First appeared in the November 2018 print edition
By Stacey Wells
Horses and humans have coexisted for centuries with horses helping humans in many capacities. Before there were tanks and fighter planes, there were horses. From ancient Greek chariots to the modern day warlords fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, horses have carried men into battle. The role of horses during peacetime has varied from the show world to the farm fields and everything in between. The police horse and mounted officer are a unique part of the horse/human bond that continues today in many cities across the U.S. and around the world.
The Baltimore City Police Mounted Unit is the oldest mounted police force in the U.S. This year, the Unit celebrates 130 years of continuous service. Currently located in downtown Baltimore City, the Unit is preparing for a move into a brand new facility being built on the B&O Railroad Museum property.
The Baltimore City Police Mounted Unit was commissioned by the City of Baltimore on August 29, 1888, the same year that the city annexed more land to create the current city limits. With the expanded size of the city, the Unit was formed to easily patrol the various areas of the city.
The first head of the Unit was Confederate soldier and Cavalryman Sergeant James Robert Moog. During the Civil War, Sgt. Moog served under General Stonewall Jackson and was wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg. The cavalry traditions are still represented in the insignias of the Unit, with the current sergeant wearing gold stripes on his sleeves and all members of the Unit having a gold stripe down their breeches.
During those early postbellum years, Sgt. Moog and his new unit expanded their duties from just patrol to traffic control and helped enforce the city’s speed limit of six miles per hour for horse-drawn carriages. Because of these duties, the Unit falls as part of Special Operations under the Traffic section of the Baltimore City’s Police Department.
The original Unit was spread out across the city and housed in several stables. Over time, the Unit was consolidated into one location. Currently, the Unit is housed in a former car dealership that was converted to a stable and police station in 1971.
One of the Unit’s primary functions is to patrol specific areas for about 4-5 hours at a time. The law enforcement duties of mounted patrols are basically the same as foot and car patrol units. During times of inclement weather, like steamy summer heat, the Unit adjusts its patrol times as needed. According to Sergeant Russ Robar, the Unit’s current sergeant, patrolling Baltimore City also helps build community relations. “The public knows we are there,” he said, adding, “We give a sense of presence and security to the community.”
Crowd control is a second part of the job of a mounted unit. For Baltimore City, this generally means managing crowds in the downtown areas where they work with club owners to close down for the night and clear the streets. For horse and rider safety, the Unit never separates when doing crowd control. “Most people typically move out of the way as soon as they hear the footsteps of our horses,” Sgt. Robar stated. “They know when we show up, it’s time to go home.”
In addition to the patrol and crowd control functions, the Unit also serves as a public outreach team, performing various demonstrations and appearing at functions such as HorseLand at the Maryland State Fair. The Unit also hosts “Show and Tell” sessions when school groups can meet the horses, tour the stables, and learn more about the Unit as well as general horse care. The Show and Tell sessions not only teach children about horses, it helps build a positive relationship with the police department. “It creates a chance for a kid who has never had an opportunity to see a live horse and allows them to learn about them and touch them,” Sgt. Robar stated. “If these interactions help even just one kid go on to a career within the horse industry, then I consider that a job well done.”
The officers within this special unit have an important role to fill as they must be good police officers as well as ambassadors of the city. Sgt. Robar explained that mounted unit officers must be reachable, approachable and have the ability to talk with and engage the community.
The initial mounted officer training lasts 12 weeks, with the first six weeks occurring in a ring learning the basics of riding such as rider balance, control of the horse, etc. The next six weeks are in the field, training on the streets of Baltimore City. Once training is complete, the Unit tries to keep each rider paired with a specific horse, but all riders must be able to ride each horse as assignments may change. The Unit comprises up to eight officers and one sergeant.
Sgt. Robar joined the unit two and a half years ago. Being a sergeant in the Baltimore City Mounted Police was his dream job and he turned down several promotions within the department as he waited for the position to open up. Although Sgt. Robar did not grow up in a horsey household, he was exposed to horses at an early age through his grandparents, who worked at several top racing stables including Sagamore Farm.
The Unit is allowed up to 10 horses with each horse going through a 60-day trial period before officially joining the Unit. Sgt. Robar explained that even though they have 60-days, it typically becomes apparent within the first two weeks if the horse is suitable for the Unit. “It’s all about how they settle themselves when they get upset by a situation,” he said, adding, “The good ones settle quickly, learn and then move on in their training.”
The modern day police horse is certainly a unique horse. It must be imposing enough to dispel a rowdy crowd, mentally strong enough to handle the noisy, busy city streets, and also have a pleasing, friendly personality to allow school children and the general public to interact with it. Historically, the Unit, like many others across the U.S., was primarily made up of Thoroughbreds because of easy accessibility and low purchase prices. The Unit now uses draft horses only, due to their easygoing mindset. “They handle the emotions of a heated situation much better,” said Sgt. Robar. This laid back temperament makes them great teachers too, as most of the officers in the Unit have never ridden before joining. More recently, Sgt. Robar said the Unit prefers Belgian and Percheron horses as they have found they work best for this type of job.
Most of the Unit’s horses come from Last Chance Rescue in Pennsylvania. The horses can also return there when they are ready for retirement. Other horses have come from Amish farmers that the Unit has good relations with, such as Jerry Stoltsfus. Stoltsfus trains his horses for driving and farm work, which familiarizes them with people and desensitizes them to distractions. Many of these horses have worked well for the Unit. The horses are often purchased through corporate donations, such as the horse “Slurpee” who was acquired thanks to a donation from 7-11 through its Baltimore City franchises. 7-11 had purchased another horse they named Slurpee several years ago. The new Slurpee was donated to the Unit last year.
There is no set age of retirement for the horses as it really depends on how they hold up mentally and physically to the job of being a police horse. Some of the horses stay on the force even as they age, such as Blair, who is 19 and still going strong. Blair is happy and healthy and absolutely loves his job.
The horses receive top-notch veterinary care and Sgt. Robar is in constant communication with their veterinarians to make sure each horse is up to the tasks of the job. When the Unit thinks it is time to retire a particular horse, they do so in a timely manner. “We want to retire them before they have any health issues so they are sound and happy,” said Sgt. Robar. In terms of officer retirement, officers typically stay in the job as long as possible, and as a result, there is very little turnover.
Although the current stables are functional and in a good location, the Unit will be moving to the B&O Railroad Museum property sometime next spring or summer to a new custom stable. Construction on the new stable is set to begin this month.
A mounted unit stable is as unique as its horses, as the stable must both be a facility to house the horses and a functioning police station with the appropriate security.
For horses of this size, the barn aisles will be built wider than a standard barn and the stalls will be at least 16×16 feet. Sgt. Robar has requested that each stall have openings at the front and back as it is important to the Unit that the horses are able to look out from all sides and hang their heads in the aisles. “Our horses are social and they need to be able to move around and greet people,” he explained.
Additional plans for the new facility include paddocks, a riding arena and a classroom both for meetings and school programs. The barn and station will be located up the trail from the current museum next to the train renovations barn.
Tacking the Police Horse
Although at first glance, the saddles and bridles used by the Baltimore City Police Mounted Unit may look like your typical riding equipment, they are anything but typical! The saddles are made by Stubben but maintained and reinforced by Ridgely Davis of Maryland Saddlery. He also has developed custom bridles for the Unit.
About 20 years ago, then Sergeant Jeanne Gilley (recently retired) worked with Davis to come up with a bridle/halter combination that was functional for the Unit. “She had some specific needs that had to be met that a standard bridle wouldn’t work for,” said Davis. He looked at bridles from old British Cavalry as well as other military-grade equipment and came up with the design that is currently being used by the Unit. “We use top quality leather from the UK and all the hardware is stainless steel,” he said. “These guys need heavy duty equipment that is going to hold up to what they do.” The leather can be quite tough at first as it’s new and there are often questions about how to soften leather . There are treatments available to speed up the softening process. With time and with usage, the leather will naturally soften, making a more comfortable fit for your horse. The design is similar to a racing bridle where each piece is independent to each other and snaps together at the browband. “This way they can easily take the bit off the bridle and allow the horses some time to rest, eat or drink,” Davis explained.
Everything is hand-stitched, which Davis commented can be very time consuming but worth it. “When you hand stitch something, you use two needles but one thread. It just makes everything stronger.” With “stronger” in mind, Davis also doubles the chin strap area of the halter as he has found through the years that this part of the bridle/halter gets a lot of stress, wear and tear. “My goal is to keep them safe and there is nothing worse than having equipment failure while on the job,” Davis added.
In addition to the custom bridles, the saddles used by the Unit are outfitted with extra D-rings that are screwed into the tree, versus stitched to the leather, to allow for lots of attachment options for various equipment. “The reins we make for them have also gotten longer,” Davis stated, referring to the fact that the horses in the Unit have gotten much bigger over the years. “We have also developed ‘riot reins’ which have a chain inside cotton. This prevents protestors or rioters from cutting the reins.” Davis said the equipment used by the Unit is always in development based on the needs of the officers and horses, adding, “We are working on making the riot reins lighter but still making sure they can’t be easily cut.”
“They are such a great bunch of people to work with and it has been cool to get to know the officers and horses over the years. We’ve all become friends and it is a pleasure working with them,” Davis stated.
Did You Know?
· 90% of the officers who join the Unit have no riding background
· When the Unit moved from Thoroughbreds to Draft Horses, they knocked down the walls between the stalls to make them “double wide”
· The horses in the Unit are all barefoot for better traction
· “Pax” used to be a foxhunter before coming to the Unit and is now the best horse for new officers to learn on
· Stalls are cleaned every 1 ½ hours
· Horses are given hay every hour
· The average girth size for these police horses is 58” with some as large as 60”
Big D & Sgt. Robar Win Klinger Award
On October 26, Baltimore City Police Mounted Unit horse Big D and Sergeant Russell Robar were honored with the 2018 WIHS Klinger Perpetual Award for Honor and Service. The award is presented annually by the EQUUS Foundation and the Stephens Family in recognition of a horse, individual or organization that best demonstrates the values of honor and service as embodied by the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment Caisson Platoon horse Klinger.
Big D and Sgt. Robar are a community staple in Baltimore City. Big D, the 16-year-old palomino draft cross is named in honor of fallen officer Forrest Edward “Dino” Taylor. Sgt. Robar currently heads the Baltimore City mounted unit. The pair have been partners since 2016 when Sgt. Robar joined the unit. Together they have served at more than 350 community, educational and public safety events. They exemplify the values of honor and service every day, whether patrolling the streets of Baltimore City or working with local youth visiting the Unit’s stables.
As part of the award, the honorees receive a $750 grant from the EQUUS Foundation Equine Welfare Network, matched by a donation of $750 from the Stephens Family for the First Mile Stable Charitable Foundation. This foundation was established to help with the construction costs of the future new home of the Unit at the B&O Railroad Museum.