Thankfully, it’s not Officer Josh Hart’s job to look tidy. Like the other three patrol officers of the Mobile Police Mounted Unit, Hart splits his time between the saddle and the patrol car. Between the horse hair, dried drool, dust and the occasional stray straw of hay, a moderately observant citizen shouldn’t have much trouble pegging Hart for a mounted officer, even when his vehicle has tires, not hooves.
“I actually just found a piece of hay in my magazine,” he says, searching through his holster.
It’s an overcast morning at the police stables on Virginia Street, but Hart and his fellow officers are gearing up for their morning patrol down lower Dauphin. Mustached and in full uniform, Hart is the picture of a law enforcement officer. When on the beat, whether by car or horse, his uniform always remains the same from the belt up, but this morning, Hart sports riding britches and tall black boots. And if that doesn’t give away his affiliation with the mounted unit, the cross sabers pin on his uniform, the mark of a mountie, certainly removes all doubt.
For Hart and his fellow mounted officers, the day starts at 8 a.m. at the police stables, located on a 5-acre pasture adjacent to Magnolia Cemetery. Four patrol officers, one managing officer and one sergeant is a surprisingly small crew for Alabama’s only full-time mounted unit. With Mardi Gras still one month away, the barn operates this morning as it does during every month not beginning in “F-E-B” — the unit’s eight horses will each get a bucket of feed, then a few will be geared up for a 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. patrol down Dauphin.
Today, with the presence of a few magazine staffers, the officers fall behind the feeding schedule as they meet with us, and the horses let them know, tossing their heads in the air, pawing the ground and snorting their grievances from the stalls.
“Oh, relax,” says Officer Jason Martin to no horse in particular. February will mark Martin’s 16th Mardi Gras with the mounted unit, making him the veteran of the group by a long shot. Sixteen years ago, he says he never could have imagined where he’d end up.
“Do you know where the Hillsdale / Mobile Terrace community is?” he asks, referring to the neighborhoods surrounding Cody Road North. “I grew up in that area. I’d never been around a horse a day in my life until I became a police officer.”
Upon joining the police force as a regular patrol officer in 2002, Martin made frequent visits to the barn out of pure curiosity. “And when the opportunity came to join the unit, I was one of the only guys who showed interest,” he says.
Horses, like officers, cut unexpected paths to the unit. Most animals are donated (under a 90-day trial period agreement), but three of the unit’s horses were purchased from Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary known for the longest-running prison rodeo in the country. I ask Martin to tell us about each horse and he obliges, stopping at each stall as he goes.
First, there’s Big Papa, a “big ham” who likes to stop and admire himself in storefront windows. There’s Epona, who’s terrified of the big-wheeled police segues. (“The first time she saw one, she hit a Honda Accord. I thought she tore the whole bumper off,” he says.) There’s Leo, a beautiful Strawberry roan who was once afraid of plastic Walmart bags until the officers decorated his stall from head to hoof in bags of every variety. There’s the newest addition, Maybe, a white, full-blooded Percheron who “gets in a hurry to do nothing.” Apache, the jokester of the herd, likes to pick up 12-foot segments of PVC pipe used in training and run through the pasture, systematically whacking the other horses as he goes. (When Mayor Stimpson rides with the unit, he always chooses Apache. “The Mayor loves Apache,” Martin says.) The dapple gray Ghost is a “bit of a prima donna.” Alazon is a “laid-back” guy who only gets anxious between the barricades, where he was once attacked by a dog mid-parade. And Murphy, “a big Teddy bear,” is the escape artist of the group, requiring safety straps on his stall to break his habit of picking up the gate with his feet and strutting right out the door.
“Murphy also gets really bad sunburn,” adds Officer John Schaffer, Murphy’s rider. “I put sunscreen on his nose, all around his lips, and he hates it. Absolutely hates it.”
Beneath a slightly worn, white cowboy hat, Schaffer scratches Murphy behind the ears as he talks. Schaffer is a second-generation Mobile mounted officer, following in his father’s footsteps. Having been around horses his entire life, he entered the police force with the goal of joining the mounted unit but was in for a long wait due to department regulations against working with family. After nine years of street patrol, he finally got his wish at the start of 2016, and now he and Martin serve as the unit’s two lead trainers.
“Alright,” he says, looking down the length of the stable. “Let’s tack up.”
On the Beat
As the four riders clop down a wet Dauphin Street, “boot to boot” as the officers call the close formation, they form a parade unto themselves. Pedestrians stop just to watch. An aproned chef steps outside and silently stares. A black man on a bike stops and shouts, “Are y’all horsing around again?”
“Hey, Teddy!” Martin responds.
This aspect of the unit’s work is among its most important: humanizing the shield. “It’s not police-oriented when they come talk to me on a horse, versus in a patrol car,” Schaffer says. “It begins with, ‘What’s your horse’s name? How old is he?’ Then you get to open up a dialogue. ‘I go to this school, I do this for a living.’ So it’s more personal.”
Whether on day-time patrol or working a Mardi Gras parade, officers encourage the public to come pet the horses. “The only thing we don’t allow is for people to feed them anything, because we never know what someone’s going to give them,” Martin explains. Unfortunately, this includes MoonPies.
“They frickin’ love MoonPies,” Martin says. “Don’t get us wrong, we’ll take the MoonPies and give them to the horses later — they go crazy for them.”
On this morning, starting at Central Precinct on Cathedral Square, the officers trot down Dauphin, turn right on Royal, then take another right on Conti. They make this highly visible loop Mondays through Thursdays. (On Fridays and Saturdays, they work lower Dauphin after dark: “The knuckleheads come out at night,” Martin says.)
“We really have a three-pronged mission,” Schaffer explains. “PR, crowd-control, and search and rescue.” While today would be described as a PR mission, the officers are prepared to respond to any calls in the area — tripped burglar alarms, fender benders, domestic disputes. “Anything we can get to on horseback,” Schaffer says. On a rainy day, the officers will trade the reins of a horse for the steering wheel of a patrol car. “And no one is the wiser that we’re mounted officers, except for our cross sabers pin,” Hart adds.
That ever-important connection between mounted officer and community starts with the compact between horse and rider.
“We’ll train a rider for five or six months on every horse here,” Schaffer says. “Then we’ll assign them a horse and they’ll start building a bond with that animal to the point where, if I try to get on Martin’s horse, I can do what needs to be done, but I’ll never be Martin.”
That union is crucial. In a crowd-control situation or in the throes of Mardi Gras madness, a rider needs to know that he or she can rely on that horse. “If you can get a horse to trust you, you can get him to do anything,” Schaffer says.
The relationship between officer and horse often continues beyond the animal’s tenure with the department. When a police horse retires, whoever donated the animal has first dibs to take it back. If the donor declines, the horse is then offered to whichever officer rode it the longest, even if the officer is no longer with the unit.
“And most of the time, they say ‘yes,’” Schaffer says.
Officer Nicey Turton, the unit’s lone female, is one benefactor of the retirement policy, having adopted her long-time hoofed partner Stevie, named after fallen Mobile police officer Steven Green. Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Turton says she didn’t start riding horses until joining the unit at the age of 42. She laughs to herself at the thought of it.
Founded in 1991, the mounted unit was actually created to patrol housing projects in Mobile, “and then we ended up sort of adopting Mardi Gras,” Schaffer says. Now, Carnival is the unit’s big-ticket item; a week before Fat Tuesday, the Mobile Mounted Unit hosts Mardi Gras School, a series of training sessions designed to prepare officers from other cities to help provide crowd-control support. Last year, 50 riders from as far away as Texas, Tennessee, Boston and New York City converged on Mobile to participate in the school, which involved firetrucks, street sweepers, motorcycles, high school marching bands, makeshift parades and even a hovering helicopter — anything that might prepare a horse for “les bon temps.” The results are twofold: The MPD appreciates the help, and visiting riders return to their cities to patrol events that can’t hold a flambeau to the sensory overload that is Mardi Gras. “I mean, the M.O.T. parade has fire-breathing dragons,” Hart says. Point taken.
There’s nothing easy about the job. A Mardi Gras day could mean 20 hours in the saddle, and a “normal” day still requires cleaning stalls, tacking up and feeding horses, maintaining the barn, mending fences and breaking a sweat — on delivery days, 600 bales of hay aren’t going to unload themselves. It certainly doesn’t help that the officers are shorthanded, each essentially doing the work of two. “It’s just the demand in the police department,” Schaffer explains. “We don’t have the manpower for it, so we do what we can.”
Hart takes on the work good-naturedly. “You have to treat everything as a learning or training experience,” he says, standing outside the unit’s 32-foot horse trailer. Though having grown up riding horses in Ohio, Hart says there was, and still is, much to be learned. One adjustment upon joining the unit was learning how to guide a horse using just your legs; in an emergency, a mounted officer might need full use of their hands to apprehend a suspect. Such details introduce the question, “Why use a horse at all?” Surely, in 2020, the practice of policing on horseback is antiquated and inefficient … right?
In fact, horses were seemingly designed for police work. From high in the saddle, an officer is afforded a looming vantage point, ideal for crowd-control or scanning the street for a suspect. Not to mention, it’s commonly said that an officer on horseback is worth 10 officers on foot when it comes to moving a crowd of people, due to the animal’s strength and intimidating size. Furthermore, in a wilderness search and rescue scenario, a horse is able to cover a tremendous amount of ground, all the while providing its rider with a line of sight above the undergrowth. And boy, are they smart.
“If the crowd is very tense and there’s about to be a fight,” Schaffer says, “the horses kind of get wary. A big rule of thumb is that if you’re paying attention to what a horse is doing, you can kind of see what’s going on before it happens.”
As the day’s riders load their horses back into the trailer, I ask Martin if they ever receive complaints from drivers stuck behind their slow, swaying patrol down Dauphin.
“Some people hate us,” he says, citing grumbles about traffic or concerns that the unit is an unnecessary expense. But Martin knows that some investments yield immeasurable returns, often well into the future. A friendly nod, wave or exchange with one child today might simply serve to brighten a day — but it also has the capability to change the tenor of a police encounter years down the road. Now that is cutting-edge police work.
So this Mardi Gras, pet a police horse. Talk to a mounted officer. You’ll be glad you did.
Oh, and cut ‘em some slack about the horse hair.