No horsing around: Atlanta’s four-legged officers serve vital role

He was fast, competing in 11 races. But his calling was to serve. On his second day patrolling for the Atlanta Police Department, he helped nab a burglary suspect. And he’s only 6 years old.

Gambit, a dark bay thoroughbred, is one of the newest horses in the department’s mounted patrol unit. He wasted no time leaving his mark, including destroying a fence during a jump.

The mounted patrol unit includes 10 humans and 13 horses trained for the job. The two-legged officers admit it isn’t the job they envisioned when joining the force.

“No one here had any training with horses,” Officer Juan Restrepo said.

That changed quickly after Restrepo joined the unit, part of APD’s Special Operations Section, which also includes motorcycle and cycling units. Restrepo swapped patrolling the streets for narcotics for crime fighting on horseback.

“I love this,” he said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

Horses have been vital since the early days of law enforcement, long before patrol cars existed. The Atlanta and Savannah city departments still have full-time mounted patrol units, but few smaller agencies do. In 1989, Atlanta’s unit moved from Piedmont Park to its current home in Grant Park.

“The horses are immensely popular with the public, allowing us to easily connect our officers with people all across the city who are naturally attracted to their beauty and grace,” Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said. “They also provide a valuable police service by increasing our visibility and presence when needed in a more personal, street-level manner than cars are able to provide.”

Veteran officers say people aren’t always excited to see cops coming, but that changes when they come clip-clopping along instead of rolling by in a police cruiser.

“People are happy to see police when we ride up on a horse,” said Lt. Greg Lyon, the unit’s commander.

The horses aren’t just for show; they play a role in helping communities feel safe. For example, after a Jan. 16 shooting near the Grant Park Recreation Center left a woman injured and forced a brief lockdown at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, mounted patrol officers lined up outside the school to soothe parents and children.

“There’s always something to do,” Lyon said. “Always, always.”

Different police work

For 13 years, Officer Ryan Hinkle trained new cops in the Atlanta Police Department’s Grant Park precinct. Now, as the department’s newest human member of the mounted patrol unit, he’s the one being trained.

“Honest to goodness, I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” said Hinkle, while seated on Emmitt during a recent training session. So far, he has fallen off once.

Bandit, the ageless barn cat, is already fond of Hinkle, curling up in the officer’s lap during a recent quick lunch break.

Officers who make the switch from blue lights and sirens to hay and horseshoes welcome the change of pace.

“It’s therapeutic,” Sgt. Will Schapker said. He has been assigned to the unit for nearly five years and says it’s calming to care for the animals. He helps train new officers, whose duties include cleaning stalls and grooming, training and feeding the horses beginning at 7 a.m., seven days a week, including holidays. Civilian volunteers help the horses get their daily exercise.

“We have more horses than humans,” Lyon said. “We welcome trained riders to come ride our horses.”

Because the horses represent the APD (they all wear assigned badges, like their two-legged partners), officers keep them looking sharp.

“You want your uniform looking nice. You want your horse looking nice,” said Officer Abe Perez, who was standing on a ladder the other day to trim the mane on 2,300-pound Magnum, the largest horse in the group. “You don’t want to look sloppy.”

The horses stay in the unit as long as they are healthy and eager to work, Lyon said. Sixteen-year-old Oz, who has developed arthritis, will be retiring soon to a North Georgia farm.

In April, two more horses will join the APD. Kaiser and King, both 2-year-old bay geldings, are being trained at Asbury University in Kentucky. The APD is among 20 agencies in the U.S. and Canada that rely on Asbury’s police horse training program.

“We really couldn’t be more pleased and blessed with the leadership opportunity this provides for our students or the amazing, unequaled quality of horses that are being sent from Asbury University — across the United States — to serve alongside the brave men and women who protect us daily as part of mounted units,” Asbury Equine Director Harold Rainwater said in a statement.

APD horses continue to train after joining the unit and being paired with a human officer, Lyon said. Then, the horses are ready for patrol.

Fighting crime on horseback

When she moved to Grant Park from Buckhead last summer, Kelly Robison had no idea the mounted patrol unit was in her neighborhood. Robison, who works as a DJ in the evenings, began riding horses as a child. When she saw Lyon out on his horse, Drifter, she asked if she could help out at the barn during the day.

Now, she volunteers as often as she can riding the horses in the ring, freeing up the paid officers. Visitors are welcome to see the horses per the unit’s “open barn door policy.” If the front gate is open, officers and horses are available to greet guests. Volunteer riders must be trained and vetted.

“The more you ride a horse, the more honest they become,” Robison said. (By that, she means the horse will become more reliable and trustworthy.)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Lyon and Drifter visited Ormond-Grant Park and quickly became the center of attention. Lyon told the children about Drifter, then posed for pictures with the group.

On the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, the mounted patrol unit spent four hours in the saddle for Atlanta’s parade, one of many events the unit participates in each year. But the horses’ patrol duties aren’t all ceremonial.

Four horses had just left the barn for training the other day when a driver flagged down an officer, Lyon said. His security system had alerted him that a prowler was trying to break into his house.

The man provided officers with a description of the suspect, who was quickly located near Robinson and Park avenues. The horses surrounded the man, who was quickly arrested.

“We’re 10-foot-tall police officers that can see everything,” Lyon said.

Bonding with the community

Valentine’s Day will be Officer Tina Cunningham’s last trip to the barn on active duty. After 33 years with the department, she’s retiring as one of the longest-serving officers in the mounted patrol unit.

Cunningham’s first stint with the horses was from 1989 through 1998, with the 1996 Olympics among the busiest times for the unit. She then spent 21 years as a canine handler at the airport. Cunningham has already retired once, but was brought back to work because of her experience with mounted patrol.

She served two years as barn manager and a mentor to the younger officers. Cunningham will miss her colleagues and knows the horses are in good hands. But the work has been rewarding and very different from her role at the airport, where she wasn’t always popular in her role.

“When people actually like me as a person, it’s uplifting,” she said.

The APD is interviewing candidates for the job of stable master, a non-officer position that has been open in recent years. With more horses joining the unit, there is a need for someone with an equine background to help manage the day-to-day operations at the barn, Lyon said. Once hired, the stable master will also help officers and the horses with ongoing training, he said.

The mounted patrol unit helps bridge the gap between communities skeptical of law enforcement, the officers say. The four-legged officers make that possible.

“You might not like police officers, but you like horses,” Lyon said. “It’s hard to find people who don’t like both.”

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