As a mounted police officer it is a privilege to be able to interact with the public and bring my love of horses to work with me, although it is no small feat to create a trusting partnership and “bomb-proof” equine partner.
A police horse must be sensitive to respond surgically in high sensory environments, navigating around people and obstacles with the slightest aid from the rider yet also be desensitized to fireworks, traffic, loud noise, and seeing many surprising sights. Police horses act as community outreach champions, capturing the hearts of babies, children, adults, and the elderly, and yet they will march into battle-like scenarios with bravery and steadfastness. While on top of a police horse, I have had many positive interactions with people who generally would not have approached me in uniform had I not had my beautiful equine friend with me. The horse is the catalyst for connection, the love of an animal causes the toughest characters to be sensitive and gentle when given the opportunity to pet my horse. The 10-foot tall cop on top of a horse is a visible symbol of law and order which creates the perception of safety, is able to view missing children and vulnerable adults in search and rescue operations, as well as cover more ground to provide assistance with ease.
My police horses have all been rescued from being slaughter-bound at one point in their life which I believe provides an exceptional opportunity to share their story and educate. When I share that my regal and brave equine partner was once sold for his/her meat price and thrown away due to their physical or mental shortcomings, I can show that the underdog does have a chance and provides a reflective insight into the similarities of how we often unfairly treat other human beings. When a young person growing up in a challenging situation meets my horse and hears their story of overcoming tremendous adversity, yet is standing there seemingly whole and profound, the message transcends: “it doesn’t matter where you come from or the adversity that you face, it does not determine what you can make of yourself. It’s the heart that determines how far you will go.” At anti-bullying events, the lessons of building trust and creating friendship, are the powerful message to combat bullying behaviors, and are also imperative to transform a rescued animal. I hope that providing a clear message of the power of believing in an animal or person, gives another soul a chance at acceptance, growth, and love.
Training begins with physical and mental preparation, including groundwork for weeks or months as needed. Understanding how to move their body with softness, using the correct pattern of hoof movement for specific tasks and doing so within a relaxed posture ensures a smooth transition to riding where the horse will know the answers to the questions before being asked. How to respond to pressure softly, where the horse should be in relation to the person, the ability for the horse to stay focused on their handler and not intrude on their personal “bubble” of space, learning how to back up, move their shoulders and haunches independently and move sideways in hand are all important tasks to master. Introducing various sensory “in-hand” helps to evaluate the horse’s individual sensitivities to sight sound and touch in different places on or around their body.
I start with my favorite training tool called the Raven’s Equine Products Ribbon Wand (you can find on Facebook!) This sturdy stick with soft ribbon lashes gives me the ability to safely touch all over and around the horse, provide sight sensory by making the ribbons dance over the back, behind the horse, or even in the air simulating a drone or air dancer. The ribbons are also able to create noise sensory simulating a bull whip or gun shot. The valuable feedback using the Ribbon Wand allows me to learn where my horse has sensory sensitivities which could be triggers for a spook or anxiety later on. With this information, I can make a plan to “chip away” at the sensitivity, improving the confidence of the horse over time. I will then move onto other obstacles and sensory such as flags, pool noodles, road cones, giant soccer balls, tarps, plastic bags, and more solid trail obstacles. The more creativity and positivity in the training, the more enthusiastic the horse becomes. While training, I cheer for my horse like her own personal cheerleader.
My police horse hopeful and Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover candidate Saintly Ballad (“Athena”) transitioned from focused groundwork training to mounted police-oriented obstacle training and immediately proved to be very brave with the most challenging obstacles presented to her. I set up the most challenging obstacle course I had ever made and Athena was not only unphased, but relaxed enough to perform tricks while in the middle of each challenging obstacle. My training secret is to create a horse that wants to say “yes” by rewarding every try, releasing the stimuli when the horse finds relaxation, and only introducing one obstacle per day to slowly increase their repertoire. Positive reinforcement is used to reward every try and it is all done in a relaxed and patient learning environment. Soon enough, the isolated obstacles can be put together in fun combinations that coordinate noise, touch, and sight sensory into one challenge.
Although Athena has exceeded my expectations in obstacle training bravery, we are still plagued by several physical ailments causing unsoundness in the hind end, preventing her from being ridden yet. The necessary dressage foundation as a riding horse is our next big endeavor when her body is ready to begin the work. In the meantime, we are expanding our knowledge in-hand and with obstacles as her injuries heal. Even when faced with what seems like a large road block, I believe that there is always something you can do to be progressive on a daily basis. Whether it’s strengthening our relationship while hand grazing in the evenings, practicing a stress-free tacking up process even without the actual ride, teaching her tricks, or improving our obstacle skills in-hand, this will make the future riding phase of her training less stressful and a smaller mountain to climb. Keep following our progress on Facebook at Grey Rider Horsemanship: From Kill Pen to Cavalry.