When they’re not dancing in viral videos, the horses of the Lexington Police Department Mounted Unit are usually busy patrolling downtown, providing security for high-profile events, and helping build relationships between officers and their community.
The unit gained national attention last week when the horses starred in the police department’s version of the “running man challenge,” which featured several of the unit’s horses doing a shuffling version of the dance. The video has been viewed more than 1.7 million times.
The unit’s horses are no strangers to attention. People tend to flock to them when they’re on patrol, and officers say that provides unique opportunities to make connections.
People are far more likely to approach officers on horseback than they are officers on foot or in patrol cars, Sgt. Joseph Eckhardt said.
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The mounted unit rode to Courthouse Plaza downtown recently. Within five minutes, more than 10 people who were out enjoying the sunshine approached the officers and began talking, taking pictures and petting the horses.
“I don’t know what it is,” officer Marty Parks said as a family walked up to pet officer Brian King’s horse, Aden. “There’s just something about horses.”
When the environment isn’t as friendly, the horses’ size, strength and temperaments help make them ideal to get rowdy crowds under control and convey instruction to large groups of people.
Officers on horseback sit above the crowd, making them more visible and easier to hear, Eckhardt said.
Horses are prey animals, so they are acutely aware of any changes or abnormalities, Parks said. They will often notice something out of the ordinary, such as a fight or someone hiding in bushes, before officers do.
Each horse is a large Percheron-Thoroughbred cross with the people-moving force of about 10 human officers, Eckhardt said. That heft is an asset if things get out of hand at political rallies or basketball celebrations. But, because they’re prey animals, getting them to work in high-stress situations can be difficult.
“We train them to push things, to push through things, to listen to us and to trust us,” Eckhardt said. “Most horses when we first do this are like, ‘I don’t even want to get around that thing. That thing is going to kill me. I’m out of here.’”
To overcome the horses’ fears, the officers use a form of training called natural horsemanship and sensory training to gain their animals’ trust, Eckhardt said.
The mounted unit’s training barn, which isn’t far from downtown, is full of things that would make an average horse run. The officers use pool noodles, human-like dummies, push carts and fog machines to prepare the horses for things they might see on the street.
But the riders have to stay on alert, because even highly trained police horses aren’t invulnerable to spooking.
“Every human has their kryptonite, and every horse has their kryptonite, and we need to know what that is to see if they’ll work for us,” Eckhardt said. “We ask a lot of these horses.”
Part of the unit’s preparation comes in training events around the country that also are competitions, Eckhardt said. The unit has come out on top at many of the events. In 2010, they won every category of the National Police Equestrian Competition. That hasn’t been done before or since.
“We do take pride, and in Lexington, we are very blessed with a lot of people that know a lot about horses, and they donate their time to us, so we’re able to learn how to be better horsemen and not just police,” Eckhardt said.
Each horse is a large Percheron-Thoroughbred cross with the people-moving force of about 10 human officers. That heft is an asset if things get out of hand at political rallies or basketball celebrations.
A group of supporters, the Friends of the Lexington Mounted Police, help supplement city funding to the unit.
“Without them, we really wouldn’t be able to do this to the caliber that we’re able to do it,” Eckhardt said. The group sends the officers to training events, and helps buy equipment and the unit’s horses.
Specific standards have to be met to be a unit horse. They are usually looking for a large horse, 16 hands or taller, with a calm demeanor, he said.
“A lot of horses don’t have what it takes, and it’s really hard to find that special horse,” Eckhardt said.
Once part of the unit, each horse gets its own badge just like its human partner.
One horse has worn the badge a lot longer than the rest. Parks’ horse, Nomar, joined the unit when he was 8 years old. Now he’s 23.
With his experience, Nomar has become a calming influence on younger horses.
“Nomar is the only one that’s really been battle tested,” Parks said. “He’s here for his presence.”
Just because Nomar is calmer than some of the younger horses doesn’t mean he’s more comfortable with what is happening.
“Nomar might not like it, but he trusts me not to get him hurt,” Parks said.
Now Nomar is preparing for retirement as the unit starts to cycle in younger horses. He’ll move out to a farm on Leestown that belongs to a supporter of the mounted unit, Parks said.
“He’ll just get to be a horse,” he said. “He deserves it. He’s put his time in.”
Like the horses they ride, human officers take several years to build up their skills. Most of the five-man team had no experience with horses before joining.
“It’s like learning a language,” Eckhardt said. Working with the horses can be unpredictable, especially to an inexperienced rider.
Learning to become a mounted officer is not without spills, Parks said. But it’simportant to always get back on.
“You get better when you fall off,” Parks said.
Officer Scott Lynch knew he wanted to join the unit the moment he learned about it in 2008, so he took riding lessons to improve his skills. He was assigned to the unit in 2013.
“It’s a real blessing to be here,” Lynch said.
On any given day, the unit’s headquarters on Sixth Street, complete with locker rooms, a conference room, stables, pastures and a training barn, is bustling with activity.
“I’ve been everywhere in the police department,” Eckhardt said. “I’ve worked narcotics, the special assignment unit, ... I’ve worked all over, and I’ve never been as busy as I am here.”
The heavy workload doesn’t make the work less enjoyable, the officers said. Lynch has enough years with the department to retire, but working in the mounted unit has kept him from leaving.
“To say that you enjoy getting to come to work every day, most people don’t get that,” Lynch said.