Police horses are returning to the streets of Essex after an absence of more than eight years.

The force’s finance committee voted last Monday to allocate £2million from the budget to funding eight horses and seven mounted officers over the next three years.

The decision in February 1999 to disband Essex’s mounted section — due to budget cuts — ended 95 years of horses on the beat in the county.

Only 12 of the UK’s 42 police forces currently have mounted units and some of those are under threat. Nottingham’s unit faces closure unless £450,000 in sponsorship can be raised. Staffordshire was the last force to close its mounted unit, in 2000.

Essex chief constable Roger Baker, also a rider, said he hopes to have the first of the new team on duty within six months.

He said: “This has the potential to be one of the best things Essex police ever does. It’s not a gimmick — it’s about operational cops out on horses doing real police work.

“Horses take the fear out of policing — put a cop on a horse and the public will come and talk to him or her.”

The new mounted unit will be based at Writtle Agricultural College near Chelmsford, with £1m being spent on funding the officers and a stable manager for three years. The remainder will be spent on horses — at about £6,000 each — their keep and the construction of a new stableyard at Writtle.

Now funding has been authorised, Mr Baker admits the big challenge will be finding suitable horses.

“I hope to find them locally,” he said. “I’m open to ideas, but they need to be big, preferably part-draught.”

Mr Baker visited Merseyside Police, which has the largest mounted section in the country, when putting together his plans for Essex.

Inspector Graham Howard, who runs Merseyside’s mounted unit, is the chair of the mounted division of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He told H&H horses make for more effective policing.

“One horse and rider equates to six constables,” he said. “One day in Wrexham we put two horses on the corner of a street. In minutes, they were surrounded by people wanting to pat them. At no point was there less than 20 people around them.”

Mr Baker added: “It’s what policing is about. People will talk about a horse and remember it, and we benefit from the feel-good factor.”