For Officer Sarah Mulry, a member of the Madison Police Department since 2001, working four to five hours a day atop a four-legged equine is not unusual; both she and Leo, her 11-year-old Percheron gelding, are part of the police department’s Mounted Patrol.
From its informal beginning in 1986 to its establishment as a permanent part of the force in 2007, the Mounted Patrol has grown to include two full-time and four part-time officers and their horses, all of whom have undergone extensive training. Indeed, one of the primary tasks a horse must learn prior to certification is how to control its fear response to loud noises such as flares and backfiring buses.
“We do this through a process of desensitization to urban sounds,” Mulry said. “Sometimes, horses are taken to smaller cities such as Sun Prairie or Oregon as the noise there is less than in Madison. This enables them to build up their tolerance to the constant noise of a big city.”
Yet controlling their fear response is only one of the more than 60 tasks each horse must master before being accepted into the program. They must also learn to hold an unruly individual immobile and to gently push through a crowd, a task that is simulated by learning to push a 3-foot-high ball along the ground in front of them.
“Each task we ask our horse to learn is important and requires complete trust between horse and rider,” Mulry said. “Officers must give their horse the confidence that they will always be there to guide and protect them no matter what the situation. Leo’s temperament really fits the job. He has shown that he has the ability to maintain a calm demeanor in a loud urban environment, which is essential for every horse that serves on the patrol.”
The effectiveness of the Mounted Patrol during Madison’s large crowd events has been proven by the decreasing number of arrests at the city’s major events, including the Mifflin Street Block Party, Taste of Madison and Rhythm and Booms. And with the 2017 acquisition of a second four-horse truck and trailer, the patrol is now able to more easily be deployed citywide. The effectiveness of their increased presence is obvious: In 2017, no arrests were made where they were deployed.
“Of course, there are other factors that have contributed to the reduction of arrests, although I do feel that this program has played an important part,” Mulry said. “People are just more willing to stop bad behavior when looking up at an officer atop an 1,800-pound horse.”
The heightened view achieved by officers on horseback (8 to 10 feet above the ground) enables officers to more easily comb the crowd and spot a disturbance before it gets out of hand. Mounted officers also have the ability to chase down suspects faster than an officer on foot. Yet the Mounted Patrol’s effectiveness goes beyond their obvious attributes of increased height and speed; it is also about the universal need of people to communicate with someone they can trust.
“Sadly, many people don’t trust the police and are either afraid of or lack confidence in us,” Mulry said. “Being on a horse breaks down the natural barrier of a squad car and encourages people to stop and just tell us about their day.
“Hopefully, this type of positive interaction will be remembered in the future if there is a need to call on us for help,” she said.
Each officer who serves in the patrol has an assigned horse, with drafts and draft crosses as the mainstay breeds. Large breeds such as Percherons and Clydesdales not only give officers a better view of their surroundings, they are able to carry officers more comfortably on their backs for long periods of time and have calm personalities.
“Our goal is to always have a positive interaction between horse and human, which not only gives an individual the chance to experience the calm serenity of a beautiful animal, it also offers an antidote to the stresses of urban life,” Mulry said. “These animals have proven their worth in so many ways.”
The Friends of Madison Mounted Patrol is a nonprofit organization that helps support the Mounted Patrol unit. They raise funds that help pay for a horse’s board, vet and hoof care needs and with the cost of replacing equipment. For more information about the Madison Mounted Patrol and their Horse Sponsorship Program, visithttp://www.madisonmounted.org or find them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/madisonmounted.