Stars in the saddle: Deputys patrol from horseback
Pilot eyed the man apprehensively. Neon-colored foam snakes seemed to extend from the man’s arms and wave in front of his eyes.
“Go get it,” encouraged his rider, and the Thoroughbred gelding tentatively moved toward the retreating menace.
The description might seem strange, but humans never really can know what an object looks like to a horse. Horses never forget one important fact – on the food chain they are prey.
Bright, fluttering flags, blowing tents, firecrackers, and beach balls all seem to activate one sense – flight. El Dorado County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Sukau and Pilot are working to overcome that natural instinct and in the process become an effective law enforcement team. With Pilot’s help, Sukau travels easily into remote areas where vehicles can’t pass. Pilot opens lines of communication with the public, and in crowd control he makes a formidable obstacle. A single horse and rider is almost the equivalent of 10 foot officers in crowd-control situations.
The New Orleans Police Department’s mounted patrol is heavily utilized during Mardi Gras, where crowds can become so packed that people are literally carried along in the crush. Fort Lauderdale’s police department became an instant believer in the usefulness of mounted officers during one of that city’s infamous spring break problems.
According to the police department, one night more than 1,000 revelers took over a section of a state road and blocked the highway. Police managers sent in 50 foot patrolmen and 10 motor officers with little effect. When eight mounted officers gave it a try the street was cleared in less than five minutes.
After a year’s worth of planning, and encouragement from El Dorado County Sheriff Hal Barker, Detective Don Atkinson presented a proposal for an El Dorado County mounted patrol unit in May of 1997. The group started training three months later. The unit’s first official patrol was in Coloma during the Sesquicentennial celebrations. It is not a new concept for a county steeped in the Western tradition.
Besides Atkinson and Sukau, Deputies Steve Ragan and Dean Irwin are certified members of the patrol team. Deputy Tim Becker will be going for certification sometime this summer.
The horses must respond quickly to their riders and be highly maneuverable. The teams work on backing out of tight situations and turning on the haunches and forehand. To accomplish this highly tuned relationship, the officers spend many off-hours training and caring for their partners. They train to overcome their equine partners’ fear of the unknown.
“We expose them to a lot of stuff, but never to the point that it defeats them. You want them to win. That’s what builds their confidence,” explained Atkinson, the mounted unit coordinator.
Atkinson and Sukau simulate several real-life situations in a training ring at Camp Richardson Stables. With music blaring from a nearby boom box, the horses negotiated pylons, different ground surfaces, and flying beach balls.
“It may seem like dumb stuff, but it’s all something that could happen to them,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson’s mount, Blaze, a 13-year-old Quarter Horse mare, still has a problem with Silly String and people blowing bubbles. Pilot doesn’t like manhole covers or writing and lines on the road, but he’s getting used to them.
The group gained certification during a test by the California Mounted Officers Organization in Rancho Murieta, Calif. In a one-night training session the horses and riders were faced with flares, fireworks, helicopters, sirens, and hostile crowds. Sukau said it was the hours of training put in before the tests at Rancho Murieta that allowed the horses to deal with the overload.
“You start off by just doing one thing and you build from there,” Sukau said.
“It’s a lot of baby steps,” Atkinson added.
Atkinson said the horses will be out during many of the big event weekends this summer at the lake and they might be used for crowd control during the New Year’s Eve celebrations at Stateline.
“After the first year people are going to see the value in this program,” Atkinson predicted. “Many departments are rediscovering the value of horses as a public relations tool and a law enforcement tool. The horse is a natural magnet. People are hesitant to approach the car or bike, but with horses they come right up.”
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