[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Horse Power

horse cops
Christopher Gardner

Stable Situation: At the mid-August graduation ceremony of the 14th Horse Mounted Unit Academy, held at the police stables on Kenoga Avenue in San Jose, Police Chief Lou Cobarruviaz commended the unit for its community relations and for "the way you saved our bacon at Cinco de Mayo."

Perched high above the streets, San Jose's mounted police get a good view of the city, but their visibility can be dangerous

By Tai Moses

ONE COLD, RAINY DAY last winter, a pit bull chained to a park bench in Cesar Chavez park broke free and attacked a police horse. Police horses are generally trained to tolerate scrappy dogs, but this particular horse, who went by the name of Ricardo, took one look at those gaping jaws and informally tendered his resignation from the San Jose Police Department.

With his rider still fighting for control, Ricardo took off at a dead run, heading for the Quetzalcoatl sculpture, with the pit bull in pursuit, dragging a piece of park bench behind it and snapping at the horse's rear. When he reached the sculpture the panicked horse made a U-turn and headed back across the lawn, whereupon another mounted officer was able to intervene and beat the dog off with a baton.

I wasn't there, but the episode was rendered vividly for me by members of the San Jose Police Department Horse Mounted Unit on a recent trip to the police stables on Kenoga Avenue. The horse, never a favorite, has been sold. The pit bull, after a protracted fight between its owners and the city, was put to sleep. The officer who took the wild ride has since moved on to the Street Crimes Unit. And Officer Larry Holmes, who rescued Ricardo from the jaws of death, closes the discussion on the pit bull incident with the solemn statement "It was scary," the twin waxed handles of his mustache quivering slightly at the memory.

The Mounted Unit is divided into two teams, and the day of my first visit happens to be a Team Two day. The shift has just begun and the officers are still in civvies: shorts, tank tops and jeans or, in Holmes' case, black cowboy boots, a gaudy striped shirt and a Stetson.

The team assembles in the office for the daily briefing, led by Sgt. Diane Urban, whose T-shirt sports the motto "Live to Ride, Ride to Live." Joining the established team members are Dondi Hart and Kirk Lovely, two of the three new recruits who are in the last two weeks of the Mounted Unit academy, a 12-week intensive on police equitation. Holmes ties his horse Cody to a rail outside the office, comes in and takes a seat, his purple, pink and blue shirt raising a few eyebrows.

"Jeez, Larry, hard to miss you in that get-up," someone remarks. The informality of this briefing is a world away from the starched, paramilitary atmosphere of the police briefings we see on television shows. Team members munch on the remnants of breakfast, discuss the idiosyncrasies of their horses and evaluate the crowds at Music in the Park and the Jazz Festival. Everyone agrees that audiences have been cooperative and polite: "a real nice group of people."

Law enforcement is a subculture that thrives on conformity, but this group is a model of diversity, from Larry Holmes with his handlebar mustache to Sgt. Urban, whose long blond hair and manicured red fingernails hardly fit the stereotype of a police sergeant.

Married to a fellow cop and mother to three small children, the buoyant 34-year-old Urban has 11 years of law enforcement experience behind her, including a three-year stint as a sniper in MERGE, the department's SWAT team.

    If the show of force accompanied by a dispersal order does not result in a voluntary dispersal, the most effective yet least dangerous instrument of dispersal is the police horse.
    --SJPD Mounted Unit Training Manual

WHEN THE BRIEFING IS over and the horses are tacked up, the officers going downtown change into uniform, effecting a striking transformation: gone are shorts and tank tops; in their place are crisp riding breeches with blue-and-gold striping, polished black riding boots and navy-blue campaign hats. Except for the recruits, all the officers sport the crossed cavalry sabers of the Mounted Unit on their lapels. "That's what makes mounted officers," Urban says. "They have to earn it."

San Jose has had mounted police in one capacity or another since 1911, but it wasn't until 1986 that this special Horse Mounted Unit was formed to increase police presence in the downtown. The unit presently consists of 12 horses on active duty and two in training, 11 mounted officers, two sergeants and a civilian trainer.

The very image of a mounted policeman is a throwback to a simpler, less mechanized era. But with the rise of "community policing" as the buzz-word of the '90s, mounted police have become more common.

The image of a smartly uniformed officer astride a beautiful horse can't be beat when it comes to creating a positive image. The mounted officers break what the department calls "police-citizen barriers"; simply put, the Mounted Unit makes everyone's badge look shinier. However, they aren't just poster cops. For all the innovations in law enforcement over the decades, there are few better tools for crowd control than horses. From the back of a horse an officer has an excellent view; mounted officers are fond of citing a national statistic that a single mounted officer is as visible in a crowd as 32 police officers on foot.

"Everybody looks at us as the public relations police," Urban says, performing a dead-on imitation of a bored beat cop: 'Ah, what do the mounted people do, all they do is stand around and look good.' But let me tell you," she continues, "those same officers are the first ones to go, 'Oh, thank goodness you were here in front of us protecting us and moving that crowd back.' "

Talk of May's Cinco de Mayo festival still elicits strong feelings around the stables. During the post-festival clash, the Mounted Unit took off their public relations hats and engaged in their other stated purpose.

"Things went crummy," Sgt. Urban understates, "and so we went from being low-key enforcement to being crowd control."

Just after the festivities ended, about 5:30pm, knots of people, who witnesses say were from rival gang factions, began to gather on either side of Santa Clara Street.

"They literally took over portions of the street," says Urban. "We have a pretty good bird's-eye view, and you could just see that the crowd was watching us to see what we were going to do." Concerned about inciting a riot, the SJPD command staff held off on giving the order to move in, but by the time they took action, the crowd had dug their heels in.

"In the past we've never allowed people to stand around like that," Urban says. "We were trying to do the right thing, but that tack obviously didn't work."

    The MU officer is the Department's "Ambassador of Goodwill" and will strive to leave each citizen contacted with a positive impression of the MU specifically, and the Department in general.
    --SJPD Special Operations Procedure Manual

THE MOUNTED UNIT was stationed at Santa Clara and Third streets when a young man was hit with a bottle and knocked unconscious. "The crowd went berserk," Urban recalls. "A couple of people began to throw bottles, and what you get is that crowd mentality. That's just what happened right before our eyes."

The police began a sweep--a line of officers on foot, motorcycle and horseback who attempted to move the crowd of 2,000-plus down Santa Clara Street. As the rioters surged forward, the sound was like the mounting hum of a swarm of bees, and bottles aimed at the mounted officers began flying through the air. And not just bottles--people were throwing anything they could get their hands on at the police: trash cans, pieces of bus bench, newspaper stands, tires.

Remarkably, once the police horses moved in, it took the Mounted Unit only 15 minutes to break up the crowd. "The horses are very effective at calming people down," Urban explains. "It's sobering. I think that's the best word I can use to describe the feeling of having horses coming at you. Everything in your body tells you 'it's time to go.' "

As for the police horses, not a single one hesitated before plunging into the melee.

"They really showed how courageous they were that day," Urban says. "We train intensely and it really paid off, because none of those horses were freaking out, they were just 'let's get 'em, let's go.'

"The funny thing was, when we got done dispersing the rioters and the looters, 15 minutes later we were riding back through the downtown and little kids were saying, 'Got any stickers? Got any cards?' Here the horses were still kind of agitated and everybody was still pumped up, and the little kids were like the pied pipers walking down the street."

A month or so later, seven officers on horseback stand in a straight line at the bottom of Cesar Chavez park, waiting for a summer concert in the Music in the Park series to begin. The first thing I see is Dondi Hart dismounting to clean up after Ebony, who's just helpfully fertilized the grass. Hart dutifully scoops Ebony's contribution into a plastic bag and deposits it in a nearby trash can.

I walk over to Steve Windisch, Chris Wilson and Dave Strunk. Strunk's usual mount, Magoo, was stung by yellowjackets and is too swollen to wear a saddle, so Strunk is riding Shadow today, who nibbles thoughtfully at my hair and tries to pick my pocket. Strunk's eyebrows shoot up in consternation as the horse proceeds to nuzzle at a button on my shirt. I ask him how it feels, after nearly 12 weeks in the academy, to be back in uniform. Cops aren't known for opening up to reporters, but in this case I perceive that Officer Strunk's answer is completely candid. "Different," he says, shifting gingerly in the saddle. "These uniforms are tight."

    Horses look to man to guide them through the uncertainties of life.
    --Mounted Unit Training Manual

THE CLASS ON horse psychology, says Steve Windisch during a conversation in the briefing office, was his favorite part of the academy. Reading over the course outline, I realize that it could just as well be a primer on how to socialize civilians. "A horse that does not respect humans will become a problem horse," counsels the manual.

Certainly one of the drawbacks of the mounted officers' heightened visibility is the sacrifice of a measure of officer safety. Close contact with the public is only desirable when the public is friendly. "Because we sit up so high, we are a perfect target for everybody's anger," Urban says. She speaks from experience: "At these festivals, who always takes the first bottle? Well, I'm two for two at the last two festivals. I have the biggest horse and I'm the only gal with long hair."

Recalling Windisch sitting confidently astride Lucky in Cesar Chavez park, I find it hard to believe that before he transferred to the mounted unit, he had never ridden a horse before in his life. He still has the bearing of a motorcycle cop--the classic imperturbable expression that makes you wonder if he has eyes in the back of his head.

The adjustment from motorcycles to horses was a challenge, he says.

"A can of oats never affected his motorcycle like it affects his horse," Urban teases.

"I found in coming over here that I had to shift gears, because police, for the most part, are not real popular with the public," Windisch says. "They love us, but they'd rather not see us. Here it's a lot different: I've been a cop for 23 years, and I've never, ever, in my life had anybody come up and pet my police car."

The Mounted Unit's 12-week academy covers the care and feeding of horses, common horse ailments, horse psychology, stable maintenance, tack and trailering, the breeds and colors of the horse, bareback, English and Western riding, and crowd-control tactics.

As trainer Ginny Gerbino and I talk, I watch Kirk Lovely, over by the barn, busy untangling the knots in Bob's tail. He sprays Bob's flanks with fly ointment and gently cleans out the horse's nostrils with a damp sponge.

Watching this big man tend to his mount so conscientiously, I begin to realize that Gerbino's training methods, for both human and horse, have a long-term payoff. The police officers who go through the academy can't help but emerge as more caring individuals and more effective peace officers.

"I don't believe in the bullying type of training," she says. "I believe in psychology, and if you try to think like a horse, look at the world through a horse's eyes, then training becomes a lot easier."

    It is the responsibility of the officers to maintain and use their equipment properly and of supervisors to ensure that they do.
    --Mounted Unit Training Manual

WINDISCH WALKS BY with the thoroughbred Lucky following him like a dog. The officer walks just in front of the horse, speaking constantly in a low tone. Lucky's ears are pricked, and as Windisch suddenly stops and makes a 180-degree turn, the horse stops too and turns with the man in perfect choreography.

"Ground handling," Gerbino says, watching them pass. "Horses in a herd respond to the body language of the herd. If you learn to read the horse's body language and allow him the time to read yours, then you are establishing the very important relationship of trust. If you're going to have a working relationship with a horse, and by god your life depends on it if you're a police officer, you have to learn to listen to a horse's body language."

This bond of trust between officer and mount is crucial in a hostile crowd where an officer might fall or be yanked off his mount. A horse conditioned to regard his rider as the herd leader will not leave the officer's side.

"He doesn't want to leave you because he knows that you're going to protect him," Gerbino says.

Of course things don't always go so smoothly. One of the most spectacular illustrations of this occurred once at a career-day presentation at Dartmouth Junior High School, when for no apparent reason Mario Hernandez's horse spooked in the middle of the inner quad.

Sgt. Urban, who was at the presentation with Hernandez, remembers, "The horse went straight up and unseated him, but he still had some balance, and I'm yelling at him 'Hang on!' because it's all cement around him."

Officer Hernandez made a noble effort to stick the bucking horse, but finally he hit the pavement. Urban made a grab for the horse's reins, but he bolted down the school passageway, out the gate and down Blossom Hill Road, as she and her horse, Dakar, gave chase in their best McCloud impersonation.

The runaway horse hit his stride in the fast lane of Blossom Hill, heading west toward Los Gatos. In what Urban calls a bizarre parody of a high-speed car chase, the horse increased his speed when she did and slowed down when she slowed down. A Canine Unit officer who was also at the school for a demonstration with his dog had jumped in his car when the fracas began, and speeding ahead of the two galloping horses, he blocked the intersection at Camden and Blossom Hill. The horse, saddle dangling loose under his belly, made a left onto Camden into oncoming traffic, which fortunately was stopped at a red light, and headed toward the Almaden Valley.

Confused to find himself surrounded by cars, the horse halted just long enough for Urban to jump off Dakar and nab him. Meanwhile, a bruised Hernandez, who had pulled some ligaments in his back, had borrowed a fireman's truck and arrived at the scene moments later to find his white-faced sergeant holding the reins of the equine culprit.

"That was probably one of the scariest things I've ever done, and I was on the SWAT team!" she marvels. "But galloping down the middle of Blossom Hill Road in lunch-hour traffic on a horse--it was frightening, but it was exhilarating."

    The department expects and the citizens deserve nothing less than competent and professional officers who are accomplished in their equestrian skills.
    --Mounted Unit Training Manual

SAN JOSE VICE MAYOR Margie Fernandes, Chief of Police Lou Cobarruviaz and an honor guard from the San Francisco Police Department are present at the mid-August graduation ceremony of the 14th Horse Mounted Unit Academy, which takes place in the large parking area in front of the stables. The entire unit is present on horseback and in dress uniform.

The three graduates, officers Hart, Strunk and Lovely, are sitting straight and tall in the saddle. A small crowd of family and friends watches from aluminum risers in front of the barn. The vice mayor says a few words and then the chief takes the podium. He commends the unit for their rapport with the community and for "the way you saved our bacon at Cinco de Mayo."

His next comment is directed at the graduates: "Frankly, I would not want to ride a horse through traffic as you are going to have to do, but somebody has got to do it, and I'm glad you have taken on the responsibility."

A few titters ripple through the crowd. Sgt. Urban leads the three graduates to the front and, at an order from Team One's Sgt. Brent Pascoe, they dismount and are presented with the crossed cavalry sabers of the Horse Mounted Unit. "Go, Dondi!" someone in the audience calls out as a grinning Hart receives her crossed sabers and a handshake from the chief.

The graduates remount, in perfect tandem, and Sgt. Pascoe barks out the next order: "Close ranks!" In a column of two the Mounted Unit walks past the audience and toward the back of the stables, where a celebratory barbecue awaits.

As I leave the police stables, I think of the tough motorcycle cop who came up to Officer Hernandez at Music in the Park to pet Jack's shining flanks.

"He used to be in the Mounted Unit," Hernandez said to me in a stage whisper. "Ever miss it?" I asked the poker-faced cop. The corners of his eyes crinkled in a smile behind the ubiquitous mirrored cop shades as Jack began to methodically lick his hand. "Oh hell," he admitted wistfully, "I'll always miss the horses."

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 1997 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.