Walking home through Bristol last night after Friday drinks with philosophers, Toby and I had occasion to stop by the waterside and eat a late dinner. More specifically, Toby ate while I, having stolen some of his hot chips, wandered over to say hello to a very patient police horse. His female rider was keeping him at a standstill near where we were sitting, chatting to her three male colleagues, all of whom were on foot. Given that this was a busy part of town at a busy time of night, there was a near-constant stream of civilians wandering past, most of whom stopped to give the horse, whose name was Imperial, a pat on the neck or nose.
As I walked up, two young men in hoodies were doing just this – or rather, one of them was. The other was keeping a nervous distance, fists clenching and unclenching as he bounced on the balls of his feet, clearly wanting to be off. The policemen were teasing him about this, which he took in good humour, but not for the reason I first thought. His friend was content to pat the horse, chatting to the policewoman rider.
‘Is this Imperial?’ he asked. She confirmed that it was. To my surprise, he then asked after two other police horses by name – apparently, this was their usual beat. The policewoman laughed and said that one of them had a new route, while the other was getting old, with a sore back.
‘Sarge will have a plod ’round on him,’ she said, grinning.
At this point, the man turned to his nervous friend and rolled his eyes.
‘Come on, mate – he’s harmless. Pat the horse!’
‘Bloody hell.’ He shook his head, turning to me. ‘Man’s a soldier, and he’s scared of horses. Thinks they have eyes like sharks.’
‘They do!’ the friend insisted. Nearby, the policemen laughed, and I realised this was what they’d been teasing him about. ‘Can we please go for a drink now? Another drink?’
‘Not until you pat the horse!’
‘You’re soldiers?’ I asked him. He reached up and stroked Imperial’s nose.
‘Yeah, both of us.’
‘Where have you been?’
‘Well, that sucks.’
He smiled, a bit sadly. ‘Yeah. It does.’ Then he sighed, indicating his mate. ‘Bloody Afghanistan, and he’s still scared of horses!’
‘Come on,’ I said to the friend, ‘look, he’s perfectly safe. Drunk girls are patting him! I’m patting him! Not so long ago, being a soldier would’ve meant riding one of these!’
His eyes widened, head shaking. ‘No way! He’s all…all huge and hoof-y! He’s bigger than me! Can we please just get another drink?’ This last to his fearless friend.
‘Pat the horse, mate,’ one of the policemen said, ‘and then he’ll buy you the drink.’
The soldier looked between them, still uncertain.
‘Go on,’ his friend said. ‘Face your fears.’
He looked at the policewoman rider, and at me.
‘I’ll get bitten.’
‘You’ve got more chance of being bitten by a dog,’ I said, ‘and those are much smaller.’
‘Here,’ said the rider, tapping Imperial’s shoulder, ‘pat him here. Even if he wanted, he couldn’t reach to bite you.’
The soldier closed his eyes, inhaled, opened them again and lunged briefly forwards, arm outstretched to its fullest extent. His fingertips brushed the horse’s shoulder.
Everyone cheered. He grinned, and his mate threw an arm around his shoulder.
‘Come on. I’ll buy you that drink.’