There’s something both majestic and intimidating about a horse. Even as you watch him gallop across a large expanse, marveling at his beauty, you quickly step back if he gets just a little too close.
It’s a sentiment that is echoed among members of the Anaheim Police Department’s Mounted Enforcement Unit during one of its monthly training sessions. And it’s one of the reasons police departments utilize horses in law enforcement activities like crowd control.
“Everybody loves the horses…even the crooks love the horses,” said APD Sgt. Rod Duckwitz. “It’s very disarming.…Nothing moves a crowd more effectively than a horse.”
Indeed, the Anaheim PD Mounted Enforcement Unit has witnessed what adding horses to a police force can accomplish over its 21 years (2015 was the celebratory “20 years of hoof beats”), including working crowds at everything from the massive NAMM Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center to Supercross at Angel Stadium. They’ve also participated in charitable activities like visiting CHOC Children’s to help put some smiles on the faces of ill kids at the Orange hospital. They go where they’re needed.
“We’re in the schools, we patrol the parks,” said Duckwitz, adding that the officer also gets the benefit of a high vantage point sitting on a horse to better assess a situation. “It’s a great tool because you can get across a lot of ground, a lot of terrain.”
The unit – consisting of eight officers, a sergeant, lieutenant and now even a deputy chief, and their horses – is part of the Orange County Regional Mounted Unit, which consists of the seven police agencies in O.C. with mounted units (Anaheim, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Buena Park, Huntington Beach and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department).
The Orange County Regional Mounted Unit allows the agencies to have a significantly larger presence for events that may require it, and it also allows them to split the cost for their monthly training venue.
IT’S ALL ABOUT TRAINING
So what does it take to become part of APD’s Mounted Unit?
First of all, an officer who is willing to commit the time and expense.
At the Anaheim PD, and at most of the other Orange County agencies, officers own their horse – meaning they buy them, pay for their training, stabling, veterinary and dental care, feed, tack, etc. – at no cost to the city.
After the officer selects a horse (most are American Quarter Horses) with the right temperament, he or she undergoes 40 hours of police mounted unit school with the horse.
But training doesn’t end there.
In addition to practicing skills that might come in handy when working an event on a horse (like opening a gate, for example), a lot of training revolves around helping the horse go against its own flight instinct. Horses are considered prey in the wild. And when prey comes across something new and unknown, it runs – which is not what you want to happen in a law enforcement situation.
“It’s all about exposing them and desensitizing them,” said APD Deputy Chief Dan Cahill with 9-year-old Bodie at his side, both new additions to the APD’s mounted unit. “In the wild, they survive by fleeing.”
To desensitize the horses, APD Officers Eric Anderson and Brian Carrion, who are the unit instructors, create a wide range of obstacles that horses must overcome. On a recent training day in Norco, there was an inflatable moving blue tube man (like the kind spotted dancing up and down at car dealerships). Other obstacles the horses are exposed to include umbrellas, balloons, loud music, cars, fireworks and gunshots.
“We expose them to everything and anything,” Duckwitz said.
Anderson and Carrion always are on the lookout for things that would be out of the ordinary for the horses. The horses must learn to remain calm around these obstacles and eventually be comfortable enough to move toward the obstacles without anxiety.
One such obstacle is the “battle ball,” which Carrion described as something like a large beach ball that horses are taught to push into – once again, pushing into things is not in their nature – in order to learn how to move a crowd.
“You’ll see us out here with flags and banners and drums and noise,” said APD Lt. Chris Pena as he sat atop his extremely mellow mare, Maggie. Pena has been part of the unit for all its 21 years.
“It’s not just any horse that can do it.”
TRUST IS KEY
Training and practice are a huge part of helping the horses acclimate to all the strange situations they experience. But at the center of it all is the relationship between the horses and their partners — and trust.
As Anderson explained while guiding a riding newbie on his horse, Cash, the horse knows he will not send him into danger. If Anderson asks Cash to do something a little dicey, Cash won’t hesitate. If the same thing were asked by a new rider, Cash would most definitely hesitate. It’s that relationship that keeps the unit running smoothly.
“They build a trust — the rider and the horse,” said Duckwitz. “That horse has to trust the rider.”
DONATE TO THE APD MOUNTED UNIT
Since horses are bought and cared for by the officers themselves, the unit accepts donations to help with the cost of maintaining these working animals. You can donate to the Anaheim Police Department Mounted Enforcement Unit through the Anaheim Community Foundation.