“Blue he doesn’t care for,” says Sergeant Jeff Smith. “When he first saw handicapped stalls, he didn’t want anything to do with them.”
Junee, Sergeant Smith’s horse, is the object of discussion. More of Junee’s bad habits? He likes to chew on his rope when bored and wants to be part of every discussion. As we speak, Junee repeatedly inches his way forward until his nose is poking over Sergeant Smith’s shoulder. He’s looking for attention, but Sergeant Smith gently nudges him back. “So what did I do? We went and stood on the blue lines for hours sometimes.”
This is the type of exposure training that the horses in Santa Ana Police Department’s Mounted Unit undergo. A continuous process that involves exposing the horses to a variety of sensory disturbances – loud noises, crowds, petting – the goal is to desensitize the animals to almost every scenario a police officer may encounter. “These horses are very unique,” says Sergeant Smith. “We want a horse that’s curious – one that is trying to figure out what something is. That way, you can take something scary and train him to understand that it’s not going to chase him or hurt him or eat him.”
Horses, explains Sergeant Smith, are prey animals in the wild; their instinct is to turn and run from something that’s a threat – the opposite of what Sergeant Smith and his team want their horses to do. Whether it’s remaining calm in the middle of a riot or refraining from bolting when the officer shoots his weapon, the horses are expected to behave as an extension of the police officer, reacting appropriately under a variety of circumstances. “The horses have to be calm, not just when we’re sitting around, but in the face of battle so to speak,” says Sergeant Smith. The relationship that the officer builds with his or her horse is therefore crucial. Off-duty training is a necessity, and often occurs at the officer’s home, where each officer’s horse lives as a privately owned animal.
Perhaps just as important as the Mounted Unit’s law enforcement capacity is its role as a bridge to the community. “When we’re on patrol, people come up and talk to us,” says Sergeant Smith. “Obviously it’s because of the horse, but we take advantage of that and use it to bridge gaps and communicate with people, which builds relationships.”
Learn more about Santa Ana Police Department’s Mounted Unit online.