Mounted Patrol: Grooming a New Recruit

9 March 2009 by Paul Franz

The sorrel coat shimmers in the winter sun. The gentle clopping of hooves beats against gravel. The austere equine gently neighs while he is led through a grassy field.

Ozzy is the latest four-footed recruit to join the Lancaster City Police Mounted Patrol unit. He's one of five horses stabled at the patrol's headquarters in Long's Park near the petting zoo.

The stable opens up into a corral for training. A small second-floor loft stores the officers' riding equipment and clothing.

"Once his winter coat grows in, it'll be something," remarked Officer Scott McDonald recently as he handled Ozzy's reins.

Only a handful of officers have patrolled the city's streets atop their mounts since 1979. Today, the unit has four on-duty officers and one ranked supervising officer.

A five-year veteran of the city police force, McDonald is the unit's newest — human — recruit. The Marietta native grew up riding horses, but he's getting special training to ride Ozzy.

His experience with the mounted unit, he noted, is different from his bike-patrol days. In addition to riding, McDonald is learning how to groom and take care of the 10-year-old quarter horse from Missouri.

"You're still answering calls in the city," McDonald said, "but you have to take care of the horse, too." Part of his training includes riding downtown. If Ozzy passes a 60-day trial, city residents and visitors might see the horse in commission as early as March.

McDonald's three-week training course, which started Monday, Jan. 12, has the officer riding every day with unit veterans such as Officer Michael Corso.

Holding the reins of his horse, Duke, a 9-year-old white Percheron, Corso noted that a mounted police force is more than just for show. "You'd be amazed at how many people come up to talk to you," said the officer who has served for 15 years with the Mounted Patrol.

"People can see us, and we can see them. We're a more visible crime deterrent."

Corso, who found Ozzy on a farm in Maryland through an Internet advertisement, said he knew Ozzy had the right stuff to be a police horse from the start.

"He's very kind and gentle," he said. "I didn't have to fight him on anything — he knew all his gaits."

Generally, mounted police look for horses that don't scare easily, because they are often riding in crowded urban areas.

Although some mounted patrol units are strictly ceremonial, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Lancaster's unit acts the same as any foot or bike patrol.There are practical uses for mounted units, such as riot and crowd control.

"When an officer is up on a horse like that, you can see him for blocks," said Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray. He added that the unit presents a good public image of the city at low cost.

Susan Matson, an account manager with NorthStar Marketing Inc., on behalf of the Lancaster City Police Founation, said she is unable to disclose a price for Ozzy, because the horse has not yet been officially purchased.

"According to C. Clair McCormick, a longtime Mounted Patrol Fund member and current Lancaster City Police Foundation board member," she wrote in an e-mail, "a purchase price is agreed upon and then the horse goes into training to confirm it will assimilate into its new environment and set of responsibilities. Once training is successfully completed, then the transaction is done.

"Historically speaking, horses go for anywhere from completely donated to about $5,000 [to] $6,000. The price varies on the age, breed and physical history of a horse. While I'm unsure of the 'price tag' for Ozzy, I do know he was not donated."

Unlike Lancaster, some cities, such as Asbury Park, N.J., are cutting back on their mounted patrol units. Corso said the life of Lancaster's unit depends on private donations and endowments.

And, he said, being a policeman and liaison with the community is a much warmer and rewarding experience because of the horses.

"It's a whole different world," Corso said. "It's an icebreaker."

Donations to the Mounted Patrol unit can be written and mailed to the Lancaster City Police Foundation, P.O. Box 10171, Lancaster, PA 17605-0171. (If you want your donation to go to the Mounted Patrol unit only, please note that on the memo line of your check; otherwise your donation will go toward the police department's general fund.)

Paul Franz is a Sunday News staff writer. Used by permission.