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April 18, 2006
A New Crime Fighter, for $10 in Hay and Oats
New York Times

In this high-tech, gadget-dependent, "CSI"-obsessed age of police work, one of the New York Police Department's most prized and pampered weapons in the war on lawlessness is a temperamental pack of hay-chomping lads named Zeus, Philly and Angus.

Now, after decades of consignment to Central Park patrols, ceremonial trots down Fifth Avenue and the occasional cameo at a raucous demonstration, these horses — and 85 of their brethren — have begun patrolling high-crime neighborhoods, making late-night shows of force through Times Square and taking the lead during search-and-rescue missions along thicket-filled riverbanks and wooded urban parkland.

And there soon will be more of them: Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is increasing the budget for the mounted troop, 75 horses and officers over the next three years, to eventually bring the total to 160, giving mounted patrols a larger role in battling crime.

"There's a reason we call them the 10-foot cop," Mr. Kelly said. "You can see them from blocks away, they're great at crowd control and they're probably the most photographed piece of equipment we have. I'm a huge fan."

So are police departments around the country. After decades of being viewed as a quaint 19th-century throwback, horseback policing is undergoing a resurgence in cities like Honolulu, Las Vegas and Oklahoma City. Law enforcement officials have come to appreciate the tactical and economic advantages of a mobile crime-fighting force whose members cost one-fifth the price of a Crown Victoria cruiser.

One mounted officer, police strategists like to say, carries the punch of 10 beat officers, especially when it comes to making a statement at large public gatherings or on busy downtown streets.

Scott McClelland, whose family in Canada trains and sells horses to law enforcement agencies across North America, said he gets weekly calls from small town sheriffs and big city police chiefs interested in starting mounted units.

"They can do more than a cop on foot, or a guy in a car," said Mr. McClelland, speaking from his ranch on the plains of Saskatchewan. "They can gallop through traffic, go the wrong way up one-way streets, and they're great for community relations. I mean, you can't exactly pet a cop car. Or a police dog, for that matter."

In New York, once paired, officers and their horses often spend the rest of their careers together. For example, Sgt. William McKay and Angus have been partners for nine years. Recently, they helped round up a group of men involved in a shooting. All it took was the approaching clippity-clop of Angus and few stern shouts from Sergeant McKay.

"When a cop on horseback issues a command, people tend to listen," he said. "I mean, I'm sitting on a thousand pounds of animal. It's also human nature to respect and fear a horse."

Sergeant McKay's Coney Island-based unit recently began patrolling some of the more troubled precincts of central Brooklyn, including East New York and Brownsville, where they often draw a crowd that is both appreciative and awed. In communities with a longstanding mistrust of the police, he said, there is nothing like a large animal to break the ice.

At the dawn of the automobile age, the city had 700 mounted officers. In 1970's, in the fiscal crisis, that number dropped to 40. These days, the department spends $4,000 to buy each horse, all of them castrated thoroughbreds or quarter horses that are groomed for police work.

Daily maintenance? About $10 a day for hay, grain and bedding material. "Sure beats the price of gas," said Lt. David Gaynor, who oversees the stables in the Bronx where horses are tested and trained. "And they don't give off carbon monoxide."

For every horse that makes it to the streets of New York, at least five others are returned to the seller, Lieutenant Gaynor said. Inherently skittish and prone to flee at the first hint of trouble, many horses will rear up at a wind-blown plastic bag or back away from a groaning sanitation truck. Horses prone to bucking, bolting or nibbling on fingers are rejected.

Paint horses, those of mottled coloring, need not apply. (The department values dark-hued uniformity, although there is one snow-white horse on the force.) Ultimately, trainers look for a combination of intelligence, fearlessness and the child-friendly demeanor of a show pony.

Prospects that make it to the training center in Pelham Bay Park are put through a nerve-racking gantlet of sensory challenges that include smoke bombs, clanging metal pots, hissing flares and the ultimate test, blanks fired a few paces from a horse's head. After three to six months of training, graduates make a 12-mile victory march to Manhattan.

On a recent afternoon, about a dozen horses, some newly arrived, some tried-and-true veterans, were put through "nuisance training," an ad-hoc obstacle course. Because they are highly socialized pack animals, the old-timers will often lend confidence to the rookies, which is particularly helpful when horses and their riders are forced to gallop across a blue plastic tarp, dash along an allée of burning hay, then made to march against a phalanx of hostile men waving trash bags and firing off air horns.

The idea, trainers explained, is to simulate the more harrowing aspects of city life: a gun battle, the possible mayhem of a United Nations protest or, say, the ugly aftermath of a Yankees-Red Sox game that spills out into the parking lot. (Attention would-be troublemakers: police horses cannot be thwarted by firecrackers, carrots or golf balls rolled beneath their feet.)

Having endured fire, smoke and shouting men, the horses and their riders are rewarded with a rugby-like tournament involving a giant inflatable ball pushed around by snout and hoof. The exercise, Lieutenant Gaynor explained, is to get the horses accustomed to pushing through throngs of people.

Although it is hard to find critics of mounted police — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supports law enforcement's humane use of horses — some experts say their value is limited. A mounted officer, they contend, might be reluctant to leave his horse behind to chase a fleeing suspect. Ice can be a formidable foe.

Others suggested that horses are a police department indulgence. Then there are waste-related issues, although horse manure, boosters pointed out, quickly dries up and blows away.

"Some cops disparage them as all show," said Peter C. Moskos, a former police officer who is now professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Some guys say they're no better than a set of bagpipes."

Getting a spot with one of the city's mounted troop is highly competitive, and once they get in, most officers stay until retirement, even if it means giving up more lucrative transfers. Old horses live out their final years at an upstate horse farm, and many officers will show up at the stables long before the start of their shift just to groom their partners.

After 10 years on foot patrol, Officer Chris Farino, 33, recently won a coveted spot in the mounted troop. "I played cops and robbers a long time, and now that I'm on a horse, my picture's on everybody's refrigerator," he said.

Friends in the force rib him, saying he is a playboy who no longer works for a living. After all, he said, most people pay good money to spend a few hours on horseback.

"Compared to traditional policing," he said, "this feels like a vacation."
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