Califonia Bountiful

Taking it to the streets

Mar./Apr. 2007 California Country magazine

Country-bred horses find work in city police units.

Country-bred horses find work in city police units


On ranches across California, horses are hard at work--cutting cattle, tending fences, finding lost sheep. For most of these horses, this is their life's purpose.

But there are a few horses among the state's 700,000 head destined for something different, something that requires talents and training beyond those needed on the farm.

JR is one of those horses. A quarter horse/Clydesdale mix, cinnamon colored with a white blaze, the stately mount stands hands above the other horses stabled at the San Francisco Police Department's mounted patrol facility in Golden Gate Park. He wakes to the sounds of the city humming around the 1,000-acre park: boom boxes, horn honks, buses screeching to a halt.

JR's ears perk up when he hears the voice of veteran SFPD Sgt. Phil Downs in the stable. Perhaps he realizes it won't be long before he's out and on the job.

On a recent foggy morning, JR leads the honor guard at a funeral for a retired police officer. SFPD's Mounted Unit has spent long hours training the horses to work in the midst of disconcerting, flashing colors and flapping flags, with the skirl of bagpipes and on the slippery footing created by granite and marble surfaces at the city's churches and civic centers.

Before they go, Downs guides the big chestnut gelding into the barn, checks his shoes, puts black polish on his hoofs and brushes him vigorously along his flanks.

As a final touch, before loading JR into the trailer with the other horses also drilled in the fine points of U.S. Cavalry mounted color guard protocol, Downs spreads a dollop of hair gel on JR's rump. He sets a template for the SFPD's six-pointed star on the horse's coat and brushes against the grain, leaving a subtle symbol of the nation's second oldest mounted police unit.

There are times when Golden Gate Park is delightful, an oasis for the urban weary. But there also are dangers lurking there--muggers and molesters. There are bike riders injured in a fall, children separated from their families, aggressive dogs and tourists who've lost their way.

That's why police horses like JR--physically agile, highly trained and naturally even-tempered--are so valuable. They come to police work from California's farms and ranches, bringing with them unique abilities and good country horse sense. Statewide there are only about 3,000 working police and sheriff's mounts.

Some of these horses are identified by scouts who keep an eye out for new recruits at equine competitions, others are referred by ranchers who train and sell top-quality horses, and some come from farriers and veterinarians who also know the attributes sought in a good four-legged police recruit.

One of these spotters is Ray Sagaria, who makes his living shoeing horses throughout Marin and Sonoma counties. With his own horse operation in Petaluma, Sagaria is always looking for horses with the color, physical attributes and temperament needed in a good police horse.

Although patrol duties vary among the state's more than 100 mounted policing units, an average day for a mounted police officer in San Francisco involves six to seven hours in the saddle, with the horse traveling over a variety of surfaces, from sandy trails and sidewalks to cobblestones.

That explains why keeping these four-legged officers in top condition is so important. These animals have logged hundreds of training hours. Holding steady while shots are fired. Performing firm, but gentle, sideswipes to push back a crowd. Turning, backing, not flinching with the swings of batons or firecracker pops.

Yosemite National Park mounted ranger Billie Patrick, president of the California Mounted Officers Association, says there's always fluctuation in mounted units and how they're staffed. "Some are cutting back on mounted patrols while others are increasing. Some units have one officer. In some the officers own their own horses, while others maintain large numbers of officers and horses.

"I believe in the tradition, history and positive energy horses bring to law enforcement," Patrick says. "Here in Yosemite it binds history, connecting our roots in the cavalry with education, the community, the National Park Service and visitors. It's awesome to see a child's face light up when they reach out to pet your partner."

Ventura County Sheriff's Department has a mounted enforcement unit with sworn officers, a sheriff's posse and a special mounted posse. Mounted posse members are, in large part, local farmers and ranchers who volunteer to assist law enforcement in an increasingly urban area.

Rex Laird, manager of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, is president of the Ventura County Sheriff's Posse. The skilled horseman says the posse performs a variety of functions, including mounted search and rescue, crowd control and marijuana searches in the back country.

But the Ventura County Mounted Posse has also had its share of urban assignments, including crowd control for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and color guard escort for former President Ronald Reagan's casket as it was taken for burial to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.

"As far as our posse is concerned, it wouldn't exist without the support of the farm and ranch community," Laird said. "That's how it got its start, and the vast majority of our volunteer members have agricultural ties. In fact, most of them are Farm Bureau members."

Downs, who has headed the SFPD's Mounted Unit for nearly a decade and has 30 years on the force, agrees that California's agricultural community provides vital support for mounted policing in urban communities--everything from feed to large-animal veterinarian care to old-fashioned horseshoeing.

More than keeping the peace, Downs says the horses also bring the opportunity for positive public outreach in a sometimes-hostile urban environment. He recalls patrolling near Ocean Beach when a homeless man came up to him and his horse.

"The guy said, ‏Man, you horse cops have got like a totally different vibe than the cops down in the Tenderloin,'" Downs recalls. "You know, he's probably right. In all my years in a patrol car, nobody ever came up to me just to say hello. Now it happens every day."

Recently, California Country tagged along with mounted officers as they patrolled some of San Francisco's busiest spots. At Pier 39 a shop owner came out for advice on what to do about a counterfeit bill and the patrol posed for photos with schoolchildren and tourists. Then officers shooed illegal parkers back into their cars and on their way.

But it's not always a love fest and light duty for the mounted unit, Downs says. "During crowd control on New Year's Eve, we'll get drunks throwing champagne bottles and other sharp objects right at the horses' faces. We've even had people pick up entire police barricades and throw them at us."

Rowdy crowd scenes and demonstrations are where the officers and horses do some of their most valuable police work. Downs says the horses are imposing and provide officers a view above a milling crowd, allowing them to anticipate danger.

He recalls a recent protest against the war in Iraq in the city's congested Financial District. The mounted patrol unit was called in to help the first officers on the scene. They'd gotten boxed in between high-rise buildings, surrounded by protesters.

"Eleven horses were brought in to save the officers," Downs says. "We were able to part the sea of protesters without hitting, stepping on or even touching a single person. That's the beauty of the horse."

All 13 horses on patrol in San Francisco are geldings (neutered males) and their breeds include Clydesdale mixes, American quarter horses and Tennessee walkers. The horses are seasoned adults when they join the force--typically between 5 and 15 years old--and with hundreds of hours in additional training, they're highly skilled and reliable. Usually by age 25, they're retired and back on a ranch.

"We need a horse that won't blow up in tense situations," Downs says. "We look at dozens of horses every year, a lot of them referred to us by Ray Sagaria from the farms, ranches and stables he visits shoeing horses.

"It's not that easy to find a horse that has all the groceries. Maybe it was bred as a performance horse, but couldn't hack it. Or maybe it has issues with its feet. Finding the kind of horses we need is very labor intensive. In the end, we only consider one out of 10 horses and then we put them through a rigorous training regimen."

Following in his father's footsteps, John Sagaria is learning the horseshoeing trade from his dad and, at age 24, has seen his share of stables. What he likes best about working with the SFPD Mounted Unit, he says, is that the operation is more organized, in a precise military sense, compared to hobby stables.

"And the officers ask good questions about their horses," he says. "You can tell they really care about their animals. They work them on a regular basis. They're athletes. You can't just take any old horse out and expect them to do this kind of work."

The same can be said for the officers, most of them raised in the city, who spend the extra time and energy to become top horsemen and help train horses to flawlessly perform vital duties in an intense and unforgiving environment. And, in many ways, the work is made possible with help from their rural neighbors.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or

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