Riding tall in the saddle while wearing a badge
Mounted officers need to be visible and proactive to maintain relevancy within modern policing
By Joe Cummings
Many agencies maintain and field full- or part-time mounted units. Some also use volunteer auxiliary, or “posse members.” What we all share in common is the realization that law enforcement’s first mode of travel – the horse – remains a valuable resource today.
In 1870, the Boston Police Department hired its first mounted officer; a year later New York City created the nation’s first mounted police unit. Today, many major metropolitan cities and smaller departments still maintain mounted patrol units.
In the 19th century, horses were used primarily to transport an officer around his patrol area. If an officer made an arrest, they either walked the subject back to the jail or they called a horse-drawn patrol wagon for transport. Lawmen in the American West used the horse to cover vast expanses of land.
Mounted police have a rich heritage in an occupation that has understandably changed with the times. From advances in technology to concepts of policing, the way we do our jobs as law enforcement officers has evolved. The issue today is how mounted units can maintain their standing in departments.
The basic premise of our occupation hasn’t changed from the days when the first cops took an oath to protect and serve. We just do it from a height of 10 feet with a 1,200-pound partner. How can we stay focused on our mission in this modern age? Some agencies have disbanded their mounted units, due to cost versus reward and issues of manpower allocation.
Our job is to keep our units and ourselves relevant and plugged into modern policing. We have to make sure command staff understand what mounted units do, how we benefit our communities and how we can make our units cost-effective.
Here are six suggestions to help keep us in the saddle.
1. If you are assigned to patrol, then be part of patrol.
This means answering calls for service and policing proactively. Citizen contacts, traffic enforcement and business checks are all part of the patrol function. It should be no different than policing by vehicle, although if you make an arrest, you will need a transport, which would likely be a car in a neighboring beat. But you should handle all of the paperwork and reports. Remember, your arrest should not turn into a “dump job.” Don’t be afraid to pay it back or pay it forward. Volunteer to take on some paperwork for someone else.
2. Maximize your saddle time.
Nothing irritates the brass more than seeing an asset sit idle. And rightfully so. We all understand horses take training and maintenance. Account for your time and be open about it.
3. Have an open barn.
Invite the bosses to training sessions so they can see what you do. Have them participate from the ground. They can help with arrest control and sensory training. Let them get comfortable around the horses. Familiarity breeds confidence.
4. Keep good records and generate good reports.
Consult with your department’s crime analyst, community leaders, command staff, or any other stakeholders you can identify. Put together daily action plans to target specific areas for specific reasons. Patrol with a plan.
5. Become visible and not just in obvious ways.
Visit civic organizations, horse clubs, church groups or whoever wants to know about the unit. Make a presentation highlighting the horses and people involved. Sometimes you don’t even need to take a horse (but it helps). You never know who is in your audience and what kind of support they can provide.
6. Be an expert.
Constantly strive to become a better equestrian. Take pride in your mount and keep the horse presentable. If you ride a horse, there is a good chance you are in or close to some kind of horse community. Be ready to answer questions from the public. I once saw a mounted officer with his spurs on upside down. Needless to say, he did not leave a favorable impression.
Mounted patrol units are like any other specialized unit within departments. They are subject to the same budget cuts as everyone else. Units come and go if we don’t keep them relevant to the mission of our departments. Our agencies have chosen to maintain mounted patrol units among their ranks and we are getting paid to ride our horses. Give them a proper return on their investment. Be professional, be proactive and, above all, be proud.
About the author
Sergeant Joe Cummings is a 35-year law enforcement veteran and current patrol supervisor and former SWAT team leader. He implemented and oversees his department's mounted patrol unit and is an accredited mounted patrol instructor. Joe is active in the horse community competing in classical dressage and other disciplines.