For 25 years, Dallas' mounted police has saddled up for duty

By Diane Jennings
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS, Tex. — After two decades with the Dallas Police Department's SWAT team, Gary Hendley knows stress. But working as a mounted police officer is the "hardest job I've had," he said.

Stopping motorists is one of the many duties that Senior Cpl. Luis Villarreal has as a mounted officer for the Dallas Police Department. The pressures of the SWAT unit are "absolutely nothing" compared with controlling an 1,800-pound horse amid honking horns, pounding jackhammers and swirling litter in downtown Dallas, he said.

Officers on horseback may seem like an anachronism in the 21st century, but they "are going through a sort of renaissance," said Dr. Mitchel Roth, professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

Dallas' unit started 25 years ago, and though recent numbers are not available, Dr. Roth documented more than 650 mounted units nationwide in 1997.

Much of their resurging popularity "has to do with the concept of community policing and having better relationships with the public," Dr. Roth said. "A person on the street is more likely to approach an officer whether they're walking a beat, or on a horse, than somebody in a car."

Spend a little time with one of the 17 officers in the unit and that's readily apparent. During a recent shift in the West End, people of all ages, races and genders hurried over to pat the equine officers and chat with their human counterparts.

That warm reception is unusual for other types of officers, said Senior Cpl. Ivan Dennis, who joined the unit shortly after its formation. "In a vehicle, I was lucky to get a wave," he said. "But on a horse, you get a lot of interaction."

A crime deterrent

That give-and-take with people, and the high visibility of mounted officers, helps reduce criminal activity, he said.

"I realized how effective it was, as a kind of a deterrent," Cpl. Dennis said, "and to me, true police work is preventing crime before it happens."

Today's Mounted Unit began at the urging of officers frustrated by a rash of burglaries in Pleasant Grove. Several officers asked permission to patrol the neighborhood on their own horses. When they did, the burglaries stopped.

Mounted officers are particularly effective in deterring burglaries, Cpl. Dennis said, because they can peer into back yards from atop their horses – which generally stand at least 16 hands high (about 5 feet from the ground to the horse's back).

And because horses don't move as fast as cars, criminals know the mounted officers will be in the area awhile. "We had a couple of burglars say once they see us in the area, they go someplace else," Cpl. Dennis said.

After the initial success, the department formalized the unit. Officers are now provided with horses and equipment, which make it one of the more expensive units in the department. Donations of some horses and equipment help defray expenses.

It's also one of the more elite units, said Sgt. Michael Hunter, the unit's supervisor. Openings in the unit are rare, but when they do occur, 25 to 30 Dallas police officers apply. Surprisingly, applicants are not required to have riding experience or familiarity with horses.

When a job opening occurs, "I look for somebody that has a desire to be a mounted officer," Sgt. Hunter said, "and explain to them the types of duties that come with the job. You really have to look for somebody that wants to take on the challenges, because being a mounted officer is a day-to-day challenge."

Officers undergo six weeks of training, which they describe as grueling, and many later go to Canada to study with the famed Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

In addition to spending four to five hours a day in the saddle, often in searing heat or numbing cold, officers must care for their mounts, grooming and saddling them each morning and afternoon at the department's stables in Fair Park.

The 25 horses, primarily sturdy quarter horses, also undergo three weeks of initial training. Training includes riding past smoky bales of hay; getting accustomed to the sounds of guns fired from their backs or firecrackers popping nearby; and riding through lighted flares that might be found at accident scenes or into draped banners and flags similar to a parade environment.

Length of service for horses depends on the animal's physical condition and personality. Some, such as Amigo, a 26-year-old bay gelding, work for decades; others are retired to private owners after a few years.

One week the unit may patrol the downtown business district; the next week it may be assigned to a residential neighborhood or a shopping mall. Officers carry ticket books in their saddlebags, and while they can't run down a speeding car, they do stop motorists for infractions such as failure to wear a seat belt.

Their main responsibility is to aid patrol officers, Sgt. Hunter said. That might mean searching for a missing person or chasing down a suspect. If a suspect is caught, the officers have handcuffs attached to a tether, so they can lead suspects to custody without dismounting.

When October rolls around, all horses and riders are assigned to Fair Park for the State Fair.

"We really enjoy it," Sgt. Hunter said. "It's one of our things we really look forward to each year.

"It gives you the opportunity to mount up and be seen."

But people may be surprised at what they see. Big Tex sports a cowboy hat, boots and jeans, but officers wear a Smokey Bear-style "campaign" hat, riding breeches and lace-up boots with spurs that don't jingle.

Their saddles are Australian stock style, not Western saddles with a saddle horn.

Most mounted units wear the same style uniform and equipment, Sgt. Hunter said, because it's best-suited for police work. But the Fort Worth Police Department remains true to its heritage using Western saddles, and cowboy hats and boots.

Making bonds

The fair provides Dallas' mounted officers with the opportunity to do what they do best – foster a good relationship with the public and control a large crowd.

"Any type of a crowd, be it compliant or belligerent, the horse itself does the work of about 10 ground officers, because of his size and his presence and his non-aggressive demeanor," said Senior Cpl. Randy Hulse, assistant trainer.

The horses were crucial to controlling unruly fans during a chaotic parade for the Dallas Cowboys in 1993.

But while most spectators retreat when an 1,800-pound animal bearing an armed officer approaches, sometimes trouble erupts: Two years ago, a police horse became agitated after bottles started flying during Texas-OU weekend. The horse jumped into the crowd, and several people were injured. A lawsuit in that incident is pending.

Crowd control is not the hardest duty, Sgt. Hunter said. What he finds most difficult are calls for police funerals, whether it's for the Dallas Police Department or a neighboring department without a mounted unit.

The image of the lone horse, with empty boots facing backward, walking behind a casket, has been a somber symbol of respect since ancient times.

"What I dread is the riderless horse," Sgt. Hunter said. "That's the one I dread."

Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News

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