Lately it seems like everyone is yearning for the simpler times of the past. Before the invention of the automobile, police officers conducted business on horseback. And many officers still do–they’re called a “mounted police officer” or the “mounted unit.” I’ve always been fascinated by the mounted police officer, probably because I grew up watching Westerns with my grandpa. In Hollywood’s classic depictions of the Wild West, there always seemed to be a clear divide between good and evil–and the good guys always won, which is probably why I loved them so much. The mounted police officer is obviously not as common today as in the Wild West, but they still provide an important function for police departments across the U.S. and the world.
A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview a mounted police officer to learn more about these important functions and get an inside look at the mounted unit. My interviewee was Officer Jon Braun who is the squad leader for Michigan’s Ottawa County Mounted Unit, which was started in the early sixties as a subset of the police reserves. Everything about Officer Braun reminded me of the legendary sheriffs from classic Westerns. From his dirty cowboy boots, 10 gallon hat and dark handlebar mustache to his kind eyes and languid demeanor, Jon Braun could have passed for Wyatt Earp. He even had a badge from when he first joined that read, “Ottawa County Sheriff’s Posse,” which looked like a stage prop straight out of a Western.
Officer Braun invited me to his country home on a sunny, breezy fall day. He showed me to his stable where I met his beautiful horses, Samara, Magic and Sylvester. The latter two are experienced police horses, while the mare, Samara, just began training to follow in her brothers’ hoof steps. Jon let Samara out of her stall and tied her up in the aisle so she could be part of our conversation. She and I became fast friends, and anytime my hand stopped petting her, she would blow out her lips in disapproval. She commanded my attention throughout the entire interview, nuzzling up to my cheek and reaching her front hoof toward my shin to get me to keep petting her, the way a labrador retriever would place a paw on your lap. Jon said he is working on training her to stand still, which will be important when she begins working with the mounted unit.
What does a Mounted Police Officer Do?
The mounted police are often called on to work crowd-control for chaotic, and usually alcohol-charged events, like county fairs and festivals, concerts, big parades and company picnics. Sitting high up on their horses gives these officers full view of the crowd, and gives the crowd full view of the officers, which deters a lot of mischief. In addition, patrolling from horseback allows officers to easily move in and out of confined spaces and areas inaccessible to motorized vehicles. Officer Braun even got to patrol a big Hollywood movie set, catching a glimpse of Tom Hanks as he worked on the final scenes of Road to Perdition, which took place on the dunes of Lake Michigan. Mounted officers make it look easy with their proper posture and slow rhythmic strides, but it is not natural for these horses to be at ease in confined spaces and surrounded by large, rowdy crowds of people. They go through intense training with their riders, which teaches them to be calm, brave and sociable in the face of confusion and turmoil.
What training does a Police Horse go through?
Horses learn through repetition, so the more the horse is trained, the better they will perform on the job. The training starts by slowly introducing obstacles in their path, like plastic bottles and trash, and encouraging them to continue on and heed their rider’s instructions like normal. More and more obstacles are added into the practice along with other distractions, like loud noises, flying tennis balls, smoke, and even fire. They learn to push through barriers, walk through crowds of people, make sharp u-turns, and walk sideways through rows of cones without tipping them. There is also great emphasis on learning teamwork. They practice obstacle courses in pairs where the riders hold a baton between them and complete the course in unison without dropping it. Officer Braun had just returned from a training camp in Kentucky where he worked with mounted officers from around the country. These events give him the opportunity to learn new training techniques and continue building teamwork with his squad. He says that training is all about team building and desensitizing the horses as much as possible.
How does someone become a mounted police officer?
Jon Braun joined the Ottawa County Mounted Unit when he was 19 years old. He had been around horses his whole life, and was mucking out stalls for a mounted officer who asked him to join the squad. As a Western fan himself, Jon loves it. He said, “it’s the closest thing to being an old time sheriff, you might say–riding on a horse, trying to keep the peace, trying to help people, serving and helping the public.” At one point, he wanted to be a full time officer, but family life and kids happened, so he has contented himself with the reserves. Ottawa County is currently recruiting mounted officers. Someone who wanted to join would have to purchase their own uniform and gun. They would also be required to have their own horse, or at least have unlimited access to a horse, as well as a truck and trailer to transport the horse to events. A series of training courses (paid for by the Sheriff’s Department) would also be required, along with the usual background checks and physicals required to become a full-time officer. The position is mostly unpaid, but some events provide payment. You are able to choose the events you want to work, maintaining a fair balance between paid and unpaid events. Other precincts may do it differently, but in general, people don’t join the mounted unit for money. They do it because they love it.
Do you encounter danger as a mounted police officer?
In certain areas of the country, it can be just as dangerous as being a full-time officer. In West Michigan, however, mounted officers do not usually find themselves in immediate danger. Although, Jon mused that these days, you never know who might have a gun. Mounted officers carry a gun as well, but Jon has thankfully never had to use his. He has seen officers get bucked off their horse, which can be very scary, but that’s why the training is so important. He feels comfortable on his horses in chaotic situations because of how often he works with them. He knows their personalities and understands their limits. As part of the reserves, the mounted unit is allowed to ride along with full-time officers if they want, which can put them in danger too.
What is the most rewarding part of being a mounted police officer?
For Officer Braun, it’s seeing the the smiles on kids’ faces when they get to pet or ride the horse (with Jon leading, of course, which is a pretty regular part of his job). When he has his picture taken with kids, people always comment that they’re not sure who’s smiling more, him or the kid. He enjoys the challenge of locating a lost kid, and appreciates the warm thanks he receives from parents when he brings them back. Things like that make the job completely worth it to him.
Will mounted units continue to serve our communities?
We certainly hope so. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, cities across the US have been downsizing their mounted units as budgets continue to get cut. Who knows what will happen with the next administration, but the numbers in mounted units throughout the US have been trending downward. The Ottawa County Mounted Unit went from over 25 members at it’s peak down to only 7 today. Because Ottawa County is mostly volunteer-based, it should be allowed to continue as long as it can continue to find volunteers and donation funding. You can help by spreading the word for volunteer recruitment, donating money, or going to a fundraising event, like the Great Train Robbery, which takes place every July in Coopersville, MI. That’s right, the mounted officers dress up like cops and robbers from the Wild West and stage a live train heist. You can bet that I will be there this summer, cheering on the cops like a starstruck little kid.