Inside Austin Police's Mounted Unit
Horseplay? Only after they've clocked out.
Austin Police Department horses spend their off hours at the Mounted Unit's stable in Manor. It's where they eat and sleep, play training games, heal up from injuries, and forge bonds with their human counterparts that can last through their eventual retirements. When it's time to go to work, suited up in mammoth tennis-shoe-looking hoof protectors, they join their designated officer for patrol shifts, where they clear streets and sidewalks, assist other units, and defuse dangerous crowd situations. It's a difficult job, but each is rewarded with a kind of rock-star status in the community. As one officer put it: "It's never us on the saddle. It's always, 'Can I pet your horse?'"
The Mounted Unit is home to 16 horses, which are selected based on their temperament; it's not a job for everyone. Some horses were used for roping, trail riding, or barrel racing in their past lives. When a horse comes to the unit, it'll be matched with an officer that it will work with every day. Many recruits, though not all, have spent their entire lives around horses. The result is a relationship closer than any other co-worker. "To me, it's almost humanlike, the emotion that they share with you," said Officer Patrick Cheatham, who has been with the Mounted Unit for more than two years. "They know when you're having a good day, they know when you're having a bad day, and they always seem to help." When the horse is ready to retire, it'll go home with that longtime partner.
Each of the horses has a life and personality all its own. They have friends and get into spats, dress up for Halloween, and play games of football. Cheatham's starkly white horse Zodiac used to belong to another officer, who now rides a friendly redhead named Lucky. The two don't get along, which the unit jokingly attributes to that history. A joke or not, the two displayed that tension at a recent training session, where officers on the ground learn how to interact with the Mounted Unit horses on the street. As Cheatham and the rest of the crew organized themselves into a single-file line to address the group, Zodiac and Lucky squirmed to avoid contact with each other, snorting with disdain at the close quarters. "They hate each other," Cheatham confirmed with a laugh.
But when it's time to work, both horses are all business. Demonstrating their formations and crowd control capabilities, the unit worked deftly to break up the group of volunteer officers posing as an unruly crowd blocking Sixth Street. Heads down, they make firm and even strides forward, provoking nervous chuckles from even the toughest of participants. "We're not trying to hurt anyone," Cheatham said. "We just want to use their weight to move people."
The trust that builds up over time between officer and horse is paramount to getting the job done, especially when the pair is assigned to work a rowdy protest or break up a brawl on Sixth Street. "If your horse doesn't respect you, a lot of times they're not going to listen to you going into a stressful situation like that," said Cheatham. "So when you do have that bond, and you're close to your horse, they're willing to go in there. They'll end up trusting you and they know you'll have their back."