A tall, well-trained horse on police patrol can command respect, maneuver in dense conditions and control crowds in ways not possible without the use of the horse. Careful, thorough training is necessary, however, before a horse can be faced with potentially volatile situations. How the Pennsylvania State Police accomplish that training is interesting and instructive.
According to Corporal Brad Zook of the Pennsylvania Tactical Mounted Police Patrol, who demonstrated State Police horsemanship with three other troopers at Ag Progress Days, in order to be accepted into the State Police program, a horse must be a saddle-trained gelding, between 5 and 15 years old, and he must be tall — between 16 and 18.2 hands. Horses taller than 18.2 hands can present trailering problems.
Most horses are donated, often because their owners have moved off the farm or the kids have left home. Draft crosses are preferred, both because they tend to be more patient about standing still for extended periods, and because the larger draft crosses generally have a smooth ride. All new horses have a 120-day probationary period during which they must prove themselves.
When a horse first arrives at the State Police Equine Unit in Hershey, PA, the first test is being placed in a field with more than 25 other horses.
“The horses fight, establish a pecking order, and get over it,” explain Zook. “Getting along with other horses is crucial. Having a herd helps us to see which horses will work together and which won’t. When we go out on a detail, we pair horses, not riders.”
The training also involves desensitizing the horses to situations and stimuli that could normally terrify a horse. “Just walking into a crowd would be terrifying to a horse. They’re in the food chain. They think they’ll be eaten,” continued Zook. “Our training teaches the horse to trust the rider, and to not act on its normal fight or flight response.”
The first place the horses-in-training are taken is to Camp Cadet, where they meet up with a group of 50 to 90 younger teens who are attending boot camp for a week. “At camp, the horses have to do a lot of standing,” explained Zook, “as they will do later on when they’re on a detail. At first they don’t want to stand still, but after about a half hour, they settle down. At the camp, the horses learn that crowds are okay, and they begin learning to trust their riders.”
During training, the horses are also taken to Hershey Park. “They don’t like the scary noise of the roller coaster and the screaming kids at first. One horse was so shaken up by the noise and commotion that he sat on a lady’s car. But he didn’t run.”
“Another of our horses, a 16-hand quarter horse, becomes a pony when he gets scared,” Zook continued. “His legs go out, but he doesn’t move or run. When he feels more secure, he stands up tall again.”
During a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Harrisburg, several horses encountered something new and quite frightening: a windsock-type advertising gimmick, with arms and legs flailing. The horses were okay until they got within about 10 feet of the unpredictably flailing, 12-foot-tall figure.
“Then the horses abruptly went three lanes right and almost got someone’s car,” Zook related. “Now we use those windsock advertising devices in our regular training. We also use smoke machines in our training.”
Horses also need to be taught not to fear walking on unexpected surfaces. “We worked the G-20, and came across a big steel plate on the ground, placed there so traffic could quickly be stopped in an emergency by lifting the steel plate.
“It was a big ‘win’ to get the horses to walk across that plate,” explained Zook. “To train the horses for situations like this, we lay a tarp on the ground, and ask the horses the walk across it. This is terrifying to horses. The horses think if they step on the tarp, they’ll fall into it, or it will eat them. One horse, Jeffrey, took 45 minutes before he would put a foot on that tarp. Over time, though, the horses learn to trust us.”
Motorcycles can present a problem for horses. “The rumble vibrates up through their hooves, and it shakes them up a little at first.” Horses are trained to move crowds by pressing with their chests. At first they train for this job pushing their chests against dummies in a cart. It takes about a year of training to get a horse ready for anything he might encounter on a detail.
The Pennsylvania State Police Tactical Mounted Patrol uses English riding gear, partly because the saddles are lighter in weight. “We can be in saddle for 13 to 14 hours.” The less additional weight, the better. Also, there’s nothing for the people we might arrest to grab onto, which makes us safer.
“With the halter/bridle combo, the horse can be tied off, and the bit can be removed from the horse’s mouth while he eats, then replaced.”
Although all the horses are housed at the Equine Unit in Hershey, only six of the Mounted Patrol troopers are based there and spend full-time with the horses. The other 25 members of the unit, referred to as “field riders,” are scattered throughout the state.
“When we come to a detail, we like to have riders who are based in, and familiar with the area,” explained Zook. “Having our field riders in different barracks also makes it easier to spread out and do more details in a day.” At the end of the detail, the field riders go back to their regular State Police jobs.
The field riders do, however, have the opportunity to put on jeans and cowboy boots and ride at the Equine Center for three to five days a month.
For the six full-timers in the Equine Unit, including Zook, however, “Your life changes! The horses don’t have a schedule. We’re in at 6 a.m., and out at 4 or 5 p.m. Unless, that is, a horse is injured and the vet is coming. Then we stay until the horse has been treated. We don’t get overtime pay in dollars — just in our love of the horses. Troopers who get this job don’t leave unless they have to.”
Those who ride also clean the barn, tack, trucks and trailers. “We also train the horses and the riders. If something breaks down, we have no maintenance guy to call. We are the maintenance guys.”
To qualify to apply to become a member of the State Police Tactical Mounted Unit, a trooper must have been with the State Police for a minimum of three years and have excellent recommendations. “We’re looking for a good trooper who can also ride and control a horse.”