Mounted Police: A Horse on the ForceBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 1, 2004
Groom, tack up, ride, untack, groom, turn out—on the surface, mounted police work has a lot in common with any other equine discipline.
What makes a police horse's job unique is the variety of experiences and challenges that each day brings. While all horses are expected to respond to their riders' signals, it's of paramount importance that the mounted police officer can trust his horse to remain calm and obedient, no matter what happens.
Only a special brand of equine can get through a busy day—from a noisy Fourth of July parade to a nursing home visit—without, so to speak, breaking stride. “We are putting horses into situations that are not natural for them, and then asking them to do their jobs well,” said Sgt. Jay Postlewaite, who administers the Lexington Mounted Patrol in central Kentucky. The Mounted Patrol has been a part of the Lexingtonpolice force for over twenty years. In 1982 the chamber of commerce, the chief of police, and a group of interested citizens worked together to initiate the program, a venture that seemed natural for a city that calls itself “The Horse Capital of the World.” Horses were recruited, riders were trained, and stabling was arranged at the KentuckyHorseParkjust north of town. Lexingtonresident Bobby Maxwell, the owner of Sallee Horse Vans, stepped up with an offer of daily transportation between the HorseParkand downtown.
Postlewaite said the first mounted officers were an instant hit, and the city's enthusiasm for its equine patrol has never wavered. “The Mounted Patrol provides an opportunity for Lexingtonresidents and tourists to see and interact with horses,” he explained. “Horses also help to break down the barrier between the public and the police force. People are more comfortable approaching an officer on horseback, where they might not walk up to a patrolman on foot.”
As the program became established, the Horse Commission, an appointed committee under the mayor's direction, was set up to handle funding, locate suitable horses, and manage other administrative tasks. In order to eliminate several hours of vanning every day, the base of operations was eventually moved from the HorseParkto a stabling facility just a short walk from downtown Lexington. The new equine complex boasts a 12-stall barn, a storage building for hay and grain, administrative offices, and a large indoor training arena. The horses are brought up at night but enjoy turnout in a 5-acre pasture on days when they are not working. Basic management of police horses is much the same as for any other equine. Mounted patrol horses are fed hay and a 12% sweet feed. Most stay in good condition, with each rider watching his horse's weight and adjusting the diet for occasional periods of extra work or vacation weeks. To protect their hooves and prevent slipping on paved surfaces, they wear shoes with borium patches.
Regular veterinary exams help officers keep track of any health issues that may arise. “The vet may do thyroid checks on our older horses, and we have one older horse that tends to stock up a little at night,” Postlewaite commented. “Other than that, we don't see many problems. The horses are just asked to walk on patrol, with maybe a little trotting, and they stay very sound.”
On most days, mounted officers go out in pairs to patrol city streets, parks, and housing developments. Police on horses offer a quiet but highly visible presence, in itself a deterrent to crime. The officers are trained to perform all standard duties—traffic control, arrests, and so on—from horseback. When needed, mounted police are ready to search for missing persons, follow and apprehend suspects in areas where vehicles can't go, and assist with crowd control, a duty for which they are particularly well-suited.
“A crowd might consist of 40 or 50 people at a demonstration or labor strike, or we might have ten thousand people celebrating after a Universityof Kentuckybasketball game,” Postlewaite said. Mounted officers are especially effective in moving large groups, he explained, because they can see and communicate with each other above the crowd. In situations where people must be moved safely, a police horse's size and visibility allow it to accomplish the work of eight to ten officers on foot.
Is the perfect police horse born or made? Probably the answer is a combination of both factors. Horses with naturally calm temperaments form the foundation of a mounted unit, according to Postlewaite. Then an ongoing repetitive training program is used to expose horses to new sights and sounds, reinforce obedience, and build a partnership between each horse and his regular rider.
Of the horses considered for police work, only about one in five is found to have the “right stuff” for a law enforcement career. Horses used by the Lexington Mounted Patrol must be geldings that measure at least 15.2 hands. The current group includes three Thoroughbreds, a Quarter Horse, and six Percheron/Thoroughbred crosses.
Ages range from 4 to 20. Postlewaite said police departments in western states tend to use Quarter Horses, while the preference in the eastern U.S.is increasingly for horses of draft cross breeding. At least one breeder in Kentuckyhas begun to cross Thoroughbred stallions with draft mares to produce mounts that are particularly suited, by both build and temperament, for police work. These horses are calm and easy to work with, and their sturdy feet and legs tend to prevent lameness, even after years of work.
The Lexington unit has no problem filling its personnel roster for mounted duty, and riding officers commonly stay with the patrol for years. Applicants must be qualified police officers but do not need to have an extensive riding background. New riders go through an initial 12-week course in equitation, horse care, and mounted police tactics. Learning to ride is an ongoing process, however, and instruction, both on the flat and over jumps, is scheduled at least once a week for all officers.
Excellent specialized training is available throughout the year at several locations in the U.S.and Canada. For equitation, a two-week course run by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is recognized as the top of the line. In matters of law enforcement, police tactics, and use of mounted officers in ceremonial functions, the Metropolitan Mounted Police in London, Englandare the world authorities. Instructors from both these organizations travel to the KentuckyHorseParkevery autumn to teach at the Lexington Mounted Police Colloquium. For three days, mounted law enforcement and emergency personnel from several states attend lectures, see demonstrations, and participate in clinics designed to strengthen their skills in many areas.
Equitation drills take place in the indoor arena under the direction of RCMP instructors. In one exercise, each horse takes its turn bounding over a line of low cross-rail fences. Riders who come in crooked or without sufficient impulsion find their horses stalling out in the middle of the grid; overly energetic horses learn the wisdom of listening to their riders as they negotiate the tightly spaced jumps. In an outdoor ring, defensive techniques are explained by Alan Hiscox and his instruction team from the London Metropolitan Mounted Police. Officers go through crowd control exercises where “rioters” (a crowd of police cadets with banners) are pushed back by a phalanx of looming equines. At other points in the ring, the horses are gradually introduced to some of the strange sights and sounds that they might encounter at parades, emergency and disaster scenes, playgrounds, city parks, and public areas. Repeated exposure to this type of challenge is the best way to desensitize a horse's natural flight reaction, and working in a group helps to reassure inexperienced or timid animals.
Early in the training session, many horses stop, look, snort, or dance sideways when they are asked to walk across a mattress or pass through a corridor of yelling spectators. As the exercise is continued, the horses gain confidence from the unruffled demeanor of their more seasoned peers plus a quiet word from their riders. The afternoon progresses and the questions get more complicated: a hissing machine belches out smoke as the horses walk past, teams push a chest-high striped ball back and forth across the arena, and the flag-waving, shouting cadets press closer to the parade route. The idea is to allow the bizarre to become routine, a goal that can't be accomplished in one afternoon, and riders and instructors are quick to ease the pace before a young horse is pushed too far out of its comfort zone.
After two days of instruction and practice, participants showcase their new skills in a mounted games competition and an obstacle course challenge. These contests actually continue the training experience because the excitement adds a level of difficulty to communication between horse and rider. Back home on patrol, horses and riders will be better prepared for anything that comes their way.