Return of the `mountie' . Mounted police units are enjoying a resurgence in cities across the nation, thanks to their proven usefulness
``LOOK at him run.'' The stable assistant taps on the second-story window. Below, a chestnut gelding canters exuberantly around the spacious corral.Skip to next paragraph
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``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.
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.''