BOISE, Idaho- Looking to save money, the Boise Police Department sent its mounted patrol unit riding off into the sunset last month. The horses were sold off along with all the riding tack.
Around the country, some cities are no longer hearing the hoofbeats of police horses anymore, to the dismay of those who say officers on horseback are a good way to control crowds and win over the community, too.
"That was the biggest public relations tool they had," said Rene Ducroux, who sold the Boise police force a horse two years ago and bought it back at the auction. "Families will go up to a police officer on a horse and actually have that interaction. On a horse, it breaks that wall down."
Mounted police units come and go. Patrick Muscat, who led the Detroit mounted police unit for 21 years and wrote a book on its history, estimates there are still 300 such units, some of them very small, in the United States. But "I think it's on a decline these last few years."
Dian Cecil, who raises and sells police horses from her farm in Lexington, Ky., agreed: "They may have bicycles, motorcycles, dog teams, SWAT teams, scuba, and when the city goes through hard times, then a lot of the specialty units will be disbanded."
The Boise mounted patrol unit, formed in 1987, consisted of three horses and three riders. Disbanding it will save $98,000 in the first year, the department said.
"Horses are part of our Western heritage that we love to celebrate. From that point of view it really is kind of a sad day," police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said. "But it's also a day where the department needs to be accountable to taxpayers."
Detroit disbanded its 112-year-old mounted police unit this month. A businessman there, Bob Raisch, is raising donations to try to bring it back.
"They're the best crowd-control device ever invented," Raisch said. "More than that, it's just the feeling of security and well-being and sophistication that a mounted policeman conveys to both citizens and visitors."
Horses require food and veterinary care, and run up boarding costs and expenses. But with gas prices so high, Sgt. Jay Postlewaite, the head of the Lexington, Ky., mounted police unit, thinks horses are a bargain.
"Over a 10-year period you're still going to pay less to maintain a horse than a car," he said. "Where the car tends to depreciate with time and wear, the horses actually get a little better with time and experience."
And horses aren't just good for community relations. Officers sitting high on a horse can see things other officers can't, and they can go places _ parks, for example _ that other vehicles can't, Cecil said. They can do the routine stuff, too.
"Some of the officers will actually sit out with a radar gun to check traffic," Cecil said. "People are just amazed when they're pulled over by a horse."
Hightower thinks it is unlikely the Boise unit will return any time soon. But the people who love police horses tell many stories of mounted units that came and went and came back again.
Atlanta's mounted patrol unit was re-established this year after having been disbanded in 2002 because of budgetary problems. Toledo, Ohio, established a seven-horse unit established in 1989, disbanded it because of financial problems in 1991, and re-established in 1995.
"It is somewhat of an expensive unit to maintain," said Capt. Diana Ruiz-Krause, a Toledo police spokeswoman. "But when we have the big events downtown, there's really nothing that works like a police officer on top of a horse."