Training for mounted police is no ride in the park
By Maureen O'Donnell
CHICAGO — If you think it would be great to ride around Chicago on a horse all day in a Smokey Bear hat, think again.
The 15 trainees are seasoned officers picked from among 220 applicants. For the most part, they're city kids whose horse experience is limited to dude ranches or visits to grandma's farm.
In past training sessions, "There've been people who quit on the first day, because they didn't know what it's like to be in a 10- by 12-foot box with a 1,200-pound horse," said officer Mike Clisham, an instructor. Some military veterans "said it was worse than boot camp."
Rookie David Shen, 37, formerly worked a SWAT team. He's here because he likes horses -- and because of a favorite childhood memory. "When I was a young kid, my dad used to take me out riding in Wisconsin," he said.
Erin Garrett, 29, formerly worked a police bicycle unit. "It'll be a nice change of pace. I used to want to be a vet. I think they're beautiful."
Graduates of the 14-week course will be able to perform complex "boot-to-boot" formations with their horses. They will gently but insistently guide crowds away from the lakefront after Venetian Night, or form a wedge at a music fest so EMTs can reach someone ill.
"A guy on a horse can do the job of 10 police officers on foot," said officer John Schaffer, a trainer. Sure-footed horses can navigate in places where squad cars and motorcycles can't, which led to the 1974 return of Chicago's mounted unit after a 25-year hiatus.
The unit's wedges and other formations can be traced back to the U.S. Cavalry, said Sgt. Rick Pelicano, a riding instructor with the Maryland-National Capitol Park Police. The maneuvers also have roots in German and Belgian military strategies of the 1700s, according to Bill Naber, a California author of guides for mounted police.
Last week, the rookies spent hours tromping around in circles and in columns in the stable at the South Shore Cultural Center. "You have to know how to do it before you have 1,200 pounds of animal under you," Clisham said.
Officers learn how to stay astride their horses, solid as boulders, in crowds that can include a few nasties — like the guy who was nabbed trying to burn a horse with a cigarette to see if it would gallop.
The animals are selected for steady temperament, which led to an unusual request when they were filmed recently for an episode of "ER." They didn't react to a shot from a prop gun, so the TV crew asked Schaffer to make them jump.
The unit uses quarter horses and thoroughbreds. All are in the reddish brown-to-black color range, to keep things uniform, Schaffer said. The thinking is, a mob might target a horse that sticks out.
Physical fitness isn't the only requirement. "You have to be able to tolerate the same question 2,000 times a day," Clisham said. " 'What's your horse's name? Is that a real horse?' "
"It's always a thrill to see a child want to come and see a horse," Schaffer said. "City kids don't always have that opportunity."
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