In 1856, just thirteen years after the creation of the city police corps, Barcelona City Council created the mounted unit. The unit had eight horses and its headquarters were in the ground floor at City Hall. In August 2016, the unit celebrates 160 years of uninterrupted service in the city and is one of the oldest and best-known mounted units in the world.
According to the city police website, the initial aim of the ‘Unitat Muntada’, , was: “To guard the gateways to the city, which was still inside the city walls in those days, to help collect sales taxes levied on certain produce, to disband groups of dangerous people who went around at night and to prevent stone-throwing fights, a trend among youngsters at the time”. Today, one hundred and sixty years on, the unit consists of 50 policemen and 38 horses. Their duties are the same as the rest of the city police corps but they also undertake ceremonial and musical duties.
The mounted city police first went on duty on 19 November 1856 for the saint’s day celebrations for Isabel II and accounts from the time note that the public were impressed by their uniforms, which included helmets with feathers in them. A drawing on display at the Museu de la Guàrdia Urbana shows one of the first officers of the mounted unit next to a horse. The image is imposing and has a burly man, almost as tall as the horse, with a thick beard and moustache, black boots and white riding trousers, a tailored blue frock coat with white straps and epaulettes and a white feathered helmet.
Early on, the mounted unit controlled the outer areas of the city, particularly the mountainous areas. Nowadays it operates mostly in the centre as these days getting horses from one side of the city to another is more cumbersome as they need to be transported with lorries or horse boxes and this takes much longer.
Intendant Salvador Pallarés, head of the Unitat Muntada, explains: “All officers in the mounted unit are volunteers because you have to really like this”. Dressage and training for officers are all done in-house. The horses, all stallions, are acquired as foals and trained by the officers at the unit. “First they have to get used to the urban environment”, explains Pallarés, “as they must be able to be in the street without being distressed by the noise from motorbikes and cars, for instance, but they also have to learn the exercises”. The exercises are also complicated for riders, who have an added difficulty to contend with: “City police riders often carry a lance”, he explains, “that means they have a hand in use and can only hold the reigns with the other hand, which makes it difficult to control the horse”.
The mounted unit also performs ceremonial duties and thus has various uniforms, including a special one with full regalia. This uniform includes a red tunic and a feathered helmet, in contrast to the second ceremonial uniform in navy blue with a peaked cap. The officers who can be seen on horseback patrolling the city centre, performing the carrusel dressage display at la Foixarda for the La Mercè celebrations and opening the Kings Day Parade are the same officers who make up the ceremonial escort in their finest regalia for important events and receptions.
Some of the officers in the unit also belong to the city police band, which started out as a trumpet band in 1954 and has evolved into a formation which includes various instruments. Its members are police officers first and foremost, and secondly musicians who learn to play within the unit, although recently an agreement was signed to collaborate with the Conservatori Municipal de Música de Barcelona.
The mounted unit is one of the oldest of its kind and is also internationally renowned for its recreational side, the carrusel dressage exercise and other dressage displays. The first exhibition took place in 1910 when Alfonso XIII visited the city. Since that first show, horses and riders from the mounted unit have represented Barcelona in cities such as Paris, Frankfurt, The Hague, Brussels, London and Vienna. They have also been to some places on more than one occasion. “We have other invitations”, explains intendant Pallarés, “but shifting horses and people is costly and we can’t always bear the cost of these sorts of trips”.
The headquarters of the Unitat Muntada has been in C/ Wellington for some time, in a building constructed for the 1888 Universal Expo, adjoining Barcelona Zoo. The stables are there and on the first floor the corps has its offices. They also have a dressage ring where they practice exercises. The mounted city police takes part in a number of popular acts throughout the year, such as the Tres Tombs i Sant Medir festival, as well as the Three Kings Parade and the La Mercè festival. They also receive school visits, using the occasion to teach pupils how to treat animals. For 2016, various activities are being planned to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the unit.
Photo captions: The mounted unit performing the ‘carrusel’ at La Foixarda for the La Mercè festival in 2013. Author: JAF. | Drawing of an officer from the mounted unit at the ground floor of City Hall, wearing the first ceremonial uniform. 1856-1874 (Fragment). Author: Carlos Úrbez. Museu de la Guàrdia Urbana. | Officers on horseback directing traffic at the entrance to the Mobile World Congress. Author: Unitat Muntada de la Guàrdia Urbana. | The mounted unit at the Parc de la Ciutadella. 1910. Author: Unknown. Museu de la Guàrdia Urbana. | Dressage display on La Rambla. 2010. Author: Raúl Pallarés – Unitat Muntada de la Guàrdia Urbana. | The ‘carrusel’ dressage exercise performed by the mounted unit in Vienna. 2005. Author: Unitat Muntada de la Guàrdia Urbana.