For 31 years, the Portland Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Unit has calmed riots, charmed children, and chased down criminals. With the city’s budget woes leaving the patrol’s fate in the air, the unit’s longest-serving member reflects on 18 years of trotting his street beat.
I’ve been riding Asher for two years. He’s part Percheron and quarter horse, with a little thoroughbred thrown in. He came in as a 5-year-old, but he acts much younger than his age. He likes to play a lot, so you have to make work seem like play and have fun as well as do the job. Because there are certain things that he has to do, like stand still while I put cuffs on a guy.
All the police horses are geldings. Stallions just have too much testosterone, and mares, they kick a lot. Horses are masters of intention. That’s how they’ve survived for thousands and thousands of years. They’re huge animals, but they can feel a fly land on them. They’re very sensitive and very intuitive. They pick up minute details, and they can feel tension. If I’m having a bad day, I have to make sure that all of that is behind me when I show up to work. If not, we’re gonna have a bad day together.
I’ve gone through a bunch of horses. They all teach you something. Devlin, a Dutch warmblood, was just a goofy animal. He would go down to the Skidmore Fountain and drink water and blow it out of his nose. He was a good boy, a nice-looking horse, but very noise sensitive. We got him special earplugs, and he became the greatest police horse on earth. With earplugs, nothing bothered him! That was until Bill Clinton came to town, and there was a little demonstration. We were pushing the crowd back from the Hilton Hotel, and I saw one of the earplugs fall to the ground. I looked at my sergeant and said, “Uh-oh.” We ended up being off in the corner by ourselves for a while. That was his last day working.
People don’t really understand animals anymore. Horses are prey animals: they’re used to being eaten. So they operate on the premise that everything’s scary until proven otherwise. My goal is to make sure that he knows: I’m gonna take care of ya, but you gotta let me make the decisions.
Being a street cop for a few years before this, I was used to doing everything on an eye-to-eye level. But you get on a horse, and the whole thing’s changed. People love the horse. It’s like an icebreaker. They want to know the name of the horse; they want to touch it. Even the bad guys love the horse. It’s also powerful with people who have mental handicaps and emotional problems. You can see they’re anxious, and they start petting the horse, and it just melts away. The benefit is huge, and a lot of people and civilians really see that as well. It’s always the public that saves us when we’re in danger of being cut.
Every now and again, somebody decides they’ll run from us. The thing is, Asher and I can trot all day long, but eventually, the person on foot is gonna get tired. So they run and we trot, and then they just give up. It’s great, because there’s no fight at the end of it. It’s just, “OK, I’m done.”
Most people stay in the Mounted Patrol Unit for five or six years, but I’ve gotten stuck. It’s the horses … I just love working with the horses. At a certain point, though, the horse sours to the job. And once he has, he’s not gonna enjoy himself out there, and he’s not gonna behave. But as long as he comes and meets me at the door in the morning and says, “Hey, let’s get to work, let’s put my bridle on and let’s go,” we’re fine.