Imagine a lighting bolt streaking across a page while you're reading it. It would at least break your concentration, if not catapult your racing heart into your throat while you dash for cover. A seemingly innocuous stimulus like a rustling paper or a waving hand can have the same effect on a horse.
"To a horse, the world is a very spooky place," says Detective Nick Muglia, senior instructor in the Mounted Unit of the New York City Police Department. And to a police horse – particularly one in New York City, where the population density is more than 23,000 waving, ranting, rushing people per square mile – the world can be hauntingly unpredictable.
"In New York City, there are lots of things going on," Muglia says. "What's a horse going to do when he sees a cement mixer? Or a fire ladder? Or a post with flags on it?"
Horses Used for Crowd Control
Highly visible representatives of law and order, police horses are used for crowd control, as well as for routine patrol in areas where people and vehicles are highly concentrated. If a 1,200-pound police horse at work amid throngs of people respond to an apparent threat by whirling around, rearing up, kicking, or racing down Madison Avenue at full gallop, he is a weighty menace for the public. New York's police horses are rigorously trained to control reactions like that.
"The only things nature gave horses are speed and strength," Muglia explains. "In police work, we have them in a situation where they can't use either of these."
The goal of police training, he says, is to replace that "cozy, safe feeling the horse gets from being part of a herd with a good feeling he receives from the rider. He'll then yield his instincts to the officer, who he looks to for comfort and direction."
How to make a police horse feel comfortable in the bustle of the Big Apple? With a three-tier training program that starts out in the ring. Here, trainers expose the horse to stimuli that might jolt him. They pop open umbrellas, flash lights, sound sirens, shake newspapers, fire gunshots, wave placards and ignite smoke bombs, all in an effort to replicate the atmosphere on the street. They gauge his reactions, and they ultimately help him to "rein in" his responses.
Next, the horse is asked to perform forward, backward and even the far more intricate lateral movements on quiet side streets. Finally, he is ridden on busy streets, amid people, taxicabs and general chaos.
The goal, Muglia says, "is to have him prove he can work under trying circumstances. He's got to do what he's asked to do no matter what's happening around him. That's the perfect police horse."
The other criteria for perfection at NYPD's Mounted Unit, which either receives donated horses or purchases horses with donated funds, is uniformity. Only geldings – or neutered males – are accepted, and the age minimum is 3. Most of the horses are bay in color and tall in stature; color patterns and glaring physical flaws are shunned. The horses are generally of mixed ancestry, although many pure quarter horses and thoroughbreds are among the ranks. The most important requirement is a docile, tractable temperament devoid of vices like kicking and biting.
Once accepted, inductees are trained for three or four months – 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. They train by day and night, and in all weather conditions. While training is a time for intensive learning, it is also a time for weeding out: Only 25 percent of the equine trainees make the final cut. The rest are either reclaimed by their original owners or sent to a retirement farm.
The NYPD's Mounted Unit consists of some 160 police officers and 120 horses, truly the equine elite. An officer on one of these horses, maintains Detective Muglia, can do the work of ten on foot …even in a thunderstorm.