By Lynn Edmonds
The NYPD Mounted Unit, or police officers who ride on horses, could be called the NYPD’s secret weapon. As is the case with the canine unit, the animals enhance the officer’s ability to do their job. They help them see further down the block. (The officers call themselves “the ten-foot-cops.”) They prevent them from getting snuck up on. They allow them to get a job done faster.
But ‘weapon’ wouldn’t really be the right word. Because the peaceful giants that the officers ride inspire the opposite reaction from a “weapon.” Mostly, the faces of children and adults alike light up with wonder and excitement when they see the mounted unit clomping down their street. And that ability is more potent and beneficial than the horses’ keen senses and size could ever be. So call them the department’s secret “strategy.”
Citywide, there are about 50 officers that are part of the mounted unit. Eight of those officers belong to Troop F, based in Cunningham Park. Depending on where they’re needed, these officers will patrol Forest Park, Steinway Street in Astoria and Citifield, as well as in the Bronx, Manhattan and Coney Island.
At sunrise on a mild December morning, two officers from Troop F, partners John Pell and Derek Ghee, had finished with roll call at the stables and were preparing their horses for a morning ride.
Pell was waiting for his horse Sabre to finish eating before he could tack him up. Sabre was normally a fast – and voracious – eater, so this was unusual.
“The salt bar, meant to be licked, he takes bites out of it,” Pell said. Indeed, the white brick of salt in Sabre’s stall had a chunk missing from the left corner.
Ghee was facing the opposite direction from his horse, Chief, leaning into his hindquarters with his shoulder and squeezing the horse’s tendon with his right hand so he could use the left to pick clean the underside of Chief’s hoof from dirt and pebbles.
The other horses, like Lucky and Einstein, named for his frizzy white mane, which stuck out in every direction, stood quietly in their stalls. With their tails toward the aisle, they rested their weight on one leg so that their hips cocked to the side. When Pell called their names, they turned their necks coyly to stare back over their hindquarters at the noise, as if they were raising their eyebrows and replying, “What do you want?”
Pell and Ghee ride their horses almost every day and they know their every quirk, as does Jose, who is part of the team to make sure the horses are cared for twenty-four hours a day. When Jose turns Lucky out to pasture, Pell knows exactly what he’s going to do. Roll, fart two times, then gallop and buck. Sure enough, as soon as Jose unclips his halter, Lucky rolls in the dirt, farts two times, and then gets up and gallops around the ring, bucking and occasionally farting as he goes.
When this provokes giggles, Ghee says, “the longer you’re here, you get to see each of their personalities – they are characters. They will keep you laughing all day.”
But when Lucky calms down, the black Morgan mix cuts a spectacular figure as he slows to a trot and glides through the morning mist, his neck arched, ears pricked forward, and his tail flying high behind him.
Ghee is quick to say how much he loves his job.
“I ride horses for a living,” he says with a tone of wonder and an incredulous smile. “I don’t tell people I’m going to work; I tell ‘em, ‘oh, I’m going to ride my horse today.’”
Chief is a large bay horse with draft in him, meaning his forbearers used to pull heavy loads. Ghee compares sitting on him to driving an SUV because he’s so big and comfy to ride. But it’s his personality that stands out. Put your hand up to his muzzle and he’ll start mouthing and licking it. Ghee says Chief’s “a lover,” as in, a lover, not a fighter.
“He don’t have a mean bone in his body,” he says. Ghee has a special martingale for Chief, with a gold medallion in the shape of a heart that fits right over his chest. “That’s because he has a lot of heart,” Ghee explains. It’s all about developing the trust with your horse, Ghee says, as he moves seamlessly around the equine, running his hands over Chief’s legs and sides in a routine check for any signs of injury. Once you have their trust, they’ll do anything for you.
For an animal lover and someone who is dedicated to public service, being a mounted officer could be considered a dream job. Partly for that reason, it’s not an easy one to get. Cops have to already be actively working before they can apply. The go for an interview and then do a three-day trial period at the training stables in the Bronx so they can find out what it’s really about. If they still like it, they go through a three month training. Many of the mounted officers do not have previous experience horseback riding. Pell said that the department likes getting new riders because they can instill the proper habits in them, in accordance with NYPD protocols.
The training includes lots of physical fitness, like running, sit ups, and pushups. The officers have to be strong enough to hold the horse in place with leg commands, for example, even when they’re using both arms to write up a summons, Pell explained. In addition to physical fitness, of course, the officers have to learn how to ride, handle the horses, and care for them and their equipment. At the end of the training, one of the officer’s tests is to mount the biggest possible horse from the ground, Pell said. If it doesn’t sound too hard – it is. They have to have the flexibility to pick up their left knee way up into their chest so they can stick their foot in the stirrup, then grab onto the horses mane, which doesn’t have too many nerve endings, for leverage, bounce off the ground with their right leg and then launch themselves up over the horse’s back to a soft landing in the saddle.
The horses too go through a rigorous training. Because horses evolved as prey animals, they’re naturally jumpy. The good news is that they don’t tend to be aggressive, but the bad news, if you’re on top of one, is that you could suddenly find yourself going 40 MPH, with no breaks to speak of, if your horse catches sight of a plastic bag blowing in the wind.
“Every day it’s something different. Today that yellow line could bother him,” Ghee said of the way the horses respond to random stimuli.
To counteract this natural tendency, the horses undergo a steady conditioning process where they are slowly exposed and desensitized to things they’ll encounter on the job that would naturally scare the bejeezus out of them, including a bale of hay that’s on fire, police sirens, the sound of gunshots, police tape that flaps in the wind, a fog machine, and noodles – the kind kids use in the swimming pool – that the horses have to push through like cars going through a car wash. The training process for the horses can take anywhere from three months up to a year.
Once the cops and horses go through their training, the trainers match them up with each other, based on the horses’ personality and the riders’ style. It’s almost like the magic of the sorting hat in Harry Potter, and it’s not a cut-and-dry process. Sometimes the trainers will have a horse and rider meet each other, see that they don’t have chemistry, and then look for a different pairing. As one might guess, Ghee was very happy with his pairing. “We’re a match made in heaven,” he said. Pell was happy with Sabre, an Appaloosa/Standardbred mix, too, though Sabre’s personality was a little more mischevious, a convertible to Chief’s SUV, as Pell put it. Sabre is nosy. Pell says he’s always turning his neck to check what’s going on. He wants to see it all for himself.
Sometimes, that’s a good thing. Pell said that when he was patrolling Central Park at night, Sabre would point his head and prick his ears, fixated on one spot.
“When you see that – you know something’s up on the horizon,” Pell explained. That’s how he’d be made aware somebody was sleeping or lurking in the bushes, out of sight. Most of those people were just out of luck and looking for a quiet place to spend the night, but in the case that someone more sinister was were lying in hiding, Pell had the reassurance that his horse would notice first.
“They can see everything. You think he’s canine [unit] dog,” Pell said of Sabre.
Ghee said the same thing happened with Chief when a mother and child were playing hide and seek in the woods in Forest Park. Ghee saw the mother, but Chief kept staring at a pile of leaves until sure enough, “a little kid pops out of the leaves.”
Working outside all the time, one thing that makes the job of mounted officers more challenging is the exposure to the climate. As long as the temperature is between 19 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit, the officers are going to be out there. That means the cops have to layer up.
“Every mounted cop has probably four weather apps on his phone,” Pell half-joked. He said they had electric clothing and foot warmers to put in their riding boots too. But if the cops don’t like the cold weather, the horses do. “Horses run better in the winter like a car,” Pell said. In the winter, “they’re walking with their chest stuck out” Ghee said, whereas in the summer, they tend to become more sluggish in the heat. In the winter, Pell added, you have to have what the officers call, “your collection,” that is, your reins in your hand, ready to pull on the horses mouth and apply the breaks if necessary. You also have to be all the more aware of every little signal that your body language sends to the horse, since they’re more likely to act on it. “The horse can feel everything-even your butt clench,” Pell said.
Horses are living beings, and they react to the people around them. But people also react, profoundly, to them. Ghee catches me letting out a little sigh as I pat Sabre’s neck and stare into the distance.
“See what you just did?” he says. “That’s how I feel every day.” The general public can react that way too. Ghee and
Pell both said their mounts helped create a stronger relationship between police and the community, at a time when, judging by newspaper reports, that relationship can be fraught. Pell said that sometimes the result of this tension was that people forgot cops are people too.
At times, he said, “they think we’re robots.”
That’s where the horses could make an impact.
“It’s a different type of policing with the horse,” Pell said. “It’s good to have units like this.” Ghee said that even in neighborhoods with higher crime, the horses still often brought a more positive and less charged element to a police officer’s interaction with the public than might be the case otherwise. And that often started with kids.
Ghee said that when youngsters would try to pet the horse their parents would often reflexively shout “No!” out of a concern that they weren’t allowed to or that the horses might bite. But Ghee would tell children, “Yes, yes you can touch them.” It was good socialization for the horses, he said, and they liked to be petted because that meant they got a break. One could hope that little positive interactions with children would have a ripple effect.
This year, the nation is smarting as painful cases and video footage, like that of Walter Scott’s shooting by a law enforcement agent, have sparked questions about bias in the criminal justice system. But even as the public has responded to such incidents with grief, anger, and fear, officers like Ghee and Pell must continue to do their job to the best of their ability, and they want a positive relationship with the communities they work in.
“Don’t be afraid of police,” Pell said.
If the horses’ majesty and unexpectedness in the large metropolis can create a bridge between cops and community members, helping them connect person-to-person, then that truly makes them one of the NYPD’s most valuable assets.
But there’s one more benefit to mounted cops that most people don’t consider. Pell told it to me as he shoveled a pile of manure into a wheelbarrow.
“I have the best tomatoes in my garden,” he said.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana