work for one horse might not work for another, and as an instructor, if one way doesn’t work—I’ll think, “Hang on. Chris Cox said do this. Let’s try that. Charles Harris said to do this. That didn’t work. Okay, Clinton Anderson said do this. Wow, that worked.” It might not work for every other horse, but there’s always something you can take away from it. Some are better than others, yeah, some are more show people than trainers, but others are very good. I’ve been with horses for 50 years and I learn something new every day I’m with horses, whether it’s with the horse myself or watching other train and teach. Some I admire; some leave me cold.
Have you been to HITS here before?
I’ve been to HITS to watch. Never competed.
Do you still compete?
I compete in the police competitions. We do dressage, show jumping, obstacles. The horse has to do all that so it has to multi-task. As you get older, the challenges of show jumping and cross country get greater. The challenge of taking on a young, untrained horse is greater. Things I would have done 30 years ago, I don’t do now. I’m too old. I don’t go boing, I go thud. Self-preservation! My first love, if I was to be honest with you, is the dressage. To a lot of people, it can be boring but if you know what you’re looking for, you’re looking for the ultimate in the horse. To get the pulse rate going, cross country and show jumping. That’s a buzz, if you go over and clear it. With dressage, you have to take that horse to that level. But if I got the chance to do reining, I’m sure I would have the same challenges in reining. That’s probably the one thing I haven’t tried. I’ve tried team penning, I love all that sort of stuff. Getting on a horse and doing it is always good. You can learn from so many people.
Were you ever interested in Thoroughbred racing?
I do watch some of the races, the big ones. Of course in the U.K., we have the Grand National, which is the most exciting and challenging race in the world. Four and half miles over big, big fences. Those people are brave, braver than I could ever, ever hope to be. When I was younger, the major who got me into the cavalry wanted me to become a national hunt jockey. But I said no. A good decision because look at my life. I’ve been blessed every step of the way.
How would you describe your approach to riding?
My style is a practical approach. I know that you have all these people who come out with a bunch of different terms, but mine is practical. It’s the way I was taught—to look at a problem and work through it, like an engineer would. Look at a problem, see what the problem is and figure out how you can fix that problem. Or if you see something, how can you improve on that? I love to teach, and I like to teach people how to teach. That’s one of the things I do here is teach potential instructors of mounted units in America. I love to pass on the knowledge I’ve been blessed to get onto other people. Quite a few of my students are teaching.
I noticed your email has the numbers 007 in it?
My police number was 240420007. That got me into trouble so many times. I’d go into to see the sergeant or do something, “What’s your last three?” “Double O seven.” “What’s your last three?” “Double O seven.” “You’re pulling my leg.” “No, my last three is double O seven.”
Did you ever meet the Queen?
Yes, at the Trooping of Colour.
So who did you like best of the royal family? That’s a silly question, I guess.
Princess Anne. She’s a hard worker and an absolute diamond. Just so nice, approachable, pleasant, down to earth. One day I was riding the back of Buckingham Palace on “Noble,” the set of lights at the junction, and someone is beeping behind me. I turned around and there she is, big beautiful smile and said, “Would you like to swap places with me?” I said, “Why’s that?” She said, “I’ve got to go a meeting with my mother.” I said, “Are you going the back way?” She said, “Yeah,” and I said, “I’ll stop the traffic for you.” She said, “I’ll swap places with you.” I said, “If I can keep the car…” [laughs] She does more than any other events than anybody. She’s a gem.
Do you enjoy living in the States?
I love it. I’d love to become an American citizen. I think Americans don’t know how lucky they are. You have a great country, great people, great way of life. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. These other countries, it’s jealousy. That’s all it comes down to. Don’t let them get away with it, you’ve got a great and beautiful country. Love it to death.
How did you become involved in Paso Espiritu?
I was actually training another drill team that dissolved because of internal issues between some of the leaders. Some of the ladies wanted to start a drill team and they asked if I wanted to come along and train them and give them some pointers. So that’s what I did. Give them all a hard time. We’ve only been going for little over a year and they’ve won quite a few trophies already.
You also recently gave a lecture at the Florida Carriage Museum & Resort in Weirsdale.
The Carriage Museum is a beautiful place. Gloria [Austin] is a delightful lady. She’s giving me a lesson tomorrow on driving. Fifty years with horses and still learning.
Thank you, John, for talking to us.