One morning in early February, Officer Thomas Stewart of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Mounted Unit was cleaning a horse’s stall in the Fort Dupont barn where the unit is headquartered. Suddenly, Eliot, the horse, noticed the noise of a truck backing up outside.
“As far as I know, the horse had never heard that before,” Stewart says. “He freaked out.” In his frenzy, Eliot—who weighs about 1,500 pounds—stepped on the officer’s ankle, bruising it so badly that Stewart was relegated to desk duty for two months. He finally returned to active duty this week.
Eliot, a 13-year-old chestnut Swedish warmblood with a white blaze, is responsible for disabling one-third of the department’s six-person mounted unit. Five months before stepping on Stewart’s ankle, Eliot threw Officer Dennis Hamel on Benning Road, leaving him with a serious back injury. “I don’t think [Hamel’s] going to come back,” Stewart says. “He’s unable to sit up for long periods of time.”
The D.C. police’s original mounted unit was dissolved in the early ’30s, victim of a nationwide trend as automobiles multiplied in American cities. In the intervening years, the leading equine law-enforcement unit in the District has belonged to the Park Police, which saddled up in 1934. The National Park Service maintains three stables here with a total of 30 horses, which patrol Rock Creek Park, the Mall, and Park Service land in Virginia and Maryland.
In 2001, the police department’s then assistant chief, Terrance W. Gainer, revived the mounted unit, drawing heavily on the Park Police’s experience and its stable space at Fort Dupont. The department supported the new unit on the theory that a mounted officer is significantly more visible and more approachable than an officer in a patrol car, and a more effective means of crowd control. Consequently, nine officers enrolled in a 10-week training session run by the Park Police, in which they practiced English-style riding, navigated obstacles, and learned to clean and feed their mounts. Three officers didn’t finish; one suffered a dislocated arm; another was kicked, his leg broken in three places.
The surviving horsemen report a high level of job satisfaction. “I’d rather be in the thick of things than trying to discipline someone for doing something stupid,” says Officer José Rodriguez.
Ornery horses, Rodriguez contends, create better riders. If so, the police department is in luck: In addition to the borrowed space and borrowed training, the officers ride only secondhand horses.
The department’s horses arrive through donations. Usually, an owner looking to find a good home—and get a substantial tax break—for a show horse past its prime or an unsuccessful race horse will call the Park Police or the Metropolitan Police Department directly. If the feds don’t need the horse, says Park Police spokesperson Sgt. Scott Fear, they’ll pass it along to the D.C. unit.
“You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get a horse,” says Rodriguez. His own horse, a chestnut Dutch warmblood named Wally, is a former show horse whose owner donated him when she relocated her medical practice two years ago.
Most of the horses are between 5 and 15 years old when they are donated; the police retire them by the time they are 20. Donated horses need to stand at least 5-foot-10 at the shoulder, unit leader Sgt. Leo Scully says. And they’re supposed to have a good disposition. But that depends on the rest of the horse’s résumé.
The department rarely knows a horse’s complete history, so it often takes a while to determine if the animal is fit for police work. New horses go through a 90-day evaluation period, during which they’re gradually introduced to more and more distractions in the environment, such as the black plastic bags used to simulate water and potholes. When they finally go out on patrol, they are paired up with more experienced horses—such as the bay Thoroughbred named Alfie, who was a polo racer before a long career with the Park Police.
“The absolute 100 percent bomb-proof horse is rare,” says Scully, who was recently thrown off his horse, Annie, when she was attacked by a pit bull. Annie, a 6-year-old shire-Thoroughbred mix, is the baby of the unit, as well as its only mare. She was donated by a breeder who supplies horses to the Army; the Army requires horses to be all black, and Annie has white socks and a white blaze.
Other horses have more significant defects. Mac, Rodriguez’s first horse, was retired to a farm after 40 days. Mac’s owner had claimed the horse was 4 years old, but an inspector determined that the horse was closer to 25. Mac turned out to have had a full career as a cart horse for Amish owners and a cannon-puller in Civil War re-enactments. “We keep up with him,” Rodriguez says.
Another horse, General, who was eventually assigned to Stewart, had to be shipped off to a farm in Virginia for evaluation. Whereas Eliot spooked for a reason, Stewart says, General would go haywire inexplicably. “It may just be that the sky was blue,” he says. “A lot of times, he would have an attack and lose it….He’d be buckin’, kickin’, dancin’….You can’t do that with a Metrobus behind you.”
“I had Stewart’s horse taken to a facility where they have more experience than I have,” says Scully. “He may have developed a physical problem prior to us getting him. We were making progress with him, and then we hit a stone wall. Now he’s working with a certified horse inspector.”
Recently, the horse inspector recommended that the unit replace General with a new horse. The question is where to put the replacement. According to Stewart, the Metropolitan Police Department’s section of the Park Service barn currently houses four horses, with room for one more. But earlier this year, Scully announced that the unit would be adding four new positions.
The Park Police has said it can’t make more room at Fort Dupont. So plans to add more officers are on hold until the horse unit can secure more spacious quarters. The Friends of the St. Elizabeths Cavalry Barn, a nonprofit, has offered to restore the cavalry barn at St. Elizabeths Hospital, in Southeast, which is capable of housing 60 horses, for the police department. The department is also considering plans to expand Park Service facilities.
“We can’t bring another horse,” Rodriguez says, “until we have space for him.” CP