Return of the `mountie' . Mounted police units are enjoying a resurgence in cities across the nation, thanks to their proven usefulness

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``LOOK at him run.'' The stable assistant taps on the second-story window. Below, a chestnut gelding canters exuberantly around the spacious corral.

``He's been cooped up for two weeks'' because of the icy ground, the young woman explains.

The thaw means this young horse will soon be back in school -- police school, that is. He is one of a growing number of horses across the country training to become police mounts.

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From Boston to San Francisco, the ``mountie'' and his horse are staging a comeback. New units are springing up from Maine to Texas, and there has been a sharp increase in interest from cities looking to establish mounted units. ``A lot of cities, even small towns and a few foreign countries have been consulting with us for information on how to start up a mounted unit,'' says Officer John Quinn of New York City's Mounted Police Force, the oldest in North America. He refers to a file of letters from nearby Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as cities in far-away Argentina, Chile, Holland, and West Germany.

Up a narrow flight of wooden stairs, in a building on the outskirts of Boston's Franklin Park, Officer Emilio Ciriello sits in his office. The walls are papered with 261/2 years of mounted police memorabilia -- photos, awards, and clippings of every variety.

Ciriello, current president of the New England Mounted Police Association and veteran instructor/trainer for Boston's mounted unit, leans forward and reveals his key to what makes the mounted police force work: ``It's the right man on the right horse.''

Matching the right man (or woman, since most mounted units have a number of female officers) and the right horse is a delicate task. Units are ``volunteer'' -- police officers may request duty in a mounted unit -- but there is more to the job than first appears. Making a commitment to the mounted unit also means making a commitment to the horse.

Officer Ciriello holds up his hand and ticks off the possible scenarios on his fingers. ``You have to ride in cold weather, in hot weather, in drizzle. You have to stay on that horse. You can't leave him unattended for long, and you have to be constantly alert. It's a job only for those willing to put in a little extra.''

Officer Quinn describes New York City's requirements for a prospective mounted officer. ``Generally we look for a minimum of three years experience as a police officer -- preferably in a high crime area or in a high experience job like a plainclothesman.'' Prospects must be physically fit and have an outgoing attitude -- since, he adds, their ``main forte is community relations.'' Once an officer is accepted, he or she receives from 30 to 45 days of training in horsemanship and theory.

Finding the right horse is just as important as finding the right officer. Acquisition methods vary from city to city: All of the police horses in Dallas, Texas, and Lexington, Ky., are donated. In San Francisco and Boston some are donated, some purchased. Animals are normally accepted on a trial basis, giving the staff time to determine whether or not they have ``the right stuff'' to be police mounts.

Not surprisingly, physical requirements for police mounts are fairly standard. Across a courtyard from Officer Ciriello's office lies the converted garage where Boston's 39 police mounts are stabled. Each of the imposing animals stands over 15 hands high and weighs in at around 1,200 to 1,300 pounds. All are geldings. A uniform look is desirable, so bays, chestnuts, and darker shades are the prevalent colors.

Once a horse passes the initial screening, rigorous training begins. Constant repetition is the keynote in this specialized work, and it can be a slow process. ``Nuisance training'' is one of the first steps. In the New York City program this includes recordings of gunfire and exposure to things a horse on duty might encounter: balloons, smoke, jackhammers, and umbrellas being opened suddenly, to name a few.

Ciriello is convinced that it is the rider who makes the difference in a horse's training. ``If you can prove to the horse that whatever it is he's afraid of [firecrackers, noise, crowds] won't hurt, then he will trust the rider and respond to the rider.''

But why have police officers on horseback in the first place? Aren't they relics of a bygone era? Do mounted units really warrant spending taxpayers' money?

There was a time when their usefulness was questioned, says Officer Quinn. The late '60s and early '70s were an especially rocky period, and not just for New York City. Mounted units, regarded as ``anachronisms'' and ``window dressing,'' suffered severe budget cuts. The New York force was cut to half its strength.

``The common idea was that we were strictly a ceremonial unit,'' Quinn explained. He cited the Democratic National Convention of 1976 as a turning point for his force. It was during this event that the mounted units proved their value to New York City -- specifically for crowd control. From a low point of around 80 officers and mounts during that period, his force now numbers about 150 officers and horses, the largest in the country.

And as for costs? Figures from Boston and New York suggest that an officer's salary is about the same, whether he rides on a horse or in a squad car. But a horse costs approximately $1,500 to purchase, while a squad car can cost up to ten times that amount. Average daily cost for maintaining a horse (including feed, veterinarian and farrier fees, stable hands, and so forth) comes to about $11 a day. Average daily cost for a police cruiser (including gas, oil, maintenance, etc.) is $45 a day.

A main reason to put an officer on a horse is visibility. From an elevated vantage point some 10 feet off the ground, an officer has a much wider field of vision than does someone either on foot or in a police cruiser -- and can not only see but be seen. A prospective purse-snatcher may think twice if there is 1,500 pounds of ten-foot-high deterrent nearby and clearly visible.

In fact, visibility was the chief reason at least two cities decided to form mounted units. Over a hundred years ago, Boston hired a single officer on horseback. His sole duty was to patrol the back yards of the fashionable Back Bay area, peering over the high fences to observe suspicious activity. That lone officer in 1883 must have carried out his duties successfully, for the following year 27 additional horses and officers were added, and there has been a mounted unit in Boston ever since.

Oddly enough, Dallas established a mounted unit just three years ago for the very same reason. Sgt. Clyde Goodson cited the city's chronic problem with residential burglaries. An experimental mounted patrol was established and, as was the case in Victorian Boston, proved successful. Crime dropped in the residential areas and the unit was made permanent.

Crowd control is another active function of the mounted police officer. In these situations, Sgt. John Brouse of the Philadelphia Mounted Police feels that ``one horse is as good as 10 or 20 people.''

``A horse commands respect,'' he adds, ``even though it's a docile animal.''

But perhaps the most important aspect of a mounted police corps, and in some sense the least tangible, is the public relations service it provides. ``It's the best police community-relations program we've ever had,'' Lt. Robert Sewalls of Lexington, Ky., said proudly about his fledgling unit.

Sergeant O'Neil of Houston agrees wholeheartedly. ``It's a super P.R. tool,'' he says with characteristic Texan enthusiasm, ``People wave, pet the horses, talk to the officers. The horse is a great tool for bringing the officer and the citizen together. This is something the auto has never done with us.''

Philadelphia's Lieutenant Smith agrees. ``It seems that for the past 10 or 15 years there's been a certain amount of animosity between the public and the police. But it seems no matter where we send horses, somebody will come up and start petting it, and then start talking with the officer, and a little bit of the hostility seems to go out.''

``The horse is the middle ground between the public and the police force,'' says Officer Ciriello. ``People come up and ask the horse's name,'' he pauses and grins, ``not the officer's name, but the horse's. They strike up a conversation with the officer and all of a sudden a barrier has been taken down.'' By contrast, he concludes, ``no one will chase after a squad car just to say hello.''

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