Urban Cowboys

Officer Dave Miller of the Boston Police Force stretches his arms, pulls up his boots, and gives his partner a scratch behind the ears. His partner swishes his tail in quiet appreciation. Now they're ready to go out on patrol.

Officer Miller, and his draft horse, Rowan, are members of Boston's Mounted Police Unit. They and 15 other teams have the same basic responsibilities of regular police. They spend their day on patrol, watch for trouble, give directions to lost tourists, and make arrests when necessary.

But the pairing of man and horse does put a unique twist on the average policeman's day.

Miller joins his colleague every workday morning at his stable. It's on a heavily treed, sweet-smelling private estate in Boston, next to a public arboretum. He often has to wait while Rowan finishes his breakfast of hay, grain, and water.

Today, Miller is working with Officer Brian Donahue, who rides Dutch, a quarter horse. The two drive downtown, hauling their mounts in a horse trailer. But before Rowan is ready to hit the streets, he needs to be saddled up. Miller also has to tug on Rowan's tail three times to coax him out of the trailer.

A Boston native and 18-year veteran of the police force, Miller has grown to appreciate such peculiarities. And working with a horse does have its perks.

"Overall, it's a lot of fun being out there with the horse," he says, his Boston accent coloring every syllable. "People will come up and talk to you all the time because there's just something about the affection of an animal."

"No one's going to pet a car," he adds.

With chestnut-brown hair, a salt-and-pepper speckled tail, pointy ears, and a cowlick that sticks up in front, Rowan has the endearing look of a giant adolescent. And most people aren't shy about approaching him. "It's just easier when the officer is on a horse, not in a car," says Dick Rader, a tourist from Detroit. He's just asked Miller for directions to the city's famous Freedom Trail.

"He's like a magnet," Miller says, even for people who otherwise would hesitate to come up to a police officer. "They come over and pet him."

On this summery Saturday, dozens of pedestrians circle Miller and Rowan when they pause on their patrol of the city's downtown parks. Many onlookers ask questions. The pair seem to enjoy movie-star status.

"Part of their purpose is making our department and city look respectable," says Lt. Sean Feeney, who is in charge of the unit.

Mounted police are an effective public-relations tool. But they do a lot of serious police work, too. Mounted officers are often called in to break up disturbances. They also guard dignitaries giving public speeches, and serve as crime deterrents.

"If you're doing something wrong, or about to," Miller says, "and see this guy" - he points to Rowan - "coming over to you, you're going to cut it out."

The officers will often maneuver their horse to break up groups or isolate suspected criminals. That kind of work is not without its challenges, though. "It gets dangerous for them out there sometimes," Miller says. The two have galloped through city streets after alleged criminals. And Miller's past horse, Major, was even struck on the snout. "That guy got jail time," Miller says.

The demands of the job make finding the right horse very important. Scott Burns, who helps take care of the police horses, says prospective mounts are exposed to all sorts of noises - from fireworks to car horns - to see how they react.

"You look for a quiet horse with a kind eye," Miller says. "This means it can't have a temper; he's got to be good with children and not get easily upset by noise."

Winston, a young quarter horse bought from a Vermont farm, is the unit's latest recruit. He's just beginning his training. According to his caretaker, Helen Henderson, he still has a lot to learn.

"He's a brat," she says. "He tries to mess with your face, and he's got to learn that he can't get away with that."

The officers don't need to have had previous experience with horses to join the mounted unit. They go through 14 weeks of training to learn how to ride and how to gain a horse's trust.

Rowan is still a rookie. After two months on the squad, he does not always cooperate.

He often holds his breath to make his belly stick out so Miller can't tighten the saddle properly - a common trick among horses. Rowan also tends to wander off the sidewalk toward low-hanging tree branches as a gentle warning to his rider to be respectful.

"They're just like people," Miller says. "[Horses] all have their own personalities, and you have to learn their little quirks."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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