The Denver Mounted Patrol: How horses bridge the gap between police officers and the public they protect.
Cpl. John Stratton of Denver’s Mounted Patrol gives us an inside peek at the important role these fine-looking equines play on the streets of Denver. Although some critics may write off the mounted patrol as a chance for police officers to have a carefree ride through the park, many don’t realize the hard work that goes into the constant training and upkeep of these beautiful animals and the far-reaching contribution they make to our community.
The unit regularly works in the downtown area, to help manage large crowds, from rowdy nighttime revelers spilling out of bars to planned demonstrations. The mounted officers tower over people on the ground, who find themselves face to face with the horses, but Cpl Stratton confides, “In 11 years, no one has tried to hurt a horse. There’s a lot of respect for the horses.” Mounted officers also work special events, assist in search and rescue efforts, and make public appearances at occasions such as Denver’s Stock Show, St Patrick’s Day Parade, July 4th, and Police Memorial Services.
“Crowd control is where the horses come in especially handy, because they have the ability to be imposing without being threatening,” says Cpl Stratton. “To part the sea of protesters without hitting, stepping on, or even touching a single person–that’s the beauty of the horse.”
The public find the horses more approachable; they often say hello to the horse rather than the officers. Horses appeal to peoples’ emotions and make the mounted unit easy to come close to. These horses are stopped between 10 and 20 times a day for people to stroke and chat to them. “We’ve even had hardened criminals ask to pet the horse before going to jail,” Cpl Stratton mused.
Denver’s homeless population is another group that responds well to the horses. These humble folk are receptive to the mounted patrol as they ride through parks to ensure all is tranquil. The police don’t dismount and the horses are greeted with a smile!
All the horses are named by local 3rd graders. Every new horse is taken for a visit to one of Denver’s many inner city schools and the kids get to choose a name. Barn tours are also available, when students can make their way through the stable, talking to the horses and learning about saddles, spurs, ropes, and other horse-riding and training equipment from patrol officers.
Historically, horses were donated to the mounted patrol, but the donated horses were often not suited to this vital role. Now, horses are purchased and their success rate has risen to 80%. Funds are donated by the public for the purchase of these noble steeds. Horses are selected according to specific standards: they are all geldings (neutered males), American Quarter Horses of between five and seven-years of age, standing at approximately 16 hands high. They are handpicked for their calm demeanor and their affection towards people.
Some fundamental testing is needed prior to training: noise desensitization preparation is crucial before they can take on the loud and unpredictable streets. This includes fireworks, sirens, and other loud noises. If successful, the horse is then put into an initial 30 day temperament training which includes: going into town with the trainer, patrolling parks and busy streets as well as some events to test disposition. If the horse doesn’t pass this testing phase he is gracefully returned to his owner.
For the successful geldings, the next step is 90 days of police training where they learn to wear police equipment and riot gear. The conditioning training involves being ridden at the barn for 30 minutes, ridden in town for two hours, then a break, followed by two hours of desensitizing training–moving placards and flags in front of them.
The patrol hopes to get at least 10 years of service from each mount. When a horse is ready to retire, there is a list of eager adopters from the metro area. The adoptive parents must promise to only expose the horse to light riding and they are not allowed to sell him on.
How do you become a mounted police officer?
Many hopefuls apply for this coveted role, but there is a long waiting list and even that doesn’t guarantee a place. In fact, most of these hopeful officers are in for a bit of a wake-up call when they learn that this role encompasses grooming, mucking out, and cleaning tack (saddles, bridles, etc). “Many don’t realize that this is kind of a dirty job and it involves more than riding around in your dress blues,” chuckles Cpl Stratton. Many recruits have no riding experience when they first get on board. This was not the case for newly appointed Officer Chad Sinnema. Although only on his second day, we could see in a flash this adept officer was completely at home on the back of Rayo Blanco, a chestnut six-year old gelding.
When P & R asked Cpl Stratton what advice he has for the public, he urged, “Come talk to us, let us know what is going on in your neighborhood. Mounted officers work in conjunction with bike and foot officers and we are here to help.”
The mounted patrol has been a part of the Denver Police Department since 1984. The city’s stable of top-breed horses are purchased from donated funds. The city also accepts donations from the public towards the upkeep of the horses and their stables.Contributions may be made to Denver Police Mounted Patrol, 4350 S. Pierce St., Littleton 80123. Written by Ali French and Rebecca Berra