Law enforcement is a big part of urban society; traditionally, we envision a policeman racing down the street in his car with sirens that resonate throughout downtown. However, Portland streets also include police officers on motorcycles, bicycles, foot, and even horseback. Performing police duties from horseback sounds rather archaic, yet mounted police across the nation seem to retain a greater importance now than in previous centuries. Why is a seemingly old-fashioned occupation flourishing in the 21st century? What types of jobs do these officers really carry out?
As a little girl, I remember going to Starbucks after school frequently, and being greeted outside by the warm presence of two police horses, Danny and Norman. The tall stature of the horses initially intimidated me, but I quickly learned that the police horses were very friendly. Years later, while participating in Race for the Cure, I passed by a building with “MPU” engraved on it. I learned that MPU stood for “Mounted Patrol Unit,” and memories of my previous encounters with Danny and Norman rushed back. On occasion, I would ask my dad to take me to the Mounted Patrol Unit to see the horses. The most beautiful scene to see was that of a policeman riding his horse. The officer in complete command of his horse as they cantered around the arena, the horse responding to every nudge of the officer’s heel in his side—the two together created a powerful and inspiring team...
The Mounted Patrol Unit of Portland opened in 1979 (“Mounted Patrol”). In 2001, the unit moved into a new equestrian facility. Mounted officers are unique because they can enter parts of town that they may not be able to reach with other forms of transportation. They “patrol downtown Portland, parks, Pioneer Square, Chinatown, Old Town, and anywhere else the horses can access easily” (Schoening). The mounted police are frequently called in to assist in crowd control. Officers sitting on their horses at an elevated position can see a wider range and can manipulate a crowd more effectively than officers on foot or motorcycles can (“Mounted Patrol”). In addition, horses are “more approachable and accessible to citizens. This improves service to the public and greatly improves police/citizen communications” (“Mounted Patrol”). Although mounted police are significantly slower than police using cars, they can better communicate with citizens and can operate in special circumstances.
Using horses as a means of keeping peace has existed for centuries. As early as 1758, the London Bow Street police established a Mounted Branch of the Metropolitan Police (Roth 707). The first formal mounted police force was founded in 1805 when London’s Horse Patrol was launched (Roth 707). Today, the most renowned and recognized mounted police unit in the world is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, originating from the Royal North-West Mounted Police of 1873 (Kelly 19). The original role of this unit “wasn’t to protect white settlers against Indians. It was to protect Indians from the whites” (Teather 6). Sir John A. Macdonald, prime minister of Canada at the time, knew the Indians would resent the white settlers who were taking their resources and disrupting their “historic way of life” (Kelley 14). Knowing that the Indians would fight to their death trying to protect their land and lives, Sir John decided to create a mounted police force for the Northwest territories, the primary goal being to prevent violence from arising between the Indians and settlers (Kelley 14). Currently, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police serve as the federal police service to all of Canada. However, Robert Gordon Teather reports that the RCMP runs far beyond the Scarlet Tunics and horses, and even tradition (13). “The RCMP is a family,” Teather asserts (13).
Clouds filled the sky while a heavy fog lingered over the river. Every time I exhaled, I could see my breath. The bright sun peeked its face over the thick clouds. I stood in front of the dark grey door that read “Portland Police Bureau-Mounted Patrol Unit,” hoping for a response to my knock. Directly to my right stood a large, empty arena, with dark red steel poles encompassing the footing. An older officer swung open the door, smiling while he waited for me to explain my presence. I told him my name, and he knew who I was looking for. He led me through the warren of offices composed of many cubicles, through the roll call room, and into the very cold stable. We approached a stall with “Beau” engraved on a golden plate above the stall door. An officer shoveled the manure in Beau’s stall as we advanced towards him. He turned around, walked out of the stall, took off his glove, and shook my hand. “Hi Hannah, I’m Sergeant Schoening,” said Schoening. The older officer walked away, leaving me in good hands.
Sergeant Schoening, the senior officer in charge of the Mounted division, stood around five feet ten inches and struck me as a friendly person. Obviously a younger policeman in his twenties, he maintained a clean-cut appearance. Short brown hair covered his head. Instead of a uniform, Sgt. Schoening wore a black Mountain Hardware jacket, with blue jeans that were tucked into his dark brown knee-high riding boots. This sergeant did not fit the image I associated with a policeman. I followed him as he walked outside through the large, wooden barn door. We stood facing the spacious arena and overlooking the glistening Willamette River. “We have been at this location since 2001,” reported Schoening. The Mounted Patrol Unit building previously served as a flourmill, but the city renovated it in order to meet the needs of the unit. Looking at it from the river, the structure appeared to be old and decrepit and contrasted strongly with the newly renovated buildings around it. The inside, on the other hand, looked like a newly constructed facility, everything in tip-top shape.
We walked back through a large open room containing what Schoening said was an “exerciser” for the horses. The large, round, metal contraption had about five little compartments, each one for an individual horse, separated by thick rubber mats. Like a carousel except with real horses, the exerciser progresses at a programmed speed and keeps the horses moving when they need exercise. To the right of the exerciser, tons of hay sat piled one bale on top of the other. He estimated that the horses devour about forty-five tons of hay each year. “The hay consumed by police horses is a mix of Alfalfa and timothy,” reported Schoening. As he told me earlier, “we have nine horses, seven of which are full-time and the remaining two are in training or spares.” We then strolled around the stable, stopping at each stall for Schoening to tell me a little about the horse. The stable possessed an aroma only people who have been around horses can understand—the fresh smell of hay, the comforting smell of horses, and of course the pervasive scent of manure blended together. “All of our horses are draft horses or draft horse crosses,” Schoening mentioned. The unit’s horse trainer shared that draft horses are “a little quieter and a little slower to spook, and just a little bit easier to work with” (“Portland”). Schoening added, “we like horses with even heel temperaments; horses that do better with the city and unnatural environments are the best.” Passing one wooden stall after another, each horse looked very unique and each possessed a different personality. The stalls read “Jaeger,” “Asher,” “Olin,” “Zeus,” “Ian,” “Montavilla,” “Punch,” “Diesel,” and “Beau.” “Unlike the officers with dogs,” he remarked, “who stay with one dog for the entire life of the dog, we switch horses about every year or so. We have to balance the experience within the force. For example, we pair newer mounted officers who have just learned to ride with experienced horses and newer horses with more experienced officers.”
The stable was constructed so that the nine stalls encircle the center of the stables where the tack room is located. On one side of the room, saddles, bridles, and grooming supplies for each individual horse rest under the horse’s name. “The saddles we ride in are English saddles because they are lighter than Western saddles. We like to cut weight wherever we can because the horses have to carry us and all of the equipment for long periods of time.” Boots for the horses, saddle pads, and other equipment hung from the ceiling. Schoening pointed to the protective horse boots and told me that the horses wear those boots because they are barefoot, meaning they don’t wear horseshoes. The horseshoes restrict the horses’ walking abilities and can cause them to slip. Looking at all the gear the horses and officers use, we continued to discuss the jobs of the Mounted Police. He informed me that the Mounted Police do everything normal officers do, such as make arrests and handcuff the arrested suspects. The unit “averages about 150 criminal arrests per month” (“Mounted Patrol”). “The only reason we call in officers in cars is to transport people to jail,” Schoening told me.
The selection for police horses is extremely specific. The MPU accepts horses from donors, though they must fit all of the specifications and qualifications. The unit asserts that horses must be “solid colors,” “eight to twelve years,” “gelding only,” “15.2 hands minimum,” have a good disposition, and be in healthy physical condition (“Mounted Patrol”). “Many people offer their horses to us,” said Schoening. “We first look at a horse’s temperament, then test him with noise and look at his reaction.” After passing through the first round of examinations, the horse is invited to the mounted patrol facility to undergo a sixty-day trial to see whether the horse is suitable for the job. Schoening mentioned that in addition to accepting horses as donations, the mounted police also look on websites such as dreamhorse.com to find suitable candidates. “Horses in general usually live thirty years, but we retire police horses at around twenty, usually to their original owners.”
Leading me from the tack room back into the cold stable, Schoening explained the competitive process an officer must go through in order to join the Mounted Patrol Unit. In Portland, one must be a regular police officer for five years before applying to join the mounted police. A formal interview and physical test are also part of the selection process. After being accepted, officers take part in a ten-week riding program to orient themselves to horses and to riding. Schoening concluded the tour by introducing me to the older officer whom I had met earlier. “Officer Mack has been working in the Mounted Police for over thirty years; he will be able to answer any other questions you have and is a better person to interview.” I thanked officer Schoening and followed Greg Mack back into his small cubicle.
The felt walls of the small grey cubicle displayed pictures of Mack and his horses, along with a beautiful photograph of a horse’s eye. Officer Mack exuded a warm presence. His short grey hair and gentle features greatly softened his appearance. He wore his full uniform—blue cotton with numerous gadgets attached. A golden nametag with “MACK” written on it was pinned above his right shirt pocket. “I had to dress up,” he later informed me, “I was being interviewed.”
Portland’s Mounted Police force started in 1979. “Two men and their horses patrolled the South Park Blocks for the summer, experimenting with the idea of a mounted police force in Portland,” Mack began, “they found the group extremely effective.” Steph Yiu from The Oregonian reports, “Sgt. Larry Kanzler and other Portland officers start[ed] bringing their horses to work to fight downtown drug problems” (14). Alpenrose Dairy provided stable space and the city provided money for feed (Yiu 14). The unit grew. Fourteen riders then moved into a stable in Delta Park until a 1985 budget cut. The unit survived the budget cut but shrank in size to four officers, one sergeant, and seven horses. In 1991, the stables moved from Delta Park to a temporary barn at Ninth and Lovejoy. The unit expanded again in 1992 to the size of today’s force—six officers and one sergeant. Ten years later, the stables moved a few blocks down to the location in which it currently sits—a peaceful stables close to the Broadway Bridge and right on the side of the river. “We are getting moved again,” Mack remarked. “We’re moving just a few blocks down again. We plan to move by the first part of next year.” Mack’s face no longer lit up with excitement; he seemed annoyed by the prospect of moving to a new location.
What challenges do the mounted police face?
“Being a new guy was challenging. The change in pace was definitely hard,” Mack said. Moving from a vehicle to horseback took time to adjust. “Cars are much faster than horses; it takes a lot longer to respond to calls when your transportation is a horse.” Mounted officers also have to deal with the erratic weather of Portland: the hot sun, pouring rain, wind, fog, and ice—the works. Additionally, the officers have high physical demands, such as moving hay, and grooming their horses, and training. From personal experience, I know that riding and working with horses entails hard physical work. I asked Mack why he became a mounted officer. He answered, “I had been working as a patrol officer for eleven years, five in Portland and six in Connecticut, and I thought going to horses would be a nice change of pace. I have always enjoyed being around animals, so it just seemed to be a good fit.”
One challenge the specialty units constantly face is budget cuts. Although the community loves the mounted police, the Mounted Patrol Unit of Portland encountered some financial problems in previous years. In May of 2010, the Chief of Police announced that the MPU would be shut down due to Mayor Sam Adams’s budget cuts (Tilkin). Days later, Adams revised his proposed budget cuts and the MPU received a private-sector donation of $100,000 to continue operating (“cold-case units”). I asked why anybody would want to cut the mounted police. “Nobody actually knows,” Mack said and smiled, “but there are various theories. It’s a popular unit to be cut—many people don’t understand the benefit of the unit.” Looking resentful, he explained, “It’s hard to quantify its value. There are no statistics to see the effectiveness of the unit. The value is within the interactions the mounted officers have with the public, but there are no statistics to show that.
“People don’t know what horses can do,” Mack continued. The horses sometimes make the bad guys run away, but more importantly, horses make the police more accessible to talk to in public. The horses serve as an icebreaker because children and families don’t feel as threatened by officers on horses as they do by officers in cars. Officer Mack also explained that the unit was not very expensive to maintain. He believes the unit has become more popular since last year’s budge cuts. A nonprofit organization called the “Friends of the Mounted Patrol” raises money to help support the unit. In 2010, this organization fought very hard to keep the mounted police a part of Portland. Greg Goodman, a Portlander, asserted, “There are some things that are just part of Portland and part of who we are” (qtd. in Breaven). Goodman also believes the horses are “Portland icons” and worth saving (qtd. in Breaven). “Last year showed how much people care,” said Mack.
It’s not only the public who don’t understand the Mounted Patrol Unit. “Other cops don’t know how effective we are,” Officer Mack told me. The horses have a lot of underestimated abilities. “They don’t understand how powerful, how non-confrontational horses are,” he said. In some cases, criminals overestimate the horse’s ability. Mack recounted a time when his horse was nudging and sniffing at the backpack of a suspected drug-dealer. Mack told the man, “my horse can smell the marijuana in your bag,” when in reality, horses can’t actually smell marijuana. “That’s just what they do,” said Mack, though the man truly believed the horse smelled his drugs. “If you do anything, he’s going to bite you,” is another fabrication Officer Mack tells criminals. Working with horses really “takes the fight out of the people.”
“You always remember your first horse,” said Officer Mack. In his case, his first horse, Speedy, gave rise to good memories. Smiling, Mack shared the memory of his first arrest from horseback. “We have these things called twist locks, so we can trap the criminals from horseback. I had just learned how to use these and was sent out to make an arrest. I used the twist lock on the bad guy and he began yelling in pain. I loosened the twist lock because I thought I had made it too tight. The bad guy continued screaming and at this point I was thinking—are you a wimp? Finally I looked down, and saw Speedy standing on the guy’s foot.” Mack later explained in an email, “The twist lock is a control hold that is taught to all officers in our defensive tactics classes. It is pretty simple; we grab a person's hand as if we were going to shake their hand but only their fingers. We then rotate their hand by their fingers so their fingers are pointed toward the ground and their palm facing the sky. Finally, we pull their arm over the horse at the front of the saddle” (Mack).
There obviously is a very close bond and strong teamwork between an officer and his horse. Mack said he was jaded from police work. “I was constantly dealing with upset people. On horseback, I have positive interactions with people every day, confirming that people are really okay and only a tiny percentage of the population are the type of people I saw while being a regular police officer.”
“You can’t be around horses without their changing you,” declared Mack. “Horses teach you to have empathy for things.” In addition, Mack said the horses taught him more responsibility. “You have to take care of them because they’re like 1500 pound three-year-olds.” With responsibility came patience. “Horses are different animals, you can’t push them around. You have to ask and wait for the answer. It really helps you deal with people and keeps you in touch with the real world.” From listening to Officer Mack, I could tell officers and their horses shared a unique relationship. His eyes lit up and his face bore a large smile as he talked about the horses.
It is said that animals make us more human. Interactions with domesticated animals are supposed to “teach responsibility, encourage a caring attitude and behavior, and provide companionship, social support, security, comfort, amusement or an outlet for affection. They may promote respect, self-esteem and compassion for animals and nature in general, and [they help you] learn about the facts of life” (Bokkers 32). “They are one hundred percent there for you and they are the most honest creatures on the face of the earth,” Mack said on a television program. “You can’t help but be a better person when you’re around a horse” (“Portland”). Horses truly humanize the cops, and make them more empathetic and approachable to the world.
The best time Officer Mack has is in a demonstration. “Amongst all the chaos, the horse does what I ask him to do and is willing to sit and stay with me; it really shows the mutual trust.” On the television program, Mack stated, “You have to have trust in the rider. [The horse] needs to know that he’s going to survive out there with me” (“Portland”). The job of being a mounted policeman is very gratifying—“when you find someone, you help them; you know you’re doing the right thing,” he told me in the interview. Officer Mack loves his job more than anything. A giant grin stretched across his face showed the enthusiasm he held for the horses and his job. “Everyday is the best.”
What exactly occurs throughout a day for a mounted officer? Officer Mack ran through a daily agenda with me. The morning begins with roll call at seven. The roll call room I had previously walked through was a room with a big conference table in the middle. The south facing wall displayed a big window open to the horse arena outside. During roll call, the sergeant talks to the officers and shares what’s going on, along with passing out flyers of wanted people. Following roll call, the officers change into uniform and get their horses ready. They then walk out to the big red arena and warm up by walking, trotting, cantering, and practicing certain skills. Next, the officers depart in pairs towards downtown and the Old Town area to start their daily work. The mounted police deal with nuisances, drugs and alcohol, pedestrian robberies, and other crimes nobody wants to deal with. In addition to the crimes, mounted police get to spend a lot of time interacting with the public. Around noon, the officers return to the stables for a half hour lunch, leaving the horses’ gear on but allowing them to drink and eat. The pairs leave to perform the same activities in the afternoon. At the end of the day, the police brush and feed their horses, clean the tack, finish any remaining paperwork, and write their daily reports.
The day-to-day toil of being a mounted officer does not bother Officer Mack in the slightest. “I love my job! It’s the BEST,” Officer Mack asserted. He said the only wish he had was for “more people to understand how great they are. It’s a great job,” Mack stated—“everybody should have the opportunity to be around horses; they change you.”
After the formal interview, Officer Mack led me into the stables again, giving me a closer look at the individual horses. Walking into the stall of his current horse, Zeus, Mack called his horse, who immediately raised his ears and looked up at his partner. A deep connection between Mack and Zeus revealed itself. His big, glassy eyes looked at Officer Mack to see if any commands sounded, attentive to every move the officer made. Mack pet him on the shoulder, smiling as he told me, “I just love these big guys.” A few moments later, Zeus resumed eating his hay contentedly as I stroked him. Zeus stood a little taller than sixteen hands and a soft black coat covered his entire body. I entered the stalls and stroked a few more horses. They really were 1500-pound three-year-olds.
Next, I followed Officer Mack into the tack room. He showed me a final piece of equipment that Officer Schoening didn’t show me. He pulled out of Zeus’s equipment box a shield for Zeus’s face. “This is to protect their face. People in crowds throw rocks and bottles and things. Once, someone hollowed out eggs and filled them with hydrochloric acid and threw them at the horses,” Mack reported. The extent of disrespect the public exercised towards mounted police and their horses surprised me.
Police action has been strong in the recent eviction of Occupy Portland movement from a park in downtown Portland. I asked Mack about mounted police involvement with Occupy Portland in a later email. He told me that they “were used the first night to push the crowd out of SW 3rd Avenue so traffic could get by. [They] also served as a protective barrier between officers making arrests and protesters on a couple of occasions that night. During the demonstrations on November seventeenth, [they] were used to keep the demonstrators out of the street and also to clear the sidewalks in front of some of the banks where people were being arrested” (Mack). “People in big crowds get crazy,” Mack affirmed in the interview.
The bond between a police horse and his officer is strong. In order to function effectively, the horse and rider must take care of each other. Talking with Sergeant Schoening and Officer Mack illustrated the love and devotion they share for their jobs. The horse and officer, though differing physically, are alike in their mentality and attitude. Officer Mack and his partner Zeus work together towards the same goal—to help people. Zeus has taught Mack patience and compassion, and in return Zeus has learned discipline. Their inner characters reflect upon each other. An underlying truth, just as Officer Mack mentioned, is that “they soften you and they bring some reality back to you, especially in police work.”
Beaven, Steve. “Friends of Portland's Mounted Patrol Lobby to Save It from Budget Cuts.” Oregonlive.com. 31 March 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.
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