To Serve and Protect

In the state’s five mounted police units, horse and rider share a bond in which trust transcends duty, making them partners for life.

It’s rush hour on a cold morning in Richmond, traffic on I-95 thundering on the Chamberlayne overpass. Beneath, tucked away off Brook Road and sandwiched between train tracks and massive pilings, is a low-slung concrete bunker of a building. Formerly an armory, it was repurposed by the Richmond Police Department in the mid-1960s as a barn. But not just any barn—it’s home for the city’s four police horses.

I park next to a row of cars and trucks lined up a few feet from the tracks and make my way inside. There, two horses stand patiently in the cross-ties. 

One is a 16-hand bay with a white star. His mane is newly roached, his tail has been combed out, his coat is gleaming. He pricks his ears in my direction and raises his head a little. It must be Toby, the youngest and newest member of the squad, who joined in 2016. I’ve heard that the seven-year-old half-Percheron, half-Standardbred, is the unit’s friendliest equine officer. 

The other horse is a large chestnut. He looks my way, but doesn’t seem that interested. Also about 16 hands, he stands still as a statue, all business. This must be Rio, a 16-year-old Thoroughbred-cross. The longest-serving horse in the unit (11 years), he’s not easily impressed. 

A space heater thrumming in the ceiling takes the chill off. The stalls are blanketed with fluffy clean shavings, and in spite of the ambient noise from the city outside, it’s quiet. Peaceful. 

Tomorrow, Toby and Rio, and another horse in the unit, Scooter, who quietly eats hay in his stall as he watches me walk down the neatly swept concrete aisle, will be back at work, patrolling their beats during days that can be dangerous and stressful, even chaotic. 

One of five mounted police units operating today in the state, the Richmond unit’s work has remained much the same since it was formed more than 100 years ago, its presence on the street controlling crowds or pursuing suspects in tight spaces still relevant in an age of high-tech law enforcement, with body cameras and laptops. These 10-foot cops, as they’re called, are trained to stay calm in the face of danger—they can cover ground quickly and go anywhere. But the greatest skill that a police horse brings to police work is an unmatched talent, an innate ability really, for fostering community relations. They draw people to them, humanizing the uniform and promoting trust in difficult situations—a trust that begins here, in the barn, between horse and rider.

“Come meet Toby,” says Officer Gene Carter, 41. He’s in uniform—custom Dehner riding boots, navy breeches, a mounted unit patch on the arm of his shirt and crossed sabers pin on the chest pocket. He wears a gun belt and motorcycle-style riding helmet, and I can see the outline of his body armor vest under his shirt. Toby looks up as Carter approaches and his ears flick forward in interest. 

Carter, a police officer for 8 years, who has been with the department for a year and a half, gives Toby a treat and rubs his face. Toby leans into it. 

“I didn’t think I was a horse person,” says Carter, “but I am.” He calls Toby his big baby (at 1,500 pounds), and says the most rewarding thing about being a mounted officer is the connection they share: “We count on each other. I need him as much as he needs me.”

As Toby crunches his peppermint, he lowers his head, and nudges Carter to tell him where exactly to rub his ears. When Carter takes the hint, Toby closes his eyes and his lower lip goes slack—all signals that he loves every minute of it. It’s not difficult to see how moments like this in the quiet of the barn create the kind of bond that says, “I’ve got your back,” when the pair is at work on the street. 

Learning the Ropes

Riding on horseback, officers have an advantage in many ways, but they are also exposed. Safety comes down to trust and training.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hours and hours to foster and build that relationship; on average, officers go through about 10 weeks of training, which covers everything from how to handle and work with horses from the ground, to horse care, and, of course, riding. Officers must be balanced and confident in the saddle and have the riding foundation to control their horses, particularly in unpredictable situations. 

Horses also undergo training—bombproofing as it’s known—that introduces them to the kind of stimuli they might encounter on the street. They are exposed to loud noises (bull horns, sirens, flares, fireworks), and are made to walk through things like smoke from smoke machines, bubbles from bubble machines and a gauntlet of hanging pool noodles known as the “carwash,” all things designed to normalize unexpected contact, noises and distractions. They walk across tarps and mattresses, push a giant ball with their bodies and more. The result is tri-fold—the horses are desensitized, the officer learns how to control the horse in stressful moments, and most importantly, the police officer and the police horse develop a mutual trust that pays huge dividends on the street. 

“Horses are great at de-escalating situations. When we are making an arrest, they bring the intensity down. … When things go wrong—and they do—he has to help me and I have to help him.” — Sgt. Jeremy Nierman

Life on the police force is not for every horse; just one out of 10 will make it. Horses come from a variety of backgrounds, and some have had previous careers—Toby was an Amish carthorse before joining the force, and Scooter, a 14-year-old Quarter horse, worked at a riding school. Certain breeds lend themselves well to police work. Draft-crosses are popular for their size and slow and steady nature. Quarter horses and Thoroughbred-crosses are also popular for their athleticism, temperaments and work ethic. But there is no gold standard—if they’re great at the job, size, color and breed don’t matter (they are however, required to be geldings between 5 and about 15 years old and at least 15.2 hands tall). The most effective police horses possess the mental qualities that help them remain calm and responsive—fearless—no matter what. 

The head game matters. And trust in each other is paramount. It has to be, their work on the street and their lives depend on it.

In the Line of Duty

“When I have to use my horse to go on the sidewalk to protect an officer making an arrest,” says Sgt. Mary Jo Crooke, supervisor of the Virginia Beach Mounted Patrol, the state’s largest, established in 1985 and comprising 10 officers and 11 horses, “I say, let’s go to work. He has to be calm. I can’t have him dancing around and rearing up. He has to be willing to go there in a controlled manner. People are yelling and screaming, but we have to do what has to be done.”

Crooke is the first to say that in the beginning, it takes time. The rider has to be assertive and confident. Training a horse to remain composed in the face of danger is a feat—as prey animals, flight is their survival instinct. “You may not get the horse up on the sidewalk the first time,” she says, “but you have to practice before it’s go time.”

Police officers never know exactly when “go time” will be. In 1989, the oceanfront at Virginia Beach erupted into riots when college partying turned violent and looting broke out. The state police as well as police from other localities were called in. Virginia Beach’s mounted patrol was on the front lines working crowd control and clearing the streets. 

Moments like this make it clear why it is often said that one trained police horse is equal to 10 trained officers on the street. A mounted officer can maneuver the horse to get between people and physically separate them by taking a step or two laterally—it’s intimidating, and that’s the point. The natural response is to get out of the way. 

During the 1989 melee, “People threw bottles and rocks and horses were hit,” says Crooke, who joined the unit the following year when the riots were still fresh on everybody’s minds. “Back then there was no protection for the horses.” Today, if the situation calls for it, horses may wear face shields, nose guards and leg protection. (No mounted police officers have been killed in the line of duty in Virginia, but one horse in Virginia Beach was hit by a drunk driver and later died.) 

Unto the Breach

“Horses are like an ATV,” says Sgt. Jeremy Nierman, 42, supervisor for Richmond’s mounted unit. “We cover an amazing amount of ground and can go places that an officer in a car or on a bike can’t.” Because the pace of riding a horse is slower and quieter than riding in a vehicle, mounted officers, who always ride in pairs, can see and hear things other police officers might miss. They are particularly effective at patrolling alleys. In the saddle, an officer’s elevated line of sight allows him to see over fences into hiding spots and dark corners of cars. 

Each police horse has its own badge.

“The horses tell us when something’s not right,” says Nierman. When trying to establish whether something is a threat and cause for flight, a horse will lift its head, turn in the direction of what it’s sensing and prick its ears forward. “They definitely will tell us if someone is hiding nearby,” he says.

Nierman recalls a time when Officer Amanda Acuff, a 20-year veteran of the Richmond department, including six years with the mounted unit, responded to a call about a man with a gun in Gilpin Court. “He ran from us,” says Nierman. “Officer Acuff and I split up around a building and the horses cut him off.” 

Once face to face with Rio, the man lay down, put his hands behind him and surrendered. “You can’t outrun an officer on a horse,” says Nierman. Police horses are trained to go anywhere, even up steps. “Horses are great at de-escalating situations. When we are making an arrest, they bring the intensity down.” Nierman says that when it’s time to catch the bad guys, he doesn’t worry: “When things go wrong—and they do—he has to help me and I have to help him.”

Rio is the “boss man of the unit,” laughs Nierman, “a true veteran of the street. He’s seen it all. He stood calmly in the middle of thousands of people during the Final Four riots in 2011 and when President Trump came to the Coliseum in 2016.”

Rio will retire in about a year and a half. Typically police horses will serve 10-12 years if they stay healthy; it’s tough work pounding the pavement four to six hours at a time. (In the NYPD, police horses are retired after only five years.) When police horses retire, their officers get the first chance to adopt them and give them a forever home, which is often the case. “It’s my goal for me and Toby to retire together,” says Carter.

Goodwill Ambassadors

On the street with Toby, “People want to talk to me,” explains Carter. “They’re great at breaking down walls and changing attitudes.” The horses make them approachable, he says, “People tell us things they wouldn’t otherwise.” The horses serve as a bridge.

“People look at us differently than the officers in the patrol car or motorcycle, or the SWAT guy,” says Crooke. “We’re the police, but on the back of a horse we are not perceived as a threat.” 

Though they’re on the job, even a police horse can’t resist sniffing the hands that reach out to pat their necks and feel the softness of their slick coats, looking for a treat. The horses work their magic, lower their heads, soften their eyes, chew a little and sigh.

“Every interaction on the street is a deposit into the trust account,” says Nierman. “We like to think of it as trickle-down big community policing. We make sure they know who we are. They’ll remember the horses. We want them to come to us. They say we are lucky to have you. We see a more engaged community.” 

At the end of the day, Rio leads the way back to the barn. Like all horses returning to their barn, he has a little spring in his step. Sgt. Nierman is relaxed in the saddle, rocking back and forth to the rolling rhythm of the walk. Just as they turn off Brook Road into the barn parking lot, an Amtrak train screams by. It’s so close I can feel the heat and the turbulence. Rio doesn’t break his stride or pay the train any attention. 

Once inside, Nierman dismounts and untacks Rio. Under the saddlepad, his light chestnut coat is damp with sweat. Nierman slips off the halter and Rio rubs his head on the officer’s dark uniform shirt, covering it with hair. Nierman laughs and tells me this is why the mounted and K-9 units have such a hard time keeping their uniforms clean. After he puts a halter on Rio, Nierman clips him in the cross-ties and sponges the sweat off with warm water. A good brushing and a rub with a towel follows. Once Rio is clean and comfortable, Nierman leads him to his stall to eat hay and relax. 

“Sometimes, when all the work is finished,” says Carter, “I’ll pull up a chair to Toby’s stall and just sit there with him while he eats. It’s very therapeutic.” It’s said that due to the size of their heart, a horse radiates an electromagnetic field five times greater than the human heart. When we’re near them, our heart rate syncs to theirs. 

Carter says his bond with Toby has been the best thing that’s happened to him in his police career.

Toby recently had a poll infection that required two months of treatment and medication to get under control (the poll is the area between a horse’s ears and running down the back of the neck). Carter, who has Toby’s name tattooed on his thigh, came to the barn around the clock to treat his partner—seven days a week, as many as three times a day, even on his day off. 

“I remember his first day back on the street,” says Carter, a father of two. “The sense of joy I felt having him back on patrol was like watching my own kids walk for the very first time.”

“Being a mounted police officer is a labor of love,” says Nierman. “We really take care of our horses. They are our family.”

Virginia’s Mounted Patrol at a Glance 

Richmond Police Mounted Patrol, est. 1894: 4 officers, 4 horses

The Friends of the Richmond Mounted Squad is a non-profit group that purchases and donates horses to the unit, and finds them permanent homes when they retire. 

Virginia Beach Mounted Patrol, est. 1985: 10 officers, 11 horses

The non-profit Friends of the Virginia Beach Mounted Patrol owns all of the unit’s horses, which are leased by the city.

Prince William County Mounted Patrol, est. 2006: 5 officers, 4 horses 

Horses are owned by the U.S. National Park Service, stabled at Manassas National Battlefield Park, and shared with the part-time Prince William mounted unit.

Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office MountedPatrol, EST. 2015: 2 deputies, 2 horses

In Spotsylvania, which operates as a part-time unit, the horses are owned privately by the deputies and kept at their homes. 

Portsmouth Police Department, est. 1985: 4 officers, 4 horses

Horses are owned by the city, including the unit’s newest addition recently rescued from a kill pen in Oklahoma. The unit has two full-time officers, two part-time officers and one groom.

This article originally appeared in our June 2018 issue. 

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