• Police mounted unit doesn't horse around with training

    By: BETHANY BRUNER, The Columbus Dispatch

    Updated:
    COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - As Toby Keith and Willie Nelson's "Beer for My Horses" blared from loudspeakers, 13 horses - six of them from the Columbus police mounted unit - lined up in a parking lot outside the former city police academy on the West Side.

    It was 87 degrees and humid, the sun beating down on the horses and riders from Columbus, Athens and Ohio State University police and the Allen, Franklin, Belmont, Medina and Delaware County sheriff's offices, as they assembled last month in the McKinley Avenue lot.

    With the blast of a whistle, the riders advanced the horses a few feet before coming to a halt at the sound of a second whistle blast. The horses stayed in line as a boom from a cannon, simulating the sound of fireworks, came without warning. The horses walked through smoke and trash, and practiced accompanying an emergency vehicle with lights flashing and siren blaring.

    The preparation is part of regular training that Columbus' mounted unit conducts to keep its horses and handlers ready for the recent Red, White & Boom celebration, as well as the many other festivals and events where the unit is assigned for crowd control in Columbus and beyond. The training is tough on purpose.

    "The benchmark is, 'Can you navigate a horse surrounded by baby carriages?'" said Officer Michael Cameron, who has been a mounted officer for 12 years of his 28-year career with the Columbus Division of Police. "You have a 1,800-pound animal in the vicinity of people who have no idea how to act around them."

    But when it came to the bubbles test, it was the horses that weren't so sure how to act.

    In a barn, a large machine created a pile of soap bubbles that came to the midsection of most of the horses. It's all part of the comprehensive training that makes the mounted unit - one of only two full-time police equestrian units in the state - the elite group that it is.

    "We're damn good at what we do," said Sgt. Robert Forsythe, who has been a member of the unit for the past six of his more than 29 years with Columbus police.

    The unit has worked events across the state and country, including a recent KKK rally in Dayton, multiple Mardi Gras parades in Mobile, Alabama, and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016. The horses also work about 300 local events, including Red, White & Boom and other festivals.

    When the unit travels on another agency's request, Forsythe said, that agency usually foots the bill. Forsythe also uses crime data to determine where the unit's 11 horses can best be used patrolling the streets when they aren't out for a public event.

    Though the horses don't have the ability to sniff out drugs or bombs like the police K-9 unit does, they can help with tracking, interim Columbus police Chief Thomas Quinlan said.

    "They can get into the woods and creeks better than we can," Quinlan said. "One horse can do what 10 officers can do."

    The horses also are great at clearing paths for emergency vehicles that might need to get through a large crowd.

    "Seeing a 2,000-pound animal coming at you gets your attention," Forsythe said. "Most people don't want to get too close."

    The horses have been used for riot control during protests, as well as helping control crowds at Halloween celebrations at Ohio University in Athens, and at Mirror Lake celebrations at Ohio State University during Michigan Week.

    During one Mirror Lake celebration, Cameron said, students were attempting to turn over an ambulance, and Cameron and another mounted officer circled the ambulance until additional officers could arrive and help diffuse the situation.

    Forsythe said all of the mounted officers have more than 25 years of experience with Columbus police. When an opening does come up on the unit, dozens of officers typically are interested in trying out.

    The work as a mounted officer is a "dirty, hot and sweaty, year-round" job, Forsythe said. Officers don't just ride the horses, they clean up after them as well. And they ride in almost all weather conditions, with the exception of ice and extreme cold.

    But it's all worth it for the positive response from the public, Forsythe said.

    "You get to be the good guys," Cameron agreed. "It can change people's perspective about who a police officer is."

    Cameron came to the mounted unit after working in the gang unit. A supervisor suggested that he try out for the job despite having never ridden a horse.

    After getting onto the unit, Cameron said he started getting information from people who never would have approached him had he been in a cruiser.

    The training allows the officers and horses to bond in a way that is unique to the unit, which has five male and two female members.

    "We're together way more than any precinct would be," Cameron said.

    When the unit was first proposed in the 1970s, the idea was met with a lot of skepticism from city residents, according to The Dispatch's reporting at the time.

    Within a few years of its formation in 1984, the unit - funded then entirely through private donations - was nearly cut because of a shortage of money. Then again in 2004, it found itself on the budget chopping block. The city ultimately found a way to continue funding the unit.

    Forsythe said the Police Division typically gets horses through private donations, including a horse recently acquired from a teenager in West Virginia. About a third of the 11 horses, however, were purchased using money seized as part of investigations.

    The budget for the feed, veterinary bills and transportation of the horses is funded by the city. Though there are typical budget increases, Forsythe said the unit's total is less than about $75,000 annually.

    "One cruiser or paddy wagon is about the same price," he said.

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