They are bigger, faster and stronger than any other officer on the force.
Commanding a crowd, outrunning a fleeing suspect and breaking up street fights with ease is part of their job description.
A trio of American Quarter Horses will soon debut on patrol for the Huntington Beach Police Department.
“It’s super exciting,” said Lt. Kelly Rodriguez, who oversees the unit. “I think it’s going to be really effective.”
The first members of the department’s Mounted Enforcement Unit are currently in training, and expected to trot Surf City streets come September, Rodriguez said.
Police Chief Robert Handy suggested the city explore using a mounted patrol after a civil disturbance broke out at the close of last year’s Vans US Open of Surfing.
Officers on horseback are effective in blocking off streets, breaking up thick crowds and quickly responding to disturbances.
“Unlike an officer who has to push his way through a crowd, people get out of the way for a horse,” Rodriguez said.
The department tested using officers on horseback July 4 and 5 when the city contracted with the Orange County Regional Mounted Enforcement Unit for the holiday weekend.
It was the first time the city tried such a tactic for crowd control and enforcement.
“They were helpful to identify trouble spots and move people down to areas where we needed them,” Handy said. “We were very impressed with how they worked.”
The department is also contracting with the regional team for enforcement during this year’s US Open, which kicks off Saturday.
“I became a huge fan of these horses once I saw how effective they are,” Rodriguez said. “They are a game-changer for us.”
Meet the team
On a recent Thursday at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, the city’s Mounted Enforcement Unit trained for the upcoming California Peace Officer Standards and Training test.
The team must pass the test, scheduled for September, before deploying.
One horse stood out with its blonde mane, bare hooves and bedazzled chest collar that glistened when it caught the sunlight.
“That’s Kelly Blue,” Rodriguez points out. “It’s the most personable horse out there. It’s adorable.”
Personable and adorable, much like the horse’s namesake.
The horse was named after the beloved Sugar Shack waitress who was killed in a drunken driving accident June 1, 2013.
Kelly Blue Morehouse, 25, was on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle riding southbound on Goldenwest Street when a drunk driver going the opposite direction crashed into them.
The driver pleaded guilty, and in May was sentenced to a year in county jail.
Bill Morehouse, Kelly’s dad, said he was honored when HBPD asked to memorialize his daughter by naming one of the horses after her.
“I think it’s absolutely phenomenal,” Morehouse said. “Kelly was a big animal lover, so that’s really cool.
“I wonder if the horse will eat at Sugar Shack?”
Officer Gabe Ricci, who was one of the first responders to the fatal accident, is Kelly Blue’s partner.
Other than watching his daughter ride, Ricci had no horse experience.
He loves animals, though, and served as a K-9 handler for Huntington Beach before signing up for a larger four-legged partner.
Ricci looked natural in the saddle as he worked with Kelly Blue on the various commands that will serve them both in the field.
“I feel really confident,” he said. “I think this is an awesome tool.”
Rounding out the Huntington Beach team are Sgt. Mike Metoyer on Drifter and Officer Bill Brownlee on Rowdy.
Metoyer learned to ride horses at age 7 and started bull riding in his 20s. He worked patrol for HBPD before being assigned to the mounted enforcement unit.
Brownlee learned to ride at age 6 on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, where he grew up.
He also worked patrol for HBPD before joining the new unit.
“I never had any formal lessons,” Brownlee said. “My family and friends taught me how to ride.”
The officers train twice a week at the Equestrian Center. They also work with the regional team in Norco, which includes training with officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Newport Beach and Buena Park.
Trainer Melanie Rigdon works with the officers to teach them commands including how to turn, move sideways and step over objects in the street. (Yes, part of the training includes teaching officers how to cleanup after their partners.)
Pool noodles, hula hoops and noise makers are used to desensitize the horses to sounds and sensations they may encounter in the field.
The SWAT team runs firework drills, and the horses are also exposed to the roar of motorcycles and other loud vehicles.
“They have to go through so much sensory training to be safe,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why it takes some time to get up to speed.
The officers said those who have met the team are supportive, and they expect the whole community will embrace the department’s newest additions.
“The public wants this,” Ricci said. “We are a part of history, and we’re grateful for that.”