Anaheim Police Department’s award-winning Mounted Enforcement Unit stands calm against a wave of stimuli on a recent day at Huntington Beach.
Officers walk up to the horses while holding surfboards and portable speakers, waves crash on the shore, people shout greetings as they whiz past on bicycles, and beach umbrellas and tents are propped up in the sand nearby.
Any of these elements could spook a horse, but the officers and their horses remain steadfast, largely due to extensive training and practice.
“There is no such thing as a bombproof horse,” said Anaheim Officer Eric Anderson, who is also president of the California Mounted Officers Association. “It’s an animal, it’s got a mind of its own, and training is the key.”
Anaheim’s nine Mounted Enforcement Unit officers (Anderson, Officer Ryan Nichols, Officer David Sage, Officer Erik Degn, Sergeant Rod Duckwitz, Officer Brian Carrion, Officer Joie Tinajero, and Officer Pat Bradley) own their own horses, and work the Mounted Enforcement Unit in addition to their regular assignments.
They train often and extensively, preparing for events including parades, K9 demonstrations, regular enforcement, Knotts Scary Farm, crowd control, and more.
The Mounted Enforcement Unit is part of the OC Regional Mounted Enforcement Unit, which gathered in October to perform crowd control at the Great Pacific Airshow in Huntington Beach. The Unit includes officers and horses from Anaheim, Buena Park, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Newport Beach, Orange, and Santa Ana Police Departments, as well as the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
“People respond differently to horses and it can break the ice with people,” said Nichols, who’s been with Anaheim PD since 2004. His horses, Trigger and Rocky, have worked crowd control at numerous events. “Sometimes people are intimidated to talk to the police, but when they see horses it bridges that gap and they come out and want to talk to us.”
Those conversations, Nichols said, have led to tips about problem areas of the city and criminal activity that the officers can then follow-up on.
Sage, the newest member of the Unit with just a few months under his belt, is training for the auxiliary duty. He’s been with the Anaheim Police Department for more than two years.
“I love riding horses,” Sage said. “When I found out you get to ride horses and be a cop at the same time, I wanted to sign up.”
Degn has been with the Unit for about a year. He was a horse wrangler before becoming an officer, and attended the California Mounted Officers Association school a few months ago. The school is a requirement before going on duty on horseback. The class hones the officers’ riding skills and provides sensory training.
The auxiliary unit, Degn said, is “probably one of the best kept secrets in law enforcement.”
To prepare for the air show, riders took their mounts to the beach during a Thunderbirds practice run, as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron roared and twisted in the air above them.
“You develop that relationship and bond between that rider and that horse and you expose your horse to certain things,” said Anderson, who’s been with Anaheim Police Department’s Mounted Unit since 2009 with his horse, Cash. “It’s that relationship you build with your partner (as in, the horse).”
These horses, Anderson said, have been exposed to fired Simunition rounds, to fireworks, to people yelling, to children reaching out to pet them, and so much more.
“As long as you’ve got a horse that can maintain his or her composure when the world’s going crazy around you, then you’re super effective,” Degn said.
Anaheim’s Mounted Unit also competes in the annual Memorial Trail Trials & Sensory Training competition, which the Unit has won the last few years.
“It’s nice bragging rights,” Anderson said.
On duty, the horses can get into places that patrol cars cannot, such as apartment communities, parks, and bus stop benches, and they can handle all types of situations, including car stops.
“They’re just real versatile,” Nichols said. “We can do crowd control and riotous situations, or civil unrest. It can be in a real calm, happy, parade-like situation or it can be a situation where people are yelling and these horses are very well-trained to where they’re able to handle both.”
And being on horseback doesn’t stop the officers from making arrests.
“The horse is just a mode of transportation,” Nichols said. “At the end of the day, we’re just police officers out doing what we do, whether we’re on a (horse), a motorcycle, or on a bicycle or in a car.”